People who live in glass houses can get away with throwing pebbles. Two or three times in the course of this headlong reminiscence, Linda Ellerbee lofts something the size of a brickbat (and she weighs it first in her hand, and relishes it). But for the most part, we hear a steady patter against the panes of smaller, rounder, less harmful stuff.
Which is perhaps as it should be, given how very, very good television has been to Linda Ellerbee. As she is quick to acknowledge, "Television news is the candy store. They pay me to read. They pay me to see the world. They pay me to watch things happen, to go to parades, fires, conventions, wars, circuses, coronations and police stations -- all in the name of journalism -- and they pay me well."
On the generous payroll of NBC, Ellerbee has been (among other things) a Washington correspondent for the nightly news; an anchor of two of NBC's kamikaze magazine shows; and an anchor of "Overnight," the mold-breaking (but not, alas, trend-setting) late-night news show that Ted Koppel and a rising tide of cable news services scared into being for 17 months in 1982 and 1983.
It was on "Overnight" that Ellerbee flourished, both by her own account and the accounts of news addicts who stayed up late enough to admire the casual, intelligent style of "a low-budget, late-night television news program for humans." It had a vague enough mandate and a late enough spot to evade most of the rules that bind TV news, rules at which Ellerbee was famous for chafing.
Television's take on Ellerbee has been that she is . . . brassy. She's overweight, by TV standards. She's not the calming figure (thin, blond, pleasant as applesauce) most TV demands of its females. Ellerbee's fans often say she's too smart for television news.
Ellerbee's take on Ellerbee is that all of these things are probably true.
"And So It Goes" is, as a result, the diary of a love-hate relationship. The things Ellerbee hates about television news include the sexism she believes is still rampant in the industry (and she makes a good case); its habit of assuming that its viewers have never heard of Lebanon; the cowardice of its executives in having agreed, long ago, to see it subjected to the same standards of profitability as entertainment; and its frequent failures of imagination.
Ellerbee covers all of these be tes noires in a narrative that gives a roughly chronological account of her career, stopping for occasional chapters that give thematic play to the naughty bits. Her style is wryly talkative, a little on the profane side, and often very funny.
Here is Ellerbee on the subject of "Twinkies" -- TV argot for attractive airheads: "It's interesting to note that in recent years about half the contestants and several winners of the Miss America pageant, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, answered 'a television anchorwoman.' It's also interesting to note the great number who have gotten their wish."
On television's homogenization of its newscasters: "My bosses said we should all sound alike . . . as if we'd grown up in the same place. I asked them what place that was. One executive thought his office would be appropriate, and the others soon agreed since they hadn't been to Iowa or North Carolina but they'd all been to his office."
In this book, anecdote is all. The anecdotes -- about everyone from Roger Mudd to Texas cops to Gerald Ford, about the delicate negotiation of expense accounts, the stultifying experience of overcovering political conventions, the apparently unlimited sex appeal of TV cameramen -- are, by and large, worth the price of admission. The drawback is in the tissue connecting them. Too often, stories are strung together with such lines as "Something about writing this had reminded me of Frank Reynolds," and "Somewhere back there I was speaking about women in television, and I have more to say on that."
The end result is somehow unsatisfying, as if, for all Ellerbee's talk about the pact into which television newscasters should enter with their viewers, she hasn't given enough thought to the pact into which a writer enters with someone willing to pay in the neighborhood of $17 for her book. With one exception (a notable one), the author relates nothing that has the ring of the personal.
An unfair expectation, you say? Perhaps, but in frustrating the reader's willingness to like her in the particular, Ellerbee seems unconsciously to be counting on our willingness to admire her for the very phenomenon she has the grace to deplore: "Even local reporters who cover dull old hard-news stories get some share of celebrity, just because they are covering them for television. You can't help it. There you are, night after night, doing something and doing it on television."
Perhaps this reviewer didn't take seriously enough the notice posted on the book's first page: "All I mean to do here is tell a few good stories." Or perhaps I underestimate the risks Ellerbee runs in taking her industry to task. Pitter-pat, go the pebbles against the panes; surely the network executive stirs only a little in his slumber?
The reviewer is an editor on the national news staff of The Washington Post.