Picks and Pans Review: Fighting for Air
From the start, Emmy-winning NBC and CBS TV reporter Liz Trotta had nothing like an easy time of it. When she was 16, as she puts it in her bitter, terrifically titled memoir, and "raring to go," she headed for her hometown paper, the New Haven Register, seeking a summer job.
Impossible, she was told. "Why?" she asked. "You hire copyboys, don't you:
"Yes," replied the man in charge. "But they're not girls."
Trotta has never taken "no" for an answer. Here are two other things she has never taken: the easy way out or the diplomatic approach. She has also never worn much makeup or worried unduly about her appearance even when her bosses did. (While facing the camera to report on a battle during the Vietnam War, she writes, "I thought of the mud on my face, the greasy traces of old lipstick, and the sweat pouring down my face into the open collar of my filthy shirt. Corrigan (Trotta's boss Bill Corrigan] would undoubtedly send me a memo about my hair.")
To the detriment of her career, Trotta has not suffered fools gladly, and she has met quite a few (bureau chiefs, network anchors and executives among them). Her career began at the Chicago Tribune with stops at Associated Press and Newsday, where a series she did on a Times Square dime-a-dance hall brought her to the attention of the NBC station in New York City.
Hired as a reporter, Trotta covered politicians, riots, fires, the World's Fair, the Pope's visit. She disdainfully turned down a chance to cover Lynda Bird Johnson's wedding, campaigning instead to cover Vietnam. She also got Chappaquiddick, Israel during the Six-Day War, Belfast in the thick of the IRA struggle and Hanoi when the POWs were released.
Trotta's memories of Vietnam are sharp and poignant. She recalls, for example, doing a story on a fighter pilot only to learn a few weeks later that he had been shot down on a rescue mission. Her accounts of encounters with Ferdinand Marcos, Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa are a wonderful antidote to the florid, clichéd writing that lards the book's early pages. (She talks of having "shivered with the knowledge that harmonies of the great Toscanini had been broadcast from this hallowed place, the house that General David Sarnoff built.")
Trotta had been prepared for the arduous life of a correspondent. She hadn't been prepared for the sniggering from superiors that "Trotta is trouble," or for John Chancel for referring to her as "Mme. Nhu" during an NBC correspondents' publicity tour.
Trotta, like Linda Ellerbee, makes a convincing case that TV news has deteriorated almost beyond redemption, ruined by pusillanimous, bottom line-oriented yes-men. She also makes a convincing case that she was treated shabbily, even if, after more than 300 pages, her case seems like so much tiresome whining. (Simon & Schuster, $22.95)