Yes, Jessica Savitch, the Fresh Claimant to NBC News' Peacock Throne, Is Pretty—Pretty Tough
11/10/1980 at 01:00 AM EST
To speak crassly, as Campaign '80 reaches its denouement this week, the three so-called major candidates were gunning for a mere $200,000, four-year job. The big long-term, seven-figure stakes were being battled over by names like Brokaw, Koppel, Schieffer and (in absentia) Mudd. Yet when the dust, and ratings, finally settle, the year's fastest comer may be a rookie who during the last presidential election was a co-anchor on a local station in Philadelphia: Jessica Savitch.
"Jessica is first on the list of women at NBC," reports one insider of the 32-year-old reporter who is possibly second only to the NBC peacock in news exposure. Five evenings a week she anchors the two-minute NBC Update segments. On Saturday nights she handles the NBC Nightly News. Throughout the year she fills in for everyone from John Chancellor and Tom Brokaw [Today] to Tom Snyder (on the Tomorrow show). That is not to mention covering last summer's national conventions. So when Jessica was elevated to the election-night anchor desk with Chancellor & Co., the assignment amounted to the network's official laying on of hands.
Now the biggest problem remaining for the fast-rising and admittedly ambitious Savitch may be proving to some resentful backbiters that she is not NBC's answer to Bendix' Mary Cunningham. No, Jessica has not been accused of romantic improprieties, but her telegenic blond mane provokes inevitable cracks that she is another "pretty face" who, as the old put-down has it, goes into a 20-second stand-up routine whenever her refrigerator light blinks on. More substantively, after the election coverage of 1978, author David (The Powers That Be) Halberstam wrote that Jessica was "being brought along far too quickly for her own good. She most assuredly was not [on air] because she knew anything about national politics."
Savitch reacts coolly to both criticisms. "You cannot overcome that which is human nature," she says. "If I were the pretty face they say, I would just sit back and read that Teleprompter rather than spend so much time on the road reporting. I did get caught once with my compact out, checking my makeup on the air," she confesses, but she rebounded with a snappy ad lib: "You're right, folks, it is done with mirrors!" Regarding wardrobe, she adds: "I wear what I wear in real life—tailored clothes from nice fabrics—and I keep my hair simple."
When her professionalism is questioned, Jessica really bores in. "I know the constant complaint," she says. "TV people are pushy, TV people are superficial, TV people are overpaid and not journalists. If you're in TV you are thought to be a mental midget. If you're a woman and a blonde, then that's true for sure," she continues, defending herself as well from intra-network sniping. "I just feel that if I do a good job, even though I may not be the best-loved person in the bureau, I can at least gain some respect and good work relationships."
No one doubts that Jessica is a ferociously hard worker. "She's really driven," says NBC News producer Paul Friedman. "She works like an SOB." To bone up for her election-night assignment—the congressional and gubernatorial races—Savitch criss-crossed the country interviewing pols. "In the old days," Friedman notes, "it was not atypical for some star-type anchorpeople to sit back in New York and read other people's research." Last month Savitch scored a minor scoop by interviewing Maryland Congressman Bob Bauman, charged with soliciting sex from a teenage boy. Certainly Savitch was the only reporter who clumped around her bedroom before election night with a three-pound weight strapped to each ankle. "I always wear them before periods of great stress, when I feel I'm going to need some extra energy," she explains. "Then when I take them off, I feel as if I'm floating."
If her workaholic schedule has strained her private life, well, so be it. Last January Savitch quietly wed Mel Korn, 50, a Philadelphia advertising/public relations executive and the divorced father of four grown children. "I tend to be closer to older men," says Savitch of her choice. "They seem more secure with themselves, and they feel better about going out with a successful woman—men my own age often couldn't handle it." Korn has remained in Philadelphia while Jessica divides her time between Washington, New York and the road. If this allows very few conjugal visits—"I haven't kept track," says Jessica—it is a life she willingly accepts. "Mel and I went into it knowing this would be a transition year. It's been tough—tougher than I expected, because more was required of me than expected." No matter how her marriage to Korn works out, Jessica still insists she wants "to have children—if I ever get time enough."
Savitch (the name is Russian) has never let time linger on her hands. The eldest of three daughters of a Kennett Square, Pa., clothier, Jessica was 12 when the family moved to New Jersey after her father died. At Atlantic City High she "knew I wanted to be a news reporter as soon as I went on the air" (for a local teen radio show). She put herself through Ithaca (N.Y.) College as a communications major by shooting local TV commercials and working in Rochester as a rock deejay under the name "Honeybee"—women weren't allowed to announce on the campus station. "I never went to college dances," Jessica remembers. "I just worked hard to stay on the dean's list—that was the only way to get unlimited cuts."
After graduating in 1968, Savitch caught on with CBS in New York as a $92.50-a-week gofer. On the side she wrote copy for CBS radio, freelanced narrations for industrial films and "sent letters all over the country" looking for on-air work. In late 1970 the CBS affiliate in Houston, KHOU—where Dan Rather cut his broadcasting teeth—summoned her for an interview. She got a reporting job at $135 per week plus overtime. Three months later an anchor position opened and, despite her inexperience, Jessica won it. In 1973 she moved up to a co-anchor spot on KYW, the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia. Allen J. Bell, the general manager who hired her, recalls: "She's a hard worker and smart as hell. She propelled us to a tie for first in the ratings." Finally, in 1977, Savitch signed on with NBC. Her salary is now in the $200,000 range.
Savitch is also an increasingly big draw on the lecture circuit, speaking prosaically on politics and the media, at up to $7,500 per appearance. That, of course, means even less time at home. When she is there, Jessica likes to cook, though she cracks that her Cuisinart tends to produce "things like carrot dust or potato molecules." She also puts away Häagen-Dazs ice cream by the pint. ("I eat a lot. I can't be anorectic," says Jessica, whose 5'5" frame still packs only 100 pounds.) She digs into books, and her uncommon favorites include poet L.E. Sissman and travel essayist Bruce Chatwin. She likes to rise at 5 a.m. because "if I don't create a quiet space I know there won't be any for the rest of the day." After calisthenics and jogging two miles, it's back onto the fast track. Characteristically, Savitch's two cars are a zingy 1974 Jensen roadster and a 1978 Cadillac Seville, which, she complains, guzzles gas because "I'm always heavy-footing it."
After the election Jessica will get back to politics as usual—in-house—at NBC, where John Chancellor wants out of the anchor chores. "There is no woman ahead of her," says a high-placed network exec. "But we have all these hot-shot players, and not enough top jobs to go around. The arrival of [CBS defector] Roger Mudd certainly complicates the situation, and you have to plug in Tom Brokaw, who's been romanced heavily by both ABC and CBS." If Savitch ends up an NBC anchor, one correspondent thinks it would "split the news division. There are those who feel Jessica would be a valuable anchor who would raise the ratings. Others feel that the anchor should be a more experienced journalist."
Says Jessica: "I'd be a fool to say I wouldn't want the job, but I have no reason to believe that I'm in the running for it." Nor does she necessarily agree with the complaint of one of her female colleagues at NBC that "they want a woman to talk just like Walter Cronkite, but we're like stewardesses—they kill us off at 40." "Men stay in this business past 35," observes Savitch, "so why shouldn't women? When I'm 50 and wrinkled and gray, I'll be doing the news somewhere, and the critics will say I got the job because of my looks."