No place for a hard-nosed woman

Monday Book Reviews

July 01, 1991|By Jayne Miller

FIGHTING FOR AIR: In the Trenches With Television News. By Liz Trotta. Simon & Schuster. 288 pages. $22.95. IT'S BECOME a rite of passage. TV correspondents and executives are shown the door (or occasionally find it themselves). And before the ink is dry on their severance checks, they're pounding down the doors of the publishing houses.

But "Fighting for Air" is not just another tale of "here's what it's really like inside TV." It is a nothing-to-hide chronicle of one woman's rise and fall as a correspondent for two of the Big Three networks.

If you think televiJayneMillersion is all glamour, money and power, Liz Trotta will change your mind.

Trotta was among the first female correspondents for NBC. She was the first woman to cover the Vietnam War. But her campaign to get there and to prove that even the fire of an M-16 can't scare women away from a tough assignment was, she writes, "waged like the war itself, first, a guerrilla action, then an all-out offensive." Indeed, when NBC's Saigon bureau chief threatened "to be on the first plane back if we send a woman in there," the network assigned Trotta, instead, to cover Lynda Bird Johnson's wedding dress.

Finally, in August of 1968, Trotta won, though, as she describes it, by default. NBC dispatched her to Saigon when the network had "run out of men who wanted to cover the war." But despite looking death in the eye in the jungle and risking her life to get the story, she still met strong resistance: protective colonels who thought women had no right to be there and network executives who were convinced Trotta would progress if only "we had a man who could teach her."

Vietnam nurtured Trotta's reputation as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense reporter. Her assignments after the war enhanced it. Her persistent questioning of Ted Kennedy about the Chappaquiddick episode caused him to lose control on camera and, she learned later, brought demands from Kennedy's camp that she be fired. Her attempt to interview Indira Gandhi by posing as an American tourist was a minor international incident.

Trotta's tenure as a foreign correspondent for NBC earned her prestigious awards for her reporting of some of the world's major stories. But from her network bosses, her only reward was the cold shoulder. As her assignment to the network's London bureau came to a close and she prepared to return to stateside duty, the news vice president told her, "Nobody back here wants you." (And you think your office politics are ugly!)

Trotta was farmed out to NBC's local station in New York. "Siberia," she calls it, "a house of mirrors reflecting my failure."

The year was 1975 and television news was changing. It was the era of "happy talk" and "make nice" news. Trotta, who devoted years to covering the "serious stuff" of journalism, "felt like I'd been beamed down to an unnamed planet."

She begged to return to the network. The response: a six-month audition. Trotta, who considered her 13 years with NBC "not generally misspent," was stunned. "My choice was simple," she writes: "an audition at the network where I had made my name, or out."

In 1978, out she went. But as we in television like to say, she managed to land on her feet. A year later, she was hired by CBS News, which, as she describes it, was still considered the "Rolls Royce among Chevys." Her career seemed to be back on track with assignments to cover the Iran hostage crisis and the murder trial of Jean Harris in the Scarsdale Diet case.

But inside CBS a revolution was taking place. Walter Cronkite was retiring, Dan Rather was taking over. Correspondents were given "A" and "B" ratings, with only the "A" list eligible for a regular spot on the evening news. "The letter ratings had nothing to do with expertise or experience," Trotta writes. "[They] had to do with broadcasting personality."

Trotta was discovering that she was not "preferred stock." Years later, she found out why. A CBS producer told her that "Rather had a hit list," and she was on it. She was also told that CBS news management "really felt you were too old, you and many of the others, and they came out and said it."

In her own assessment of the changes at CBS, Trotta writes, "As for women, to own something young, good-looking and blonde was a vice president's late-night fantasy." She also describes CBS' search for women anchors as "an axis that held to the standards set by Miss America panels."

The ax fell at CBS when Trotta was called to the office of the network news vice president. She thought it was a lunch appointment. Instead, she was fired. Budget cuts were blamed.

"Fighting for Air" does, at times, leave the reader with the sense that Trotta is merely fighting back at those she believes derailed her broadcasting career. But for the most part, it is a compelling, revealing journey inside the events that make news and behind the closed doors of the network power brokers. Perhaps Trotta is really charting the rise and fall of the entire network news industry.

Jayne Miller was a CBS News network correspondent in 1/2 Washington from 1982 to 1984. She is a reporter for WBAL-TV in Baltimore.

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