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'Nick News': For 15 years, taking kids seriously

As any journalist knows, interviewing kids is no easy feat. There's a fine line to tread between drawing out the ones who answer questions with glum ``Yeah's" and avoiding the junior smarty-pants who sound suspiciously like adults.

So it is a significant accomplishment that Linda Ellerbee -- and Nickelodeon -- have produced 15 years' worth of news shows that feature serious issues, frank conversation, and kids who come off as both articulate and young.

In a world of ever-more-manic children's TV, ``Nick News With Linda Ellerbee," which celebrates its anniversary with a retrospective special tomorrow night, retains a steadfastly old-school feel, more ``Jim Lehrer NewsHour" than ``MTV News." It takes events and social issues from a kid's-eye view, complete with earnest interviews and honest discussions in comfortable chairs.

Tomorrow's special, filled with clips from past shows, includes some starkly emotional moments. In one, from 1992, Magic Johnson -- who had recently announced that he was HIV-positive -- sits amid a gaggle of kids and listens as a small girl speaks her mind. ``I want people to know that we're just normal people," she sobs. Johnson gently puts a hand on her shoulder. ``We are normal people. We are," he assures her. ``It's OK to cry."

It's tear-inducing but not treacly, largely because it seems spontaneous. That's the secret to this show: The kids behave like kids, but the adults act differently, shedding their grown-up patter and reacting in the moment.

When Bill Clinton appeared last November to talk about childhood obesity -- an episode that doesn't appear in the special -- he spoke from the perspective of a kid who had been teased for his weight, then grew up to leave his tormentors in the dust. ``If somebody says sump'n mean to you," he said, with authority, ``it's not about you. It's about them."

``Nick News" has attracted a slew of notable adult guests, traveled to Sudan and Afghanistan, tackled subjects such as homelessness and racism. Kids cry a fair amount on the show, because that's what kids do, and their emotions are handled with dignity.

Even the set, Ellerbee said in an interview this month, was designed to send the message that kids' opinions count. ``My head would never be higher than theirs," she said, in order to ``show them that you care about whatever it is they're about to tell you."

Ellerbee, to her credit, doesn't try to act hip; she presides in jeans but admits to her adulthood. She tends to ask simple questions and speak directly. ``I learned long ago," she said, ``that irony is lost on 10-year-olds."

And when you ask a straightforward question, you often get a surprisingly straightforward answer. In one recent clip, Ellerbee visits with a Hurricane Katrina exile in Houston, and asks what he wished he'd brought with him. ``My friends," he replies.

It is an unexpected -- and perfectly kidlike -- response. And a tribute to a show that, for 15 years, has been content to let kids be themselves.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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