Almost Golden

Growing up bright and pretty in the decaying tinseltown of Atlantic City in the 1960’s, Jessica Savitch discovered her ambition to be a famous broadcaster one day when she recorded an identification spot for a local radio station. “As soon as I heard my voice on the airwaves,” she wrote years later, “my destiny was fixed.” From that moment until her accidental death in 1983 at age thirty-six, Savitch drove herself forward unceasingly through a communications major at Ithaca College and up the television ladder from Rochester to Houston to Philadelphia and then to the big time--NBC network reporter and anchorperson in Washington and New York.

Savitch’s greatest assets were her fine-boned good looks and her ability to project herself through the television cameras to the living rooms of her viewers. “I focus just past the lens,” she told one of her producers, “There’s a person right there and I talk to him.” These qualities also were, as author Gwenda Blair points out, her great weaknesses, for in the upper levels of television news, show-business glitz and personal warmth are not reliable substitutes for reporting experience and informed judgment. When NBC assigned Savitch to cover the United States Senate, she and her colleagues knew she was beyond her depth. Drugs and tantrums could not hide her insecurities for long; even before she died, Savitch had become an embarrassment to the executives who had promoted her career.

Blair places Savitch’s life clearly in the coldly calculating world of commercial television. Blair’s analysis of that world is readable and convincing, but nearly as chilly as that of the bottom-line executives she describes so well. A more sympathetic approach would have added poignancy to her portrait of Savitch, the anchorwoman who drifted to destruction because she had no anchor herself.