Before There Was Fox

There was Jessica Savitch.  The video above shows the last, drug-addled broadcast of a grasping, narcissistic and damaged young woman whose relentless pursuit of fame landed her, days thereafter, in a watery grave at 34….  Having been a key figure who heralded a new era of profit-driven infotainment in TV News, Savitch was the first “journalist” who never studied nor practiced journalism, but merely practiced reading before the cameras, and the whole world loved her for it.  As I wrote once before, I was mesmerized by her story after picking up Gwenda Blair’s excellent 1988 book, Almost Golden:  Jessica Savitch and the Selling of Television News, at Powell’s for four bucks.  The money was well spent, let me tell you, and led to a growing library of Savitchiana.  I was a teenager when Savitch had her rise and fall, so I remembered who she was, but reading about her today, I realize that she was just born a bit too early; now certifiably crazy, unpleasant, and not very smart people like Jessica are all you see on TV, and these qualities advance rather than ruin their careers.  Don’t expect a coke-addled Megyn Kelly to end up on the bottom of a canal anytime soon; she picked the right time to be a Golden Girl.

Back then, though, the TV business was difficult enough for women; even in local news they were relegated to weather, pets, and cooking, and when Savitch was allowed to read the news at KHOU in Houston, her first big break, they called her an “anchorine.”  Which, unfortunately, was what she was.  Since she had studied not journalism, but something called “communications” at Ithaca College while modeling and working as a local radio DJ, honing her voice and delivery, going from brunette to blonde, and  of course dieting constantly, she had little time to well, figure out what was going on in the world.  Though she was no great beauty, her combination of “authority and warmth,” practiced relentlessly, was an audience-winning talent that propelled her from Houston to Philadelphia, and finally to the anchor desk at NBC News by the age of 30.  Unfortunately for Savitch, in those days the big networks sent newbies to places like the US Senate to acquire gravitas and credentials before sitting them down full-time in New York to read, and her performance there was just shy of disastrous.

NBC, then in last place among the networks as Fred Silverman’s tawdry ABC vaulted to the top, was in a conundrum; the news division had spotted her immediately as an erratic and troublesome lightweight, but her “Q” ratings were off the charts, so they had to find a spot for her where she (hopefully) wouldn’t screw up too badly.  They gave her NBC News Digest, derisively called “Di-gel” at 30 Rock, which consisted of reading two 42-second news capsules in prime time, amid commercials, promoting NBC Nightly News.  One thinks John Cameron Swayze, who Savitch had sought to emulate in her youth, wouldn’t have been too impressed, and that realization seemed to unleash her other demons, which finally proved her undoing.

Juggling the sugar daddy first husband, the suicidal second, and through it all the abusive boyfriend in the limo-and-cocaine fantasy world of New York, writing a fantasy-ridden “autobiography,” and dealing with the premature demise of her once-promising career was tough to do when you had to show up twice each evening and smile at the red light for 84 seconds, but she did a pretty good job of it for awhile, before she turned completely into Lindsay Lohan.  After her demise, it took the network news another twenty years to do the same thing, but they did it anyway.  The clip below shows that even the shallowest news back in 1978, not to mention Jessica herself, was like a MENSA meeting compared to what we see today:

As you see, she didn’t start out a slurred and drug-addled junior cocktailhag.  In the good old days, when she started at NBC, she was what made, say, Megyn Kelly possible today; a perfect news Barbie who wouldn’t clutter her pretty head attempting to comfort the afflicted of afflict the comfortable, she would charm audiences and make them watch commercials while reading whatever claptrap rolled off the ticker tape.  She didn’t even have to show her legs or boobs in that quaintly prim era, before the advent of cable and, well,  Fox.  One wonders what Jessica would have said had she taken a job at a “news” network like Fox with so few, and such undesirable, viewers (about the same as her audience back in Philadelphia), rather than an actual broadcast network like NBC, but I suspect it would have been a similar rant to the one she gave on tape at KYW in Philadelphia, “Who do I have to fuck to get out of here?”

The problem with Jessica, an affliction that has never tormented any Fox News anchorine, was that on some level she still thought that to be on TV News, you had to be a journalist, or at least look like one.  Worse, you couldn’t just look pretty and spout out dogmatic talking points; sometimes you had to actually cover things, which was often hard work that demanded the recognition that never seemed to be forthcoming, and that hurt her deeply.  Boy howdy, those days are over.  The Golden Girls of today aren’t expected to be intellectuals; all they need is a nice set of ideas.

Pity poor Jessica and the vestigially meritocratic, if sexist, times that had no use for her; in the liberated 21st century, the male anchors are all dumber, and much poorer at their purported jobs, than she ever was, and the women don’t even have to try.  We’ve come a long way, Baby, but in the wrong direction.

I’m glad Jessica didn’t live to see, say, David Gregory doing “Meet the Press.”  It would have killed her.

6 Comments

  1. michlib says:

    One can easily envision Roger Ailes watching and thinking ” less content and more cleavage – hmmmmm “. Telling how the 1982 clip stories dealt with wage cutting, union busting, and those precious 2nd amendment rights. The more things change …

    Those Faux Nuuz models suffer in comparison. The Unbearable Lightness of Infotainment.

  2. dirigo says:

    “I got triple-booked.”

    – Christine O’Donnell
    – ‘splainin’ why she canceled last week-end’s bookings with CBS and Fox.

    Jess never had that problem. She knew which side her two prime time news breaks were buttered on.

  3. mikeinportc says:

    I’m glad Jessica didn’t live to see, say, David Gregory doing “Meet the Press.” It would have killed her.

    Or made her feel infinitely better, knowing that there’s much worse out there.

    Two words, to prove your point(s) : Steve Ducey . ;)