“Gods do not answer letters,” John Updike wrote in the New Yorker after the greatest hitter in baseball history, Ted Williams, refused to respond to hometown fans in Boston after hitting a homer for the Red Sox in his final at -bat in 1960.
But perhaps gods or perhaps goddesses respond to columns. When you write a column, you never know who will respond. The first letter I received after revealing during last week’s Dad Daze that my 11-year-old daughter Jane would like to become a TV news journalist was from Linda Ellerbee.
Yes, that Linda Ellerbee, the broadcast iconoclast who set the bar for journalistic integrity and intelligence. Ellerbee’s “NBC News Overnight” was a brilliant but short-lived gamechanger during the early 1980s.
Ellerbee reaching out to offer advice for Jane is akin to me writing about how my child would like to become a singer-songwriter and Bob Dylan emails some lyrical suggestions.
“Ed, would you tell your daughter I want to say two things to her?” Ellerbee wrote. “Only dead fish swim with the stream all the time. My middle name is Jane – I always wished it were my first name.”
The last time I was star-struck was a generation ago as a young, green journalist in New York interviewing my heroes, Sonic Youth. That same week, I met with Bjork, who was then with the Sugarcubes, and I was a bit taken aback when the incomparable vocalist entered a Gotham conference room as if a concert just concluded. Bjork was caked in makeup while sporting an iridescent micro-miniskirt with 5-inch heels at 10 a.m.
Since then, I’ve interviewed Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Billy Joel and Garth Brooks, among many other folks who are never seen with mere mortals at the supermarket. Even though each of those entertainers live in fortresses of solitude since they have millions of ardent fans, it was never a big deal chatting with uber-celebrities.
Perhaps Ellerbee is on another level since I admired her while I was studying broadcast journalism at Temple University during the 1980s. Ellerbee was a maverick in an industry in which I hoped to earn gainful employment.
Since Jane would like to pursue a career in TV journalism, I informed her about the Ellerbee communique. Then Jane, like any potential journalist, became inquisitive.
It would only be courteous to thank the legend, who retired in 2015 and splits half the year between Mexico and Massachusetts. Since Jane hoped to extract more information from Ellerbee, I asked if we could chat. Ellerbee, 76, was even more gracious than I could have imagined.
“A friend of mine sent your column to me since she thought I would enjoy it, and I did enjoy it,” Ellerbee said while calling from her Puerto Vallarta home. “So, I have no problem answering anything for Jane.” “Please ask Ms. Ellerbee what I should do to become a good journalist,” Jane said.
“Curiosity,” Ellerbee said. “A love of reading and writing are a good start and better tools than, say, trying to become Miss Spokane.” That’s a reference to myriad genetic anomalies who become news anchors or traffic reporters after entering beauty contests.
Whenever I’m on the road, I like to catch the local news to see who is covering it and how the news is delivered. Ellerbee used to be the same way. “When I traveled for work, I turned on the regional news and threw pillows at the screen,” Ellerbee admitted. “Stop that! Your grammar is bad. Oh my goodness, that’s such bad reporting.”
Even though I exhausted Jane’s questions for Ellerbee, the Emmy and Peabody award winner dispensed more advice. “Encourage Jane to read as much as possible and that she should know that I’m a writer because I’m a reader,” Ellerbee said. “The most valuable gift I was ever given was a library card.
“It took me out of my world and took me everywhere else. The most wonderful thing I want Jane to know is that you get paid to learn stuff when you’re a journalist. What other profession can you say that about?”
I’m proud to be a journalist. Despite the state of the industry, I do encourage those with the calling to pursue or at least think about a career as an ink-stained wretch. The Spokesman-Review is offering four paid summer internships.
“That’s great,” Ellerbee said. “We hired interns at our production company, Lucky Duck, during the summers. It was a great experience for the interns since they discovered if they were passionate about a potential career or if they weren’t excited about it, which is fine, as well.
“I could tell who really wanted to be journalists. I remember one woman said, ‘I didn’t go to Yale to make coffee,’ and we opened the door and said, ‘Go back to Yale.’ Everyone made coffee at Lucky Duck. We were in it together. I hope your interns come in and try to learn as much as possible.”
Ellerbee has one last bit of advice for Jane and the future Spokesman interns. “A liberal arts degree helps,” Ellerbee said. “You need to learn language, psychology, history, politics and geography.
“It’s not about how you hold the microphone, it’s what you say. You never know who you’ll interview. What if you have to interview someone like Muammar Gaddafi?” Ellerbee had a fascinating career, which ended when she couldn’t imagine covering the presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
“NBC News Overnight” is arguably the apex of Ellerbee’s storied run. The audience ranged from college students to celebrated musicians. “We were primetime for rock stars since we were on at 1 a.m.,” Ellerbee said.
“The members of the Grateful Dead tuned in. Frank Zappa and Sammy Davis Jr. would call me. Frank, who was a very bright guy, would like to debate me, and he never wanted to stop talking. I would say, ‘Frank, I have to go home and go to bed.’ ”
The late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is Ellerbee’s favorite interview. “I spent a couple weeks in Cuba, and Fidel fascinated me,” Ellerbee said. “He would have been a leader in any political climate and in any country. What was probably most interesting was his passion for baseball. He wanted nothing more than to play in the major leagues in America. He played on a farm club in America. I believe that if he played in the majors, he never would have gone back to Cuba.”
That’s just like if Trump bought the Buffalo Bills in 2014, he would have never run for president. “It’s exactly like that,” Ellerbee said. “Nick News With Linda Ellerbee,” the entertaining and informative newsmagazine aimed at teens and children, which ran for 24 seasons, gave the Texas native perspective when it came to kids.
“Children deserve so much respect,” Ellerbee said. “They’re not dumber, they’re just younger and shorter. What I learned from hosting ‘Nick News’ is that the old should listen to the young, and the young should listen to the old. We all have something to offer.”
Ellerbee had not one but two great taglines. “And So It Goes” was her signature outro with “NBC News Overnight,” and “If You Want to Know, Ask,” was how she concluded “Nick News.”
“I said it because that’s what I did from 19 to 70,” Ellerbee said. “We are raised not to talk to strangers. But my father said, ‘If you talk to them, they’re not going to be so strange. If you print that, people will say, ‘Ed and Linda are saying that children should talk to strangers.’ That’s not what I mean.
“You readers know it, but I’m comfortable having said that.” Part of what makes Ellerbee so great is that she has always been comfortable saying what she feels. I asked her if she really wished that her name was Jane. When she said yes, I asked if I could call her Jane. “I’ll answer to Jane,” Ellerbee said.
Yes, it’s nice when the gods, or at least an iconic journalist, answers you and the questions of an inquisitive child who would like to dive into a profession that is less secure than the world of theater.
And so it goes, indeed.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.