Picks and Pans Review: Almost Golden: Jessica Savitch and the Selling of Television News

updated 07/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Gwenda Blair

By the time Jessica Savitch died, at 36, in a freak 1983 car accident, her TV news career—which had once seemed to harbor a limitless future—had already been short-circuited. Inadequately trained and plagued by her own demons, she had come to be regarded as a lightweight by NBC executives. On the heady climb up, Savitch's personal life had become a running melodrama: She had had one abortion, one miscarriage and two failed marriages (one ending in the suicide of her husband). She was addicted to cocaine and amphetamines, which probably contributed to a career disaster in 1983, when she mumbled and slurred her words while delivering NBC's News Digest. Members of Savitch's family have denounced this account of her life as sensationalized. Savitch's sister Lori, a Philadelphia TV reporter, said of Blair, "This woman is making a buck off of my sister's corpse." But Blair, a magazine journalist, has done a fair-minded job of reporting Savitch's life, addressing but discounting, for instance, rumors of lesbian affairs involving the broadcaster. Blair also delves seriously into TV news, which sometimes slows her main story for a digression on the history of a local station. Blair astutely focuses on Savitch's inadequate journalistic training at Ithaca College, which stressed technique over substance, and on her post-college stints as a newswoman at TV stations in Houston and Philadelphia, which hardly prepared her for the job she landed as NBC's U.S. Senate correspondent. Hired primarily for her looks, Savitch couldn't compete journalistically with rival network reporters. When Hubert Humphrey died in 1978, Savitch was thrown into her first live news special on short notice. Assigned inside the Capitol Rotunda, where Humphrey was lying in state, she was unfamiliar with many of the noted mourners who appeared, leaving huge gaps in NBC's coverage. While millions of viewers were still thinking her a rising star, NBC executives had already labeled her too insubstantial. By the time of her death she was doing mop-up duties on the News Digest updates. Blair suggests Savitch's problems started early. The death when she was 12 of her beloved father, who ran his family's Pennsylvania clothing store, was pivotal to her. Her mother, a nurse, resumed working and had little energy left for her three daughters. Anorexic and driven, Savitch rejected men who might have given her a stable life and was involved with at least two men who hit her. Her tragic story's sad details are blended smoothly by Blair. Savitch's life, in this reading of it anyway, becomes a cautionary tale about ambition, the media, sexism and how quickly a shooting star can burn out. (Simon and Schuster, $18.95)

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