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Arts & Entertainment

An Interview with Ellen Goodman

Since 1971 Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ellen Goodman has been turning out at least two columns a week. Her commentary appears in more than 450 newspapers, and she hasn’t yet grown tired of her weekly toll. “A writer once said that being a columnist is like being married to a nymphomaniac,” laughed Goodman in a recent phone interview from her home in Boston.

“It does seem that I get done with one column and then right away begin work on my next,” she said, “but I still love the challenge. It allows me the opportunity to focus on the important social changes of our lives. I also love being a vacuum cleaner and taking in little news bits and pieces to see what’s making us tick.”

A 1963 cum laude graduate of Radcliffe College, Goodman began her career as a reporter with the Detroit Free Press in 1965. Two years later she began writing for The Boston Globe, primarily covering the newly emerging women’s movement. She has remained at the Globe as a reporter and now as an editor and columnist.

“There weren’t very many women reporters back in the sixties and seventies,” said Goodman. “It’s much easier for women today to work and have a family. It’s more acceptable, and women now make up one-half of the students enrolled in medical and law schools. Every newspaper today has women reporters. One of the few areas where women haven’t made much of a difference though is in politics.”

Since 1979 Goodman has published five collections of her columns dealing with contemporary themes and her latest book “Paper Trail,” is due out this month by Simon and Schuster.

“For the new book I put together some of my columns from the last ten years to show the development of social changes in America,” she said. “We’re a very quirky nation. We get caught up in issues of the moment like Viagra, botox, cell phones, and we often forget the issues of values and what’s really important to us and our families.”

Goodman is critical of today’s media and feeding frenzy that gets all worked up about the latest scandals from O.J. Simpson to Janet Jackson. “We’re not taking seriously the issues that really matter to ordinary people,” she said, “and we’re getting too caught up with celebrity news and unsubstantiated news from undependable sources like the internet. It worries me that at one time two-thirds of the public thought Saddam Hussein was involved with the terrorism of 9/11.”

On Wednesday Goodman will read from her latest book when she visits the University at Albany’s downtown campus. Her 8 pm talk, scheduled for Page Hall located at 135 Western Avenue, is presented by the New York State Writers Institute and is free and open to the public.

As a career journalist Goodman admits to some concern about declining circulations for newspapers around the country. “The research has shown that people who read newspapers or listen to the news on National Public Radio, tend to be people who are more involved with their communities,” she said. “These are the people most likely to vote. They obviously are the most knowledgeable about what’s going on in the world, but it worries me that most young people aren’t reading the newspaper. We need to do a better job at appealing to them.”

She feels that one of the reasons for her continued success as a columnist is that she sees the gray areas in many of the most explosive wedge issues that confront us today. “Too many columnists today treat what they’re doing like it’s a food fight. They hurl out their opinions without much thought. I find this very disheartening.”

Goodman believes that most Americans have mixed feelings about today’s difficult issues such as the war in Iraq, abortion, gay rights, and cloning. “In my columns I try to look at the issue,” she said. “What does it mean? What’s it really all about? I try to look at both sides before I state my point of view. Unlike many columnists and talk radio hosts I’m the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers, but I have an opinion.”

Her favorite compliment is when someone comes up to her and says, “You wrote what I was thinking about this issue, but I just didn’t have time to unravel the whole thing. As a columnist,” said Goodman, “I have the time to unravel the problem and hopefully put it into some sort of context for readers.”

According to Goodman, her ability to outlast most columnists has to do with her thoughtfulness about tricky issues. “Many columnists with strong opinions or one-sided opinions flame out pretty quickly,” she said. “I also think some readers can grow tired of them. I think in the long haul a thoughtful approach to the problems will always win out.”

She has been covering presidential politics since 1972 and finds this year to be one of the most interesting campaigns of all. “There’s a lot of energy about this election,” she said. “The voters really seem to care about who they’re going to vote for. The Democrats right from the start seemed to want a candidate who could win the general election. It should be fun to follow this for the next eight months.”

Her advice for someone wanting to be a columnist is to become a reporter first. “Everybody has about six columns in them,” she said, “but that will only get you through the first three weeks. As a reporter you’ll learn how to dig up stories and pick up the phone and interview people. These are things I’m still doing today as a columnist.”

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Ellen Goodman