Linda Ellerbee: The Kids Are All Right

From an 11-year-old's point of view, the difference between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama is almost nil. The war? Both candidates want to end it. Health care? They'll give you subsidies. Global warming? It's really, really bad. And their favorite childhood Halloween costume? Argh, matey—both were pirates.

So they say in Nickelodeon News' Oct. 12 presidential debate, in which each candidate has a separate, taped response to a list of kid-created questions—and in which they sound eerily similar. And while young viewers obviously won't be going to the polls on Nov. 4th, what they make of the two men does carry some weight when hundreds of thousands of kids will choose a candidate and vote in Nickelodeon's week-long mock election after the special. After all, in four of the last five presidential elections, kids have correctly "elected" the president two weeks before the real McCoy.

For Nick News anchor Linda Ellerbee, those tough choices are just part of the electoral politics she's covered for years. A veteran broadcast journalist who covered Washington and presidential elections for NBC News, Ellerbee has spent nearly 20 years at the helm of Nick News, which has won three Emmys since its inception. She spoke with NEWSWEEK's Sarah Ball about those pirates, 19-year-old burnouts and the intellectual firepower (or lack thereof) of this year's candidates:

NEWSWEEK: They sound like the same guy, don't they?
Linda Ellerbee:
They do agree on the goals—it's how they're going to get there that's the difference. In some ways, they are more alike than they are different. The astounding thing—mind you, they have not seen each other's answers—was when they both said their favorite Halloween costume was a pirate. It's like, wait a minute—are you guys calling each other?

I guess all little boys like being pirates. Or all little boys who become politicians are pirates for Halloween first. What does that tell you? Should we be worried?

Do kids sense if answers sound canned or contrived?
By this point in the election, when you say 'Iraq,' the canned answer comes out. You say health insurance, and boom. Which is why my favorite questions are the ones like the kid who asks about getting chosen last for the team. To that, Obama said, you just got to keep showing up, and McCain said, to prove them wrong by being better. Those are always the most insightful things that come out.

And when they equivocate?
We've always seen this: 'Senator-Mayor-Whatever, I want to ask you about apples.' And then senator-mayor-whatever says, 'I am so glad you asked me about apples! Let me tell you about oranges.' We deal with this all the time as journalists, but I must say the vice-presidential debate was the first time I saw a candidate actually acknowledge it and say , 'I'm not going to answer your question.' Really? Okay, well, I guess it's nice to know up front.

What do you find is the most important political issue to kids?
The environment, without question. I've been listening to kids as young as kindergarten—it's like they were saying it all along, and now we're finally listening. For 18 years they've been saying that we're fouling our nest and leaving it for them. And that's not far from true, there's a great deal of truth to that. I'm not sure why kids have always seemed so much more interested in the environment than grown-ups, but I know it to be so.

Is it true that kids get their political views from their parents.
They get some from their parents, of course, but sometimes they're only agreeing with one of their parents. Sometimes you're just seeing a kid beginning to think for herself or himself.

As a veteran of network news, how did you get involved with Nickelodeon?
Truthfully, starting Nick News was an accident. It started for us with the first Gulf War, and Geraldine Laybourne, the head of Nick, called me and said, 'I know you have a production company and I like your work. It's the first time the U.S. has gone to war since we've had 24-hour news, and I'm very afraid kids are getting bits and pieces through that most deadly rumor system, the schoolyard rumor. But I don't think they understand and they're scared. Could you put together a show that tries to explain the war for kids and tries to lower their anxiety?' I thought about it and basically I just took the attitude that common sense would do. Kids aren't dumber than us, they're just shorter and less experienced. So it wasn't dumbing it down, it was giving them a voice without telling them what to think—but we could encourage them to think.

Kids have a right to know what's going on in their world. I don't believe in 'ignorance is bliss,' nor do I believe that's even possible. When Sept. 11 happened, we were on the phone with 400 kids over the next 48 hours, and we couldn't find a single kid over 6 who had not seen those images of a plane flying into the building. If you think a 10-year-old kid has no idea, you're wrong.

What is the question you most often get from kids about the electoral process?
Without question: 'Why can't we vote in the real election?' I've never really been sure of a great answer. I know a lot of fifth graders that know more than people who are over 15. I know some fifth graders who know more than people who are running. There are obvious reasons why we don't let fifth graders vote, but citizenship doesn't start when you're 18, it starts when you're born. I have been so energized by the enthusiasm of kids as I travel around the country. I was in Massachusetts this weekend, sitting outside this coffee shop with a group of burnouts that were hanging around. They were guys, ages 19, 20, 21, 22 or so, and I said, 'Who are you going to vote for?' And not a one of them planned to vote. I wanted to introduce them to a lot of fifth and sixth graders I know.

The media and—of course—the candidates themselves are calling this the most important election of our lifetimes. Do you think kids have a sense of that, or even believe that?
Absolutely they do, partly because for most of the kids who are watching Nick News, they have no memory of a president other than George W. Bush. This time there is no president running, it's a brand new game. There's a woman in the race, there's a black man in the race, the economy is falling apart, and we're at war. I find going around the country that more kids are more involved than ever before. Somebody smarter than me is going to have to figure out why.