A TV Newswoman's Life Of Getting `the Story'

Liz Trotta has much to say about Vietnam and its impact on electronic reporting. And it's all worth hearing.

LONG before Peter Arnett was raising eyebrows by reporting from Baghdad during the Gulf war, he was winning a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Vietnam War. Long before we were wondering who would replace Jane Pauley on ``Today,'' or whether Meredith Viera should have had to give up her ``60 Minutes'' reporting slot because she was having a baby, Liz Trotta was slogging through the Vietnamese jungle in search of ``the story.''

If television helped shape the Vietnam experience for Americans, so, too, did the war transform television news. Fifteen-minute newscasts stretched to 30 minutes; the frantic shipping of newsreel-style film stoked the demand for videotape and satellite feeds as television more and more pursued its strong suit: being there, live, with the pictures to prove it. [See story at left.]

Ms. Trotta, who spent 20 years at the ``nets'' from 1965 to 1985, first with NBC and later CBS, has much to say about Vietnam and her life in television news. And it's all worth hearing.

Volunteering for duty in a combat zone, even as a reporter, might seem to be an unnatural act. But for Trotta, who had begun her career interviewing celebrities for her junior high school newspaper at age 13, it was simply what reporters did. It was ``the story,'' and any reporter worth her salt wanted to be there.

While the network asked for the ``Big Picture'' story, summing up ``what it all means,'' to Trotta the Vietnam experience rarely offered that kind of clarity. Often, she found, it meant simply telling and showing viewers what was going on and letting them make up their own minds.

Her accounts of combat are chilling. The morning after an attack by the North Vietnamese, she accompanied an intelligence officer as he examined the fallen enemy. ``I followed him, looking at the pictures of girlfriends, wives, and children, listening to the interpreter translate the letters home, going through the pitiful belongings left behind in a blast of light,'' she writes. ``It was a slice of war all right, no Big Picture here, just a reminder of the two things that sobered me about the enemy: hi s inhumanity alive, his humanity dead.''

Sometimes, the best stories never made it to the air because no film could be shot. Others got two minutes on NBC's ``Huntley-Brinkley Report'' but told little of the real story. Like the time she was dropped by helicopter, along with relief supplies, into a battle in progress. Turning to watch as the 'copter rose to 100 feet, she saw it hit by enemy fire, spiraling down in a crash that left no survivors. It was no time for cameras and pictures as she scrambled for an underground bunker and sweated out an overnight wait, wondering if she'd return to Saigon alive.

Between the visits to combat areas were the incongruous moments of civility in Saigon, and more than a little humor. Once, when Trotta was searching to find something presentable to wear on camera, Arnett offered to loan her a pair of his slacks. Later he received a call from New York: His wife had seen Trotta's broadcast and wanted an explanation.

Working in the field meant learning the tricks of the trade. Trotta had trouble not squinting on camera in the bright Vietnam sun. She learned to turn her face upward, eyes closed, for several seconds just before the camera rolled. In the 20 seconds she was on, her eyes were still adjusting and she wouldn't squint.

Leaving Vietnam with lifelong friends and haunting memories, Trotta continued to report from around the world - Tehran, Belfast, Israel, London - as well as from the US, including Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick incident and the sensational Claus von Bulow trial in Newport, R.I. In 1985 her television career ended abruptly; she was let go as part of a massive staff cutback at CBS.

Trotta is hardly alone in her conclusion that television news today is too often a triumph of style over substance, of coifed hair and the search for viewers' emotional hot button over old-fashioned tell-it-as-it-is reporting. Her eyewitness accounts add damning evidence.

While covering the von Bulow trial, she saw the ``new'' CBS News under Van Gordon Sauter emerge. ``It was a convenient debut for his theory of `moments' television, a philosophy that wafted through CBS's corridors like a mutant virus,'' she writes. ``The idea was that every story should contain at least one moment that would grab the viewer's gut, inciting grief, pity, anger, whatever - as long as he `felt' something. What's more, the selection of stories itself depended on their potential for producing these manipulative moments. The era of the `Big Mo' had arrived.'' Even after Sauter's ouster, she argues, this approach continues to permeate the networks.

Though her personal life rarely intrudes on the book's narrative, one feels the ambivalence of the foreign correspondent struggling to maintain relationships and a sense of home. She's paid a price by being there when the story broke.

Early in her career, a veteran reporter and confidant told her ``Being a reporter means leaving airports with no one to say `Good-bye,' and arriving at airports with no one to say `Hello.''' At the time, she says, the image appealed to her sense of being a ``lone wolf'' adventurer. But later, ``when it got lonely in so many of those airports,'' she began to realize the cost of choosing career over marriage.

It is, a reader senses, a choice she would make again. Her classmates at the College of New Rochelle, she recalls, dutifully pursued the implied goal for women in that era, no matter how talented: marriage, preferably to someone wealthy and successful. ``For most of my classmates, the brass ring was the wedding ring, and years later how could they not blow up with rage and despair, wondering where it all went?'' she asks. ``They could have been contenders.''

Liz Trotta proves here she's more than a worthy contender: She's a deft writer who pulls no punches. The result is a heartfelt, unblinking look at a war, an industry, and a professional's life.

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