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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