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Liz Trotta
Liz Trotta
Fighting for Air:  In the Trenches with Television News
ISBN: 0826209521
Fighting for Air: In the Trenches with Television News
In this piercing look into the grit and the glamour of television news, award-winning journalist Liz Trotta traces her career from the early days of broadcast news to the slick superficiality of today. The first female television correspondent in Vietnam, Trotta tells the searing truth about being a woman in a male-dominated industry and recounts many of her most fascinating stories, from the scandal of Chappaquiddick to the campaign trail of George Bush. Filled with candid, often stinging assessments of the movers and shakers in the industry, "Fighting for Air" is the story of an uncompromising woman and of television news coming of age--told from the trenches.
—from the publisher's website
Fighting for Air: In the Trenches with Television News
Program Air Date: August 18, 1991

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Liz Trotta, author of "Fighting For Air: In the Trenches with Television News," on Page 65 you talk about Walter Cronkite going on the air and saying things about the war. Let me read just one line, and you can explain it. "Cronkite's stunning pronouncement planted a seed of partiality in a business that vaunted objectivity, remaining above the fray." What are you talking about?
LIZ TROTTA, AUTHOR, "FIGHTING FOR AIR: IN THE TRENCHES WITH TELEVISION NEWS": We always talked about objectivity, American journalists. I think it's a word now that's discredited, although I think it's still possible. But Walter Cronkite, in those days in the middle of really the hottest story of our generation, did nudge that line of objectivity. After going over there and taking a look at the war for himself and after watching this thing progress for such a long time or not progress, depending on your point of view, really decided to say he felt that maybe it wasn't winnable and we ought to take another look at it. That was a real first, certainly for a broadcaster, and I think probably the first across the line in modern journalism as we know it.
LAMB: You also write, "It had brought a president down." Do you think it had that kind of impact?
TROTTA: I think it had a tremendous impact. Walter Cronkite -- we almost realize it more now than we did when he was on the air -- still is very much a force. People believe Walter Cronkite. That was his big strength and that was his big audience -- people who believed him.
LAMB: Where were you then? Do you remember?
TROTTA: You'll have to tell me again what year that was again now, Brian. I can't even remember.
LAMB: The middle of the McCarthy campaign. April 19 . . .
TROTTA: Oh, yes, '68.
LAMB: It must have been 1968.
TROTTA: Sorry, yes. I was in the McCarthy campaign. It was my first network assignment. I'd gone from the local station, WNBC, and they sort of let me try my wings on that campaign before going off to Vietnam.
LAMB: So you hadn't been to Vietnam yet?
TROTTA: No, I was still campaigning.
LAMB: How did you get in the news business in the first place?
TROTTA: It was either that or be a ballerina -- both of which took good legs. Actually it was my father who said, "Fine, if you want to go into show business, but you'll do it in somebody else's household," reminded me that the household was not a democracy as long as he was head of it. So I toyed around with the idea and I went to school in New York for a little bit, the School of American Ballet, and realized that I really wasn't any good and that maybe I had ought to really think seriously about being a reporter, which I always sort of thought I could do parallel. Don't ask me how I could ever do the two of them. I had been writing and all that for school papers, so it seemed the natural thing to do because if I wasn't going to get Margot Fontaine's job.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
TROTTA: New Haven, Conn.
LAMB: What was life like in New Haven?
TROTTA: It was terrific. It was a small, leafy, little collegiate town. Yale University. It was a big Italian-American town. Lots of family, lots of friends. I don't remember really locking my door or feeling afraid. It was typical small-town America, really.
LAMB: Several things that come through in the book. I'll get you to talk about any of them, pick them off. Catholic ...
LAMB: Italian ...
LAMB: Conservative ...
LAMB: Feisty ...
TROTTA: Oh, yes!
LAMB: Sometimes very difficult ...
LAMB: You say these things about yourself in here.
TROTTA: Yes. I always get offended when some reviewer says this but doesn't put it in quotes because I do say that. Thank you for noticing.
LAMB: And a woman. That seemed to be also very important. Pick off any of those.
TROTTA: And just go with them?
LAMB: What impact did they have, each one of those in your life?
TROTTA: Being a woman wasn't really an issue. As I mention in the book, my father and my mother as well, but particularly my father -- you know, fathers and daughters have this special relationship -- really never at any point said that I couldn't do what a man did. Now, it wasn't put in those terms. It was just you will be a surgeon or you will be a trial lawyer or that kind of thing. There was never any comparison made, so it never occurred to me that I couldn't do anything that lofty. In fact, it didn't seem lofty. It seemed kind of a natural thing to do, which was odd for somebody that was an immigrant, especially an Italian immigrant, who would more likely be thinking of where I would get married and settle down and how many kids I would have. Catholic, yes. It was a Catholic family. I went to Catholic schools. I bought the line. I still buy the line.
LAMB: Have you stayed with your religion all your life?
TROTTA: Yes, I guess I have. I guess I really have -- or it stayed with me. One or the other.
LAMB: Has it been hard?
TROTTA: Sometimes. Sometimes, yes. It's a pretty secular business. Moving around the world a lot sometimes gets hard, but I think it's also your strength as well as difficult.
LAMB: People who are angry at the press write a lot that they don't think many members of the press are very religious. Do you find that?
TROTTA: I don't know. You mean whether they practice a religion?
LAMB: We get calls here where people suggest they're even anti-religious.
TROTTA: Yes, in a way I think for a lot of them, politics becomes their religion or broadcasting becomes their religion.
LAMB: Conservative.
TROTTA: Conservative, yes. I was a charter member, literally, of Young Americans for Freedom back in the early '60s. Actually it was the late '50s because I came to New York in '59. Read Buckley stuff. Thought it was great. Liked what he said. It seemed to fit in with what I believed in.
LAMB: Still conservative?
TROTTA: I think so. It's more than attitude. I'm very apolitical. I mean, after having covered politicians so much all my life, I basically have no belief in politics. But it's more of an attitude and a discipline in the way you approach life, I think, than it is just what lever you pull in a voting booth.
LAMB: How about your colleagues? Do you find any conservatives in the media business?
TROTTA: Yes, a couple. Yes. I think they find each other. I don't think people label themselves, but they wind up finding themselves on the sides of issues that where if you had to be identified you would say, "Well, I guess that's a conservative point of view." It's a tricky thing, you know. I had someone come to me and say, "God, you love animals so much, I thought you were a conservative." You never know.
LAMB: Feisty, difficult, hard to get along with.
LAMB: You write that several times in here.
TROTTA: Yes, that's my reputation, always was my reputation in the business. I think it's true. I'm outspoken. I'm intolerant often, especially of incompetence, particularly my own. Fiery, yes. All these things.
LAMB: Is it calculated or do you just erupt?
TROTTA: Most of the time it's not calculated. There are times when it's calculated. It's not a seemly quality in women, especially if you're working for all male news executives who like well-behaved women around because their lives are surrounded by well-behaved women for the most part. Yes, so I guess those things are true, and I readily admitted that.
LAMB: First women network correspondent to go to Vietnam?
TROTTA: Yes, to cover combat. I think a couple were there to do features and things, but I was the first one, and the only one for a long time, assigned on a regular basis to field reporting, to combat reporting and the first foreign correspondent. There had never been a woman assigned overseas.
LAMB: Total number of months in Vietnam and how many tours?
TROTTA: Let's see. The first time was six months, then it was one month, then it was three months, then it was another month, and finally they sent me to Singapore to be bureau chief. The bureau consisted of one-and-a-half people basically, and it was in my bedroom. It was really a jumping-off spot. Asia was hot in those days. Japan was rising, although you would have never of know it from television, but the economic strength was beginning to show. American presence was huge in Asia at the time. The bases in the Philippines were up to full speed, stuff was happening in Cambodia and Laos, Hong Kong was the crossroads of the war. I mean, it was where the action was.
LAMB: Why did you write this book?
TROTTA: I'll tell you why. Because I had a story finally. Any number of people will come to you and say, "Write a book. You know, you lead such a fascinating life." But I never wanted to do a sort of and-then-I-covered book. I realized in 1985, when I left CBS that I had a story, not just a and-then-I-covered. I had a story not just about me, but about me as a witness to what had happened in broadcasting, how the Vietnam War affected what happened in broadcasting, and, more important, what happened to America, what happened to people who covered the war, and also what happened to a lot of my friends.
LAMB: Do you like this book?
TROTTA: I vary. I go back and forth. Sometimes I'm sorry I wrote it. Other days I'm very proud of it.
LAMB: What makes you sorry?
TROTTA: It's a melancholy book in many ways. That wasn't deliberate. I don't think it's a sour book. I don't think it's a get-even book because that certainly wasn't my intent.
LAMB: Have you been accused of doing that?
TROTTA: Oh, sure. People say, "You're bitter." Usually my riposte is, "That doesn't mean what I say isn't true." But I don't feel bitter. Naturally I feel disappointed about broadcasting, but there's any number of people who feel disappointed about that -- many more people who have a lot more serious reasons to be disappointed about it. But I'm basically glad I wrote it. A friend of mine said, "If you don't write it, it was all for nothing." I think that really pushed me over the edge to write it.
LAMB: When you sat down and wrote what you wrote about John Chancellor, did you ever sit there and say, "Take that. You just got what you deserve?"
TROTTA: No, I don't think that. As a matter of fact, you should see some of the stuff that I took out because I thought people would feel that way -- about any number of people where I thought, that sounds vindictive, don't do it. But it's a funny thing about writing -- and I'm sure you know it -- that you really don't sit there with a score list. You tell your story and you go from your memory and your notes and your research, but you really don't recreate, I don't think, the anger. I didn't say, "Okay, and now it's time to get John Chancellor." It's what happened as I remembered it.
LAMB: What did happen?
TROTTA: Well, he had a problem about women, obviously. I mean, that's shown up several times in his career. The most recent one was the University Club vote in New York to admit women, and he reportedly voted against it. He had a lot of trouble with women's stories in those years, stories that were about the women's movement. And he was uneasy about me. Of course, from the first encounter -- we had a debate on the correspondents tour. In those days, NBC used to have two correspondents tours a year and they would take six or eight of us, usually the foreign correspondents and some of the Washington people, and parade us around the affiliates and the O&Os [network owned-and-operated stations]. We would talk to people and make speeches and go to the Foreign Policy Association and all that.

Of course, the Vietnam War was raging at that time. Pauline Frederick, who was, as you know, one of the great broadcasters, before this tour in 1968 said to me -- I was nervous about it. I was just back from my first tour of Vietnam. She said, "Well, you know, people on this, the correspondents, Chancellor and that crowd are going to talk about what the president said to them last week. What you should do is tell them what a GI in the Mekong Delta said to you last week." I thought that was pretty sensible advice and did that and talked about what I felt was a real age of heroism. I hadn't really seen America and America's men and appreciated what they were until I saw them at war. It was a startling sight. I tried to get some of this across to an audience in San Diego where we were all assembled and Chancellor, who had taken an anti-war line, of course, referred to me as Madame Nhu, who was not exactly the most popular character at that time in our history.
LAMB: Who was she?
TROTTA: Well, she was Diem's sister, who was the government of South Vietnam at the time.
LAMB: Referred to often as the Dragon Lady?
TROTTA: The Dragon Lady, yes. She represented a sort of female Eastern viciousness and mystery and chicanery and betrayal and all the rest of it and they kind of focused all the animosity towards our allies in Madame Nhu. The audience in San Diego is heavily military, as you know, and they did, as a matter of fact, side with me, which was a mistake for our relationship. It was never the same. I just never thought he was that good, quite frankly.
LAMB: On the back of your book, there's a lot of praise. "Advance praise for 'Fighting For Air.'" One of them was interesting. David Brinkley says, "Liz Trotta is one of the first, one of the best and 'Fighting For Air' is delightful reading." Had he read the part where you said that the reason why Huntley-Brinkley's ratings "went south," as they say today, was because Chet Huntley left the broadcast?
TROTTA: He didn't tell me he did, but he probably did. He probably did. He had the manuscript well in advance of publication. But it would be just like David to laugh if he saw something like that and call it as it is.
LAMB: It doesn't matter to him?
TROTTA: I don't think so. David is too big a guy to have anything like that, especially if it was true.
LAMB: You like Chet Huntley?
TROTTA: Very much.
LAMB: Why?
TROTTA: Well, he was a big guy. He was a kind of decent, old-fashioned American. Being that famous didn't weigh heavily on him. He was very good to me. I thought he was a real pro at his job, too. People always talk about how they like to write for the anchor. Producers are always bragging about how they wrote for this anchor, they wrote for that correspondent. It's almost like guys sitting around a bar talking about who they slept with last night. That's the kind of conversations that go on with producers -- what famous person did they put words in their mouth.
LAMB: He called you once?
LAMB: You're in your apartment in Greenwich Village.
TROTTA: I was in my $75-a-week apartment in Greenwich Village and the phone rang one night and it was Huntley and his wife, Tippy. They asked if I was interested -- they didn't order me to -- they asked if I was interested in doing a story on a friend of theirs who was in the White House Scholars program, which I believe was just starting at that time.
LAMB: You were at local WNBC at that time?
TROTTA: That's right. Just the sound of the voice on the telephone terrified me and she said, "Well, I've got all this material here. Why don't I just come down and deliver it to your apartment?" I thought, "Oh, my God!" I lived in a real garret. I mean, I lived in a real Bohemian rat trap. Here was the wife of America's most famous broadcaster coming down to deliver this stuff. I just tore around trying to make it all nice, and we did the story eventually and he was terrific. He pushed me very much, encouraged me. He wanted me to go to Vietnam, wanted me to cover politics.
LAMB: Howard Tuckner.
TROTTA: Oh, Howard, yes.
LAMB: Howard Tuckner and the story that you write in here, something that had made the rounds for years, about the phony stand-up piece under fire. Who was Howard Tuckner and what's that story?
TROTTA: Howard Tuckner was a correspondent for NBC News and then later for ABC News. He was one of the casualties of the war. He wasn't killed in the war. He was wounded physically during Tet, which is the piece which you're referring to. He eventually committed suicide for wounds, as I said, that you couldn't see. I think the war really got to Howard and fashioned his life, as I tried to show. He was in Teheran during the week of Tet and a fire-fight broke out and he suffered a flesh wound in the thigh. He was lying on the ground and he was doing the stand-up for the camera, that piece where you see the correspondent talking to the audience. In the first take, he talked about the war, his fear of the war, his fear in general and "anybody who says they're not afraid is a damn liar," he said. Well, of course, in those days to say "damn" on the air was borderline at best. He did it on another take -- three or four if I recall. I've forgotten the exact number now, but it was more than one. We shipped film in those days, so all the takes that you would do that in turned up in New York so the producers were able to see exactly what you did, where you fluffed, where you did it over again, whatever. I guess the prospect of a wounded man lying bleeding on the pavement, being theatrical enough -- or professional enough, I think -- to have done this more than one time was just too much for those who were more spontaneous to absorb, including Reuven Frank, who was the president of NBC News at the time and was not amused.
LAMB: Did it get on the air?
TROTTA: Yes. I believe it was the first take. Yes, it was the first take that got on the air.
LAMB: There were other stories that made the rounds about reporters going to Vietnam and having their sound man fire in the air while they ducked down. Did you ever have one of those experiences?
TROTTA: Yes, I have heard of stories like that. I've never seen one. I never saw one while I was there. If it happened, it didn't happen while I was around or it happened at another time.
LAMB: Have you come close to either getting wounded or dying?
TROTTA: There are times when you're very, very close and you don't realize it because you're too dumb to know. There were those times. And there were times when I was sure I was going to die and I didn't and probably was overreacting. We got hit by .50-caliber in a chopper one day, and I thought that was it. It was spinning around in the sky. I thought, "This is it." A couple of other times, too. A cut-off at a special forces camp near the border. They gave us the E&E briefing, which was the escape-and-evasion briefing, which means when things tough, when they start to overrun your position, this is what you do. You cut the wire and you follow a certain path to get to a rendezvous area where it's all supposed to be all neatly coordinated so you'll be picked up out of the jungle in the middle of the night running for your life. We had gone there to get a story and were getting a very good story, but we hadn't counted on -- we didn't really think. You didn't think in those days about getting out. You had to get there. Getting out came later. So they gave us the E&E briefing one night and we thought, well, this is it. It's amazing what your mind is. It sounds so illogical, your mind just rejects it all. So I just kept rejecting it and thinking this is a bad movie. But we got out.
LAMB: How do you remember all this stuff? Did you take notes at the time?
TROTTA: I took some notes. I went down to Vanderbilt University and looked at the archives there for a whole week. They were wonderful down there, too. Not just what I had done, but what other correspondents had done, what other networks had done. It's wonderful to see.
LAMB: One of the networks fought the existence of those archives years ago. Do you think that was a good idea to fight it?
TROTTA: Oh, no. It's a treasure! It's an absolute treasure the stuff down there.
LAMB: Does it come back to haunt them?
TROTTA: I don't know. I don't think they really have a sense of history. The Vietnam War hasn't even been transferred to tape yet over at NBC, is my understanding. There's a piece of history that's just going to corrode with the years.
LAMB: One of the things you talk about in your book is seeing some of your reports 20 years later.
LAMB: Why did it take you 20 years to see yourself on tape?
TROTTA: We had none of the technology that we have today. I mean, the Gulf War was amazing to watch for its instantaneous transmission. We filmed the piece. We used film -- 16mm color film -- operating against terrible weather conditions. This is in addition to trying to stay alive. Really the elements got you every time. We shipped film that made air usually anywhere between 36 and 48 hours after we shipped it. There was a satellite that eventually operated out of Hong Kong -- first out of Tokyo and then later out of Hong Kong. But they were extremely expensive in those days, so they just weren't used that much. So a lot of the things that I saw down at Vanderbilt which I'd never seen before were pieces that -- we had no equipment, I might add, in Saigon to look at these things. Besides, there was no reason to and there was no time for that. So off it went to the United States into the blue, and I'm sure there are pieces that I never saw that we sent that I've still never seen.
LAMB: Page 104: "Someone once said that if we had daily satellites then as we do now, the war would have been over much sooner. Perhaps that is true. We might have won it, too." Did the satellite thing in the Gulf make that war shorter?
TROTTA: Could have. See, I firmly believe that we'll never be able to wage a war in this country -- if it becomes necessary, God forbid -- of any duration as long as the camera is there. I don't think that you can count on American will. Not that I'm putting American will down. But you can't count on any will to see the horrors of war. World War II was carried on basically invisibly, if you think about it. Just think of the harrowing images of World War II long after the war was over -- of course, it was a much bigger operation. I think if there had been total access in the Gulf and we hadn't been winning so handily and we had had a lot of American corpses out there or a lot of American guys yelling for the medic in pain, I think it would have had a different outcome.
LAMB: What impact did Morley Safer's Zippo lighter on Cam Ne have on the war?
TROTTA: Well, it played into our sense of defeatism. It also played into a kind of loony-tunes quality about the impression that people had about the war. The famous quote that Peter Arnett got later, "We burned the village in order to save it." It sounds illogical. Within the context of what was happening at the time, it wasn't illogical.
LAMB: Would you have done it?
TROTTA: Would I have done the story?
LAMB: Yes.
TROTTA: Oh, absolutely. If it, in fact, happened exactly that way, certainly I would have done the story.
LAMB: Did you find any news people while you were covering the war that were after a certain side of the story and left the other side of the story alone. In other words, because they were mostly liberal according to your book, did they cover this in a liberal way?
TROTTA: I think they covered it -- not everybody -- but I think a lot of people were swallowed, engulfed, by the sense of defeatism. There was also a certain unstated realization that the anti-war opinion was a theatrical opinion. It was an opinion that got you on the air and into the newspapers. I think there was also tremendous rage at having been lied to. Tet -- even though the coverage of Tet itself by broadcasting was totally misunderstood, I believe -- still there was that sense that it had been made to look much rosier than it really was. I think that reporters who were then feeling their power -- reporters were getting famous. They were now sitting above the salt, as I like to say. They were now more famous than some of the people they were covering in many cases. Certainly the television people were. I thing they began to really feel, "I can have retribution. I can actually wreak retribution in some of these issues. Westmoreland lied to me. I'll get him." There was definitely that kind of feeling.
LAMB: How do you feel about the war looking back on it?
TROTTA: Oh, I think we could have won it. I don't think there's any question.
LAMB: Were you in favor of it?
TROTTA: Was I in favor of it? Yes. Once there, I think you had do what you always do when you fight wars and that's take territory. The way we were fighting it was bound to lose, without stated objectives. Wasn't it interesting to hear how they kept repeating and repeating and repeating what the objectives were in the Gulf? They had learned their lessons well. "Really, this is what we're after. We're after the liberation of Kuwait and the reinstituting of the old government." Bang. This was never made clear in Vietnam, which was a terrible, dreadful mistake. Then there was always the fear of China on the border. "We can't go north. If we bomb the dikes, we'll kill millions of people. If we bomb north, we can't bomb too far north because we're likely to get them angry." There was this pussyfooting around while we were fighting this war. It was absurd.
LAMB: Your salary in 1968 was $25,521?
TROTTA: Yes. I looked it up.
LAMB: Was that normal at the time?
TROTTA: Men were making more money.
LAMB: Any man was making more than $25,000?
TROTTA: I don't know about any man, but I know that a lot of them were. I think this was generally true throughout most of my career.
LAMB: You write about Dan Rather's $36-million, 10-year contract?
LAMB: Did all that get under you skin?
TROTTA: Not really because by the time that Rather was commanding that kind of salary, we had passed the million dollar mark and the star system was so much a part of the institution now that it was just more fun and games. People like myself -- we were line correspondents and we were the people you dropped in anywhere in the world and said, "Get a story." That's what we did for a living. We didn't read for a living. We didn't vent the news or act the news for a living or talk to other people on the set and interact. We went out and got stories. We wrote stories and we reported them, so we did something different for a living, I feel.
LAMB: Let me ask you a question. I'll ask you and see if you have the answer. Today, if there was a Vietnam War and you were a correspondent over there or there was any correspondent over there, what would the salary be?
TROTTA: For a line correspondent?
LAMB: Yes.
TROTTA: It's a little bit difficult to tell you. If you asked me that three or four years ago, I might have said, "Well, maybe $200,000." But maybe more. If you were a star, you could make as much as $500,000. But now I am told that people who are making that kind of money are being asked to accept a 50 percent or less cut in salary or be shown the door. There was a time, when I left CBS News in 1985, to be a star and make $500,000 was routine stuff. Many made a million dollars or more.
LAMB: Too much money?
TROTTA: Oh, of course. Of course.
LAMB: Why?
TROTTA: It will sound like envy or being bitter, but promise me you won't say that. The spirit of what we're supposed to do -- you make that kind of money, you're immediately in another class of people. How can you speak for the people and cover the people and say you really care about the people's concerns if you're making that kind of money? It immediately puts you in another category of living. You see different people, you hear different things, you eat different food, you wear different clothes, you become a different kind of person. You become a powerful person, too.
LAMB: You write that Roger Mudd didn't get the anchor job at the time he was in competition with Dan Rather because he didn't cover the war.
TROTTA: That was the conventional wisdom at the time at CBS, and I was told this my any number of people who were there at the time when this deal was being struck -- that they felt that he had been a fine Washington correspondent, but when it had come to the really tough stuff -- you know, CBS had this real kind of Marine Corps mentality in those days. It was different there. At CBS, the war was regarded as a kind of mark on your manhood, I think. It was purely voluntary at NBC and maybe also regarded as -- we're used to it on the macho scale -- but no one was assigned to Vietnam at CBS. It was purely voluntary. I think that's finally why I got the chance to go is because they were running out of men.
LAMB: Did you get fired from NBC and CBS?
LAMB: Why?
TROTTA: Well, I got fired from CBS along with a lot of good company. The layoffs had started, and, of course, it was the first of many. At NBC there was a succession of events which resulted in being told that I would be auditioned to come back on the network. I went back to the local station by my own choice.
LAMB: After covering the war?
TROTTA: No. I was in the London bureau at that point. I'd done a lot of foreign coverage by then. I was based in Singapore and then based in London and then went back to work for the local station. It was horrific. At that time, happy news was firmly ensconced. Broadcasting was making up with the public, if you will, after this terrible time of being estranged and Spiro Agnew pointing the finger at us, etc., etc.
LAMB: Was that a fair speech, by the way?
TROTTA: Yes. I think there was obvious, of course, political motivation.
LAMB: You're talking about the Des Moines speech?
TROTTA: Yes. But I mean Huntley himself told me they had an affiliates meeting shortly after that speech, and the affiliates were in revolt. They kept saying, "You're not showing our point of view. We're out here the heartland. You don't represent us." So a lot of that was going on within broadcasting at the time. So, I think Agnew -- I don't commend his motives because I think he's a sleazy character -- but he did strike a nerve. There was a silent majority. I think there's still a silent majority.
LAMB: Did the networks change after that speech?
TROTTA: For a while. I think for a while they did. I think they got very nervous.
LAMB: I cut you off. You were talking about why you got fired.
TROTTA: Oh, yes. Well anyhow, it was put to me that if you wanted to get back to the network, we will audition you. I felt that after 13 years of slogging around for them, I wasn't going to do it, so I really walked. I guess it was, "You're fired." "No, I quit." It was really more "I quit," but I certainly couldn't accept that. I might still be there if I had, but I couldn't accept it at the time.
LAMB: You worked at CNN for a while?
TROTTA: Six months.
LAMB: What did you do?
TROTTA: Business news.
LAMB: Why did you leave?
TROTTA: Hated it.
LAMB: Why?
TROTTA: It wasn't my cup of tea, and I didn't like my boss.
LAMB: Lou Dobbs.
LAMB: Why?
TROTTA: I hate to paste him publicly, but I had enough of screamers in my life-time. I didn't want to be screamed at by people anymore.
LAMB: Who are some of the other screamers in television?
TROTTA: Oh, there's lots of screamers in television. It's an abysmal business. You know that, Brian. It's actually a great business, but there's a high level of screaming and freneticism and chaos and panic and envy and settling scores. The stakes are high. You're driven by greed and ego. Lots of money, lots of ego fed to be on the air, influencing the public. These things are the engine.
LAMB: Did you do any of the screaming?
LAMB: Why?
TROTTA: Caught up in the moment. I don't know anybody that hasn't screamed at one time or another in television. Maybe one or two people.
LAMB: Craig J. Spence. We heard a lot about Craig J. Spence here in this town. I'm not sure the rest of the country did because it was a Washington Times story about his "escapades." Where did you meet Craig J. Spence and who was he?
TROTTA: Craig J. Spence, when I met him in 1966, was a remarkable character. He was a young reporter for WCBS in New York City. and he was bright and funny and dapper. He affected the airs of a dandy in one moment and Gen. MacArthur the next. He was very well read. He was cultured. He was just the most entertaining character. Lots of friends. Things were always happening. A great vivid character. Lots of energy. We met, as a matter of fact, in Leonard Bernstein's apartment. His wife, Felicia Montealegre at the time, was making anti-war Christmas cards, which sounds silly now, of course, but people went to great lengths to be against the war in those days. It was a kind of harmless escapade. We were there covering it, and, of course, we were jockeying for position to interview everybody. He and I tangled immediately and started shouting at each other. He said, "I will desist because I'm the gentleman and not because you are a lady." I thought that was a rather remarkable line. I think I burst out laughing. We were very, very good friends. He was a wonderful character, maybe one of my closest friends in the world. He went to Vietnam. I worked along-side him in Vietnam a lot. He then went to Tokyo.
LAMB: Who did he work for in Vietnam?
TROTTA: He worked for a couple of people. He worked for NBC Radio at one point, he worked for ABC Television, he worked for WCBS. He was kind of drifting around. He was the kind of person that was either your friend or your enemy. There wasn't much room for inbetween. He made a lot of money. He caught on to the upward curve of the rise of Japan very early. He smelled it before anybody did. He went there, learned a lot of the language, although he wasn't fluent. Got to identify who the movers and shakers were, how it worked, made a lot of friends and became a lobbyist for the Japanese government here in Washington, D.C.. I say for the Japanese government -- it was informal.
LAMB: Worked directly for a member of the Diet?
TROTTA: That's correct. Bought his house, actually bought a house here in Kalorama with money from that source. Gave seminars here. Invited all the movers and shakers. I mean it, you name it, they've been to Craig Spence's seminars or to his dinner parties or his cocktail parties. He became the subject of newspaper features, such as a profile in the New York Times. He was one of the rainmakers. But all the while -- at least with me -- he kind of privately was saying, "Can you believe this? I'm actually pulling this off." We'd giggle about it. I was off, you know, being the correspondent and running around. Whenever I had time, I would come here, of course, and see him and there'd be a big party.
LAMB: What kind of people came to his parties?
TROTTA: The parties that I went to were parties where there were friends -- Ted Koppel, Eric Sevareid, Professor Richard Gordon from Georgetown, conservative think-tank people, A.E.I. [American Enterprise Institute] people. Casey was at one party. Oh, it's a long list. I believe George Bush was also at his house. I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I'm about 90 percent sure. Quite an array of people. He really seemed to give parties for a living, but what he was doing was introducing and sort of constructing a matrix of people with influence and within that he was operating -- and so were the Japanese.

He was a good example, I think, as to how so many Japanese were able to get a foothold here to see how it worked, to see how this town worked. It all began to fall apart for him in the '80s when his behavior began to change. Things were changing for all of us. I had left the networks or was about to the leave the networks, many of our friends were off doing different things. We were still very much in touch. He appeared very ill. It was quite obvious or it began to be obvious; we began to suspect that he had AIDS. He was a practicing homosexual. We never discussed it in any detail. I think towards the end he kind of obliquely let me know. He knew I knew, I knew he knew I knew, that kind of thing. He got out of control. His friends began to back off, myself included. He was using cocaine, maybe crack. I think also crack. He just became a different person. He finally committed suicide in the Ritz Hotel a couple of years ago.
LAMB: In a tuxedo listening to Mozart.
TROTTA: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
LAMB: You took the famous -- it's famous here -- White House midnight tour with him.
TROTTA: Yes, I did.
LAMB: He wasn't there.
TROTTA: No, he didn't. He was running it. It was a perfectly harmless tour. I was kind of bored with it because I had already seen the White House several times. I wasn't bored with it -- I sound very jaded -- but it wasn't something that I liked being up at midnight for or one o'clock in the morning.
LAMB: Who was on the tour?
TROTTA: Several of Craig's friends. You know, I can't even remember most of the names. One of the reasons for the whole party that weekend, which was a perfectly wonderful party, was a reunion with a Green Beret soldier who I feature in the book, Sgt. Skip Ettinger. I hadn't seen him in 18 years and Skip was flying up from Fort Bragg to be here, and we were going to go to the Wall, etc. It was Fourth of July.
LAMB: To the Vietnam Memorial?
TROTTA: Yes, the Vietnam Memorial. I sure got him involved in a hornet's nest. It became big news, as you know. That's when that tour took place that weekend. Skip was on it in full uniform -- Green Beret, soldier's medal, combat ribbons.
LAMB: Did you buy the story of the call-boy homosexual ring that Craig Spence was supposed to be running?
TROTTA: It was probably true. I don't think he was running it. I think he was probably a customer. I think so.
LAMB: The implication was there were major political figures in this town that were also using that.
TROTTA: I think that may well be true. It hasn't been solved, if you will, to my satisfaction. I mean, I'm not about to say on the air who I think was involved or might have been involved that you never heard about because I have no proof. I think there was a good deal more to it.
LAMB: Talking about the book "Fighting For Air." This is what it looks like. Where did you get that picture on the cover?
TROTTA: One of the great artists at Simon & Schuster picked that out of a group photo. I was eating C-rations in a hole somewhere in the Delta and they spotted that in this group photo and blew it up to my surprise?
LAMB: Are you happy with the way Simon & Schuster's is promoting the book?
LAMB: You dedicated the book to George Barrett?
LAMB: Who is he?
TROTTA: George Barrett was a very, very esteemed and veteran reporter for the New York Times. He was a great Korean War reporter. He was the dean of the night rewrite bank in the later days of his career and then on the city desk. He was a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism where I was class of '61. He was extremely influential in my own career. He was a man who really knew what reporting was all about and what the reporter should be all about. His idea of what a reporter should be all about was about as pure and as classical as you can get.
LAMB: You acknowledge your fellowship with the Gannett Foundation Media Center at Columbia University.
TROTTA: It's now called the Freedom Forum, by the way.
LAMB: And they let you write this book there?
TROTTA: Yes, I did that. But my major project at Gannett was the military and the media. Of course, while I was there, we went to war in Panama and then the Gulf came up, so I did a lot of work on that. This was really a kind of a side project.
LAMB: Was this book hard to write?
TROTTA: Very hard.
LAMB: Why?
TROTTA: Well, because when you're writing the third person all your life and all of a sudden you have to start writing about yourself, people have to pull things out of you. For example, the Vietnam chapters were all sort of vetted by Peter Arnett, who is an old friend. Peter was one of the many people who said you've got to talk about such and such. You name it. This romance or how you felt here, how you felt here. "You're leaving it out. You've got to be straight. You've got to open up." So he was extremely instrumental. Other people -- Timothy Dickinson, another old friend of mine. All my friends were interviewing me all the time. That is really how it began to come out, because the first couple of chapters I wrote, I wrote sort of like at a real distance.
LAMB: You weren't sure you liked what was coming out?
TROTTA: Right. I mean, I was very wary of this "I" business, you see. Once I realized it, it was like breaking through a barrier. It really was. I just had to get past it and start being real honest.
LAMB: You even write about your own affair that you had with the guy Jack somebody.
TROTTA: Jake Burn. It's the only name in the book that is not a real name.
LAMB: Oh, it isn't a real name?
TROTTA: It is not a real name. No.
LAMB: You didn't tell us that.
TROTTA: You didn't ask me. As a matter fact, you're the only person that has asked me. Kudos for you.
LAMB: Was that hard to do?
TROTTA: Oh, yes. Yes.
LAMB: Why did you do it?
TROTTA: Well, because this man is alive and well and married and I don't want to hurt his career or embarrass him. I don't want to embarrass anybody. He's a very good person. I had to mention it. That was one of the things that Arnett kept getting after me about. "You've got to talk about this, you've got to talk about this." It was a theme at the time, too, and it was an important theme and it was a kind of introduction to Asia and to Southeast Asia, particularly for me.
LAMB: I'm not sure you're talking about the same thing, but I do want to ask you about just sex. Sex is all through this, and it seemed to be that was what was driving the male in Vietnam and you had to constantly say to people, "Go away. I'm a professional."
TROTTA: Well, it goes with war. Sex does go with war.
LAMB: Why?
TROTTA: Well, war is a completely amoral environment. All the rules are suspended. City blocks don't look the same. Nothing looks the same, especially in a weird place such as Saigon was. It's a kind of free-for-all, especially when you're in such a foreign culture as the Orient where none of the Western rules apply, very few of them -- that coupled with the fact that women were the great surplus product of Asia in those days. Here you had all these GIs and journalists and politicians and construction workers and aides workers and spooks and God knows what else just descending from the sky. Most of them left their wives home. So what were they going to do?
LAMB: What impact did it have on the war?
TROTTA: I don't know.
LAMB: You write about the prostitutes and the bars.
TROTTA: Of course, we're talking about people, which is the majority of those half million troops that were in the rear. Guys that were beating the bushes every day and putting their lives on the line were not doing that full time. It goes with any war, I think.
LAMB: There are a bunch of letters in here from a fellow by the name of Ron Steinman. Some of them are about you.
TROTTA: That's right.
LAMB: And they're not positive. What I'm getting at is where did you get those things?
TROTTA: From Ron.
LAMB: Why would he give them to you?
TROTTA: Ron was one of the great bureau chiefs in Saigon during the Vietnam War for NBC News. And, as a matter of fact, is married to a Vietnamese woman. When I called him when I was doing the book, he had kept everything -- all the records, all the cable traffic, the telex traffic, all kinds of stuff. The one thing he said, which I think explains it, "We've got to get this right. We've got to get it right." I at one point had said to him, "You wrote a lot to New York and there was a lot of letter traffic, as well as private letter traffic, back-channel stuff." He said, "Yes." I said, "Do you still have any of that?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Is any of it about me?" And he said, "Yes." I said, "Do you think maybe I can have a peek at that?" He said, "Yes," and laughed like mad and sent me a whole bunch of stuff. I think that shows a lot of faith.
LAMB: I moved off the sex too fast because there was something I wanted to ask. You went after AP's George MacArthur. You said some strong things -- hard-drinking, uncontested womanizing champ of the Orient.
TROTTA: But this is part of the -- the war zones are great, especially Saigon, of course. We could throw in probably Laos and Cambodia, but Saigon was the real magnet. You had the sort of swaggering sweepstakes. Here was this macho story with a lot of guys covering it. The traditional old time journalists, hard drinking, womanizing -- that image was still very much a part of the press corps's theme. MacArthur typified that. So did many others, as a matter of fact. I think Peter will be the first to admit that he was part of that tradition, too. It went with the territory. It went with the job. It attracted those kinds of people.
LAMB: What are you doing now?
TROTTA: What am I doing now? Well, I'm still talking about this book. I'm hoping to teach. Thinking about a second book. That won't be for a while because I'm not of the mind to start writing one right away and I'm not sure what I would do. But I do want to teach.
LAMB: Are you finished with television news?
TROTTA: Oh, I think so. Yes.
LAMB: Why?
TROTTA: The industry is falling apart, for one thing. It's peeling away. Bureaus are being closed, people are being fired.
LAMB: What's going to happen to television news in the next 10 years?
TROTTA: Somebody who is a lot smarter than I am said to me recently -- I think this might be a good theory -- said he thought it was going to become like radio. Kind of lots of talk shows and bad music. Maybe some rip-and-read news.
LAMB: What impact will that have on the country?
TROTTA: I don't know. I think there are going to be other alternatives. I think, for example, that maybe things like the BBC will be available to us. We can turn to the BBC or we can turn to C-SPAN for whatever specific thing that you want to watch. It won't have to be packaged within 22 minutes anymore by seven or eight guys who think this is what your civics lesson should be for the day.
LAMB: Let's go back to what we talked about a little bit earlier. You go through a number of people in your book that worked in the NBC bureau and their own political persuasions and all that. But back to the war, had they been at a different political persuasion, would we have had a different kind of a newscast?
TROTTA: I think at NBC we probably would have. Shad Northshield, who produced the program, who made no secret about it then and now that the war was his thing, if you will, and that his point of view on the war shaped the program. He's admitted that. He still admits that. So, I think, yes, it probably would have been different if somebody else had been producing it. I think that the country and the war and television all caught each other at either the right or the wrong time, depending on your point of view. But all three of those things came at the same crossroads together.
LAMB: We're about out of time. You talk about a lot of other things here. Just let me mention them quickly because we're not going to have time to talk about many of them. You covered things like Chappaquiddick. What did you think of that?
TROTTA: I think it was one of the great cover-ups. I think it was just another case of the Kennedys using their influence to circumvent routine judicial and police procedures, to stonewall, to use their contacts in the press.
LAMB: You covered the McGovern campaign in '72, and you say you didn't agree with anything the man had to say. How did you do that as a journalist? He endorses your book.
TROTTA: Yes, he's a lovely man. I think he's a marvelous guy. Politically he and I couldn't be farther apart, but he's a decent, well-meaning, gracious man. He's an educated man as well, a cultured man.
LAMB: Is it hard for a reporter to cover a story or an individual when they don't agree with them and be fair?
TROTTA: You see, I'm one of these people who doesn't say that objectivity is not within our reach. I think if you're a pro and you're a reporter, you do it. Whether you agree with the guy or not is just quite incidental. It doesn't count at all really.
LAMB: What did you leave out of this book?
TROTTA: What did I leave out? A hundred pages that they made me edit out. It was a hundred pages longer, and you probably want to know what was in those hundred pages.
LAMB: In about a half of minute.
TROTTA: Oh dear! That's a hard one. I think there was probably a lot more on the release of the Pueblo crew, more about covering affairs in Europe and in the Middle East. There was certainly more about my father that unfortunately I had to cut, and more about the history of New Haven and the Italian migration and that kind of thing.
LAMB: What's the next book about?
TROTTA: I don't know. I think it's going to be about somebody else, though, Brian. I think I've had it for myself.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. It's called "Fighting For Air: In the Trenches With Television News." Our guest has been Liz Trotta. Thank you.
TROTTA: Thank you, Brian.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1991. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.