INFORMED sources close to Linda Ellerbee, the network newscaster, said today that she's a cottage industry. Ms. Ellerbee, reached at a Greenwich Village restaurant, denied the allegation. But evidence continues to mount that the report may be true:
Her book ``And So It Goes'' has scurried up the nonfiction best-seller list to hover between third and fourth place; Columbia Pictures has bought ``And So It Goes'' for a movie in which Ellerbee may be played by producer-star Marsha Mason (if Miss Mason chooses to), or Debra Winger, or Karen Allen; ABC News has signed her on for a new $350,000 contract that includes co-hosting its new TV magazine, ``Our World,'' which premi`eres tonight, as well as continuing ``T.G.I.F.,'' her offbeat view of the nearly news on ``Good Morning America,'' and perhaps anchoring a late-night news show following ``Nightline.'' During station breaks, she is also writing a novel.
The Linda Ellerbee of the networks is as throaty as Bacall, as crisp as snap beans, a writer of considerable and pungent wit who cares about words the way some women care about star sapphires. She breezes into the restaurant looking distinctly un-newscasterish: faded blue jeans, jonquil yellow T-shirt, blue work shirt slung over that, and blue gumboots. Her long chestnut hair, which the networks have sometimes suggested she edit, cascades in Hollywood waves over her shoulders. In her own low-key way, she has made an entrance that can't be missed. When she sits down at the table with a wide, slightly shy smile, heads turn. She is without her trademark horn-rimmed glasses, and her eyes are a startling shade somewhere between hazel and blue. But a fan at the next table recognizes her and calls over that she's written the best book since Alice Walker's ``The Color Purple.''
Ellerbee has brought along what you'd least suspect someone in the hard-edged TV news business would enjoy doing: hand-painted greeting cards she has made for friends. And there's a quotation for her new boss at ABC, Av Westin. ``Here, I want you to read this,'' she says, handing me a card full of orange, yellow, and green Ellerbee trees; ``it's the most important thing I know about what we do.'' The quotation on it is from historian Will Durant:
``Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream sometimes is filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shooting, and doing things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry, and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians and journalists are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.''
Ellerbee has spent much of her life as a journalist working the banks of the river, as her book, ``And So It Goes,'' proves. It is a funny, provocative, yeasty book, which is mostly not about Ellerbee at all but about the inside skinny on surviving in broadcasting. It is studded like a fruitcake with stories, anecdotes, and one-liners, including the story of how she got her first TV job: There she was, low-tech Linda, working on a word processor as a story writer for the Associated Press's broadcast wire in Dallas. One day she wrote a long, chatty letter to a friend in Alaska that was full of scandalously funny criticism of Texas newspapers, the Dallas City Council, the Vietnam war, and her boss. When it was accidentally sent out on the wires to the AP bureaus in four states, she lost that job but gained one at KHOU-TV ``for writing funny.''
About herself, she's as terse as Calvin Coolidge. Readers of the book learn only that she's a yellow rose of Texas, dropped out of Vanderbilt University at 19, then ``moved around some, married some, had two babies. . . .''
Over a dinner of raddichio and shiitake mushrooms, the former Linda Jane Smith explains why she's so cryptic about herself. ``Ellerbee is the name of my third husband,'' she admits. But no details, please; her original manuscript included not a snippet of biography. ``I did not want to write an autobiography. A friend and my editor persuaded me to put in whatever personal information there is in the book, through arguing that no one would want to take the tour if they didn't know who the guide was.''
But she didn't want to include anything about her life apart from what she does for a living: ``If I were to talk about that, it involves other people and that's an invasion of privacy, which I do not feel good about.'' That includes her daughter, Vanessa, enrolled in a private college in Massachusetts, and her son, Joshua, prepping at a school in the same state. Both are missing from her listing in Who's Who in America, which includes only her birth in Bryan, Texas, her education, and her career, including 14 years at NBC. There she had been co-anchor of the critically acclaimed ``Weekend'' and ``Overnight'' as well as the unacclaimed ``Summer Sunday, U.S.A.,'' and reporter for the ``NBC Nightly News.''
And so it goes (as Ellerbee used to sign off on TV) in this season that began like ``The Perils of Pauline'' and ended with her becoming Prom Queen of the Media:
When she returned from a tour flacking her book in May, NBC offered her a 40 percent pay cut on a new contract and leaked the news to the press. She decided, sadly rather than bitterly, she says, that it was an offer she had to refuse. But that left her with two kids and a semi-cocker spaniel named Dudley to support without a paycheck. ``It was scary.''
She leaped at co-producers Marsha Mason's and Bernie (``Ghostbusters'') Brillstein's offer that she write the screenplay from her book. Then her book hit the best-seller list, CBS offered her a job as co-anchor of its about-to-be-revamped ``CBS Morning News,'' and ABC courted her for three shows. Her dance card was full. And ``half of my `serious' journalist friends . . . called to tell me who ought to play them'' in the movie.
While all this media flap is going on, Ellerbee says her No. 1 commitment is to ``Our World,'' ABC's controversial new TV magazine on which she co-anchors with Ray Gandolf, ``a world-class writer.''
`` `Our World,' '' she says, ``is meant to bring back `The Way We Were,' and if it's a time we don't remember, it's to bring back the way they were.'' The TV magazine will draw from more than 50 years of moving picture and TV footage, and on a series of eyewitnesses.
``It's not meant to be a provocative show, it's meant to be evocative,'' she explains. ``We will freeze a moment when history was being made. We will tap the current rage for nostalgia.''
Ellerbee has a finely tuned sense of how to tell a story with a lot of film and a few words. In a voice softer and higher than her broadcasting contralto, she says, ``I know how to tell stories. I want to tell stories,'' and says that means in fiction and film, too.
She is good at, to use her own phrase, ``writing silence,'' letting the pictures rather than words evoke an idea. ``I cut everything [in pictures] before I write anything,'' she says. ``It makes a better story. The easiest thing to change is the words.'' Otherwise, ``If you've got 6 great seconds of pictures and I've written 8 seconds, there are 2 seconds of wallpaper footage.'' Writing for television, she explains, ``is selection and connection. I select the pictures and I connect the pictures. That's writing.''
After dinner, she unreels a few examples of what she means about this special kind of writing, cueing up some tapes on the VCR in the long living room with two fireplaces in her Greenwich Village town house. One of the tapes from her NBC days contains not a single word of script or voice-over. It is the one she is most proud of, the one on which she worked 48 straight hours without a break, wearing out three consecutive editors. It is an anguished, eloquent requiem to the Vietnam war, in pictures and music, with news clips backed only by the songs of the time, from ``The Ballad of the Green Berets'' to ``Goodnight Saigon.'' ``That's television!'' she says -- ``to do something you can't do in print.''