If you had any doubt, these autobiographies by Jessica Savitch, Judy Woodruff and Betty Rollin prove there is now firmly established an "old girls' network." These books reflect one of the significant and fascinating sociological changes of our time as each author gives generous bows to her female peers and predecessors, a far cry from the 1940s, when Betty Smith said in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" that women stick together only in the knowledge of the pain of childbirth.
Despite the progress of recent years, when one female writes about another's work, a large portion of the population will automatically consider the writer to be a candidate for a part in Clare Boothe Luce's "The Women" -- or perhaps a lesbian. The good news is that growing numbers are not victimized by such a Pavlovian reaction and it is with them in mind that I write this review.
Basically, these books are about women making it in a man's world, in a tough, demanding job, while millions watch on television. Although all of that was first done and written about many years ago, it's not much easier even now to succeed in network news. It still takes heroic stamina, discipline, sacrifice and guts. That's why it's fascinating to know what makes Jessica/Judy/Betty run and to read how they see themselves -- Jessica, growing up poor with a widowed mother in Pennsylvania and New Jersey; Judy as an Army brat, around the world; and Betty in New York City with a dedicated Jewish mother intent on her learning culture with a capital C.
Diverse as those backgrounds are, they produced determined women consumed with a desire to make it. To hear each tell her story makes good reading, especially the Savitch retelling of her early career, which is downright funny. Her early days in a "Beemobile" in Rochester, N.Y., and what she went through en route to being an anchorwoman for NBC News would make a good Broadway musical. Savitch is classy; she has a punchy style, writes well and when you see the twinkle in her eye as she delivers the news, you'll be reminded of this book. She has a sense of humor, rare among those who deliver news, by definition seldom a laughing matter. Despite a personal tragedy, she has it all in perspective -- herself, her role, what it took to get there and what it means. Annually, she gives a one-week course on broadcasting at Ithaca College, which, after reading her book, I think might be worth enrolling in, even though I question some of her interpretations.
For a more restricted audience, mainly that of the aspiring reporter, male or female, the Woodruff book is a good primer. Written with Kathleen Maxa, it tells all you need to know about how to be NBC News' White House correspondent. At times, however, Woodruff's sense of her own cosmic importance is second only to that of Henry Kissinger. One begins to feel that certain events at the White House were staged just for her or would never have occurred at all if she had not been there personally to witness them. When she talks about the difficulties of combining career and motherhood, it wears one out just to read about it.
Her book really begins to sing when she gives her candid views of the fast track in the White House press corps. And Woodruff is in top form -- just as she is on the air -- when she talks about President Reagan's attitude toward the press or the contradictions in Jimmy Carter's personality. Now that Woodruff's assignment has been switched to the "Today" program, her White House experience ought to enhance her interviews on that sometimes dreary morning pap show. Ironically, her book includes a first-rate rundown on the state of women in the networks: After her recent abrupt change of assignment away from the White House, she may want to add another chapter.
Like Savitch and Woodruff, Betty Rollin has covered hard news. Clearly, however, she prefers feature writing. As she describes her conquests at Vogue, Look and later NBC News, Rollin -- who now works for ABC -- raises some fundamental questions. For example, when she describes some of the "tricks" of the trade she says they sound "pretty shady" because that's the way it is. Then she philosophizes: "Is it necessary for journalists to be so sneaky? I think so. Is it moral? I'm not sure. For myself, I've always justified it this way: to trick someone in order to get something out of them that isn't true is bad, but if the point of the trickery is to get what's really there, it's okay." She adds that this "smells of bad means justifying questionable ends," that she can't defend it and sometimes the trickery makes her feel bad but most of the time it makes her feel "terrific."
This raises one of the real problems for women reporters. Often, simply because they are not men, women are not trusted. For her to applaud questionable tactics does not help the sisterhood. It simply is not necessary to be either tricky or sneaky to get a scoop. The basic problem with the Rollin book is that you're getting the outtakes and the good stuff is already in her previous books or magazine articles or on television. Even so, Rollin has a good, bawdy sense of humor about her world, which makes amusing reading when taken in small doses.
In varying degrees, all three books smack of "The Perils of Pauline." They suffer the twin curses of this kind of autobiography: self-justification and self-righteousness. Even so, the dominant message reminds me of Lorraine Hansberry's famous advice to young, black playwrights. It was in the spring of 1964 that she said, "Though it be a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times -- it is doubly so, doubly dynamic, to be young, gifted and black." Read these books -- all three of them -- and know in the autumn of 1982 that even in the male-dominated networks it's dynamite to be young, gifted and female.