Media Diet: Ellen Goodman

Ellen Goodman didn’t set out to be a journalist. “I don’t think my female peer group thought a whole lot past wife-and-mom until we were pretty grown up,” she says. Still, in 1963, at the age of 22, Goodman landed a job as a trainee at Newsweek, and within a few years she was working as a reporter at the Detroit Free Press. In 1967 she returned to her native Boston and took a job on what was then still called “the women’s pages” of the BostonGlobe. She also claims she didn’t set out to be a columnist, but after several years covering the newly emerging women’s movement, she earned a column, a job she’s held for 28 years.

Intentional journalist or not, Goodman has found great success and a wide audience. Her skillful blend of personal insight and political observation is now syndicated in more than 400 papers, and in 1980 she won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary. The author of several books, including Close to Home, At Large, and Keeping in Touch, she is currently working with a friend, novelist Patricia O’Brien, on a nonfiction work about women and friendship. She spoke with assistant editor Andy Steiner from her Boston office.

What do you like to read when you wake up in the morning?

The Boston Globe arrives on my doorstep, and I read it with my first cup of coffee. When I get to work, I read The New York Times and all the [news service] wires.

What magazines do you subscribe to?

We get an enormous number of magazines, including The Nation, Vanity Fair, Utne Reader, The New Yorker, New York, and Boston magazine. I do pottery, so I subscribe to American Craft magazine. My husband, who was the restaurant reviewer for the Globe for eight years, subscribes to Food & Wine and Gourmet. We also get Atlantic Monthly and Golf.

What books are you reading right now?

Lorrie Moore’s collection of short stories, called Birds of America. I try to read one book at a time rather than several.

Do you listen to news radio?

I listen to NPR going to work. After Morning Edition, I’ll start listening to the BBC. If they’re doing some in-depth report on rice support prices in North Korea, though, I might find another station. I must admit that I also have masochistic tendencies: On the way to our cabin I’ll listen to Rush Limbaugh–just to hear what the other side’s thinking.

What about the political talk shows?

They’re really just food fights. I can’t stand those roundtable programs where journalists are asked to be so certain about everything.

But you must get asked to be a guest on those shows all the time.

I’ll only do shows where I think there’s likely to be some conversation or a lengthier, more in-depth explanation of the issues. What I find is that women journalists are often called upon to talk about sex and sexual mores, to be the “sexual police” in these kinds of staged conversations. These political shows see the world from a very male perspective. Someone like me gets called in to explain how women feel about an issue–as if I can speak for all women. Women are brought in to add emotional content.

What media trends most alarm you?

All the pitting of right versus left, extreme versus extreme. That polarized position isn’t really how people view the issues. I think most Americans really are ambivalent about a lot of issues–not just about the White House sex scandal, but about the abortion issue, our place in the world, everything. In many ways we’re a lot closer to one another than we think.

How would you rate the media’s behavior during the recent White House scandals?

I hear a lot of old-time journalists looking back with nostalgia on the so-called glory days when the press kept information from the people because we didn’t think they could handle it. So the press–which at that time generally was made up of white men–put their own grid on the news. They decided what we should and shouldn’t know. When information regarding this current scandal went right up on the Internet or on television before editors had a chance to get their hands on it, people got an opportunity to judge the information not by how we told them they should judge it, but by their own beliefs and values. They got it raw, and they had a chance to make up their own minds.

What do you want to do next?

I asked Susan Stamberg what she’d like to do next, and she said, “Less.” I have a column and I travel and I’m writing a book. That’s a full plate. I’d like to make more room on that plate. While I am undeniably happy in my professional life, I am happiest of all when I’m sitting on the porch at my cabin in Maine and listening to the birds.

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