August 28, 2019

Two by Trotta

Hopefully, most of you remember Liz Trotta, the former correspondent for NBC and CBS from the mid-'60s through the '80s. Throughout her career she’s had to battle on two fronts: as a woman—the first to report from Vietnam for television—and as a conservative. She’s also had a perspective on the world that many of her colleagues lack, one that’s shown in the two engrossing books she’s written about wildly different topics.

Fighting for Air: In the Trenches with Television News, written in 1991, is her memoir on her television days, beginning with her time at NBC. It was there that she found herself, as they say, in “the jungles of Vietnam”, and while that sounds like a trite cliché, it’s difficult to find a better way to describe that claustrophobic war, one in which nature itself seemed to suffocate those who went there. Heart of darkness, indeed—Trotta writes that she’s still haunted by the experience, and it’s easy to see why. On one hand, the country tries to swallow you up, while at the same time you have to worry about someone shooting at you, and all the while questions continue to be asked about the meaning of it all. (Sometimes I think the wonder of Vietnam is that anyone returned without being insane, addicted, depressed, or dead—in fact, Trotta’s six-month assignment comes about after two reporters are wounded and another suffers a breakdown; as she puts it, NBC’s “cannon fodder was getting scarce.”)

Fighting for Air: In the Trenches with Television News (395 pp., available used)

Jude: A Pilgrimage to the Saint of Last Resort
(270 pp., available used)

by Liz Trotta

Trotta’s view of the war is that the only thing wrong is "the U.S. government's half-hearted commitment to it,'' and that pro-war sentiment gets her in trouble with the more liberal members of the network, including soon-to-be evening news anchor John Chancellor, and it’s a foreshadowing of the trouble she’ll have throughout her journalistic career – well, that and her own outspoken nature. (I knew there was a reason I liked her!) Throughout her career, she covers some of the big stories that the job has to offer, from presidential campaigns to civil war in the Philippines, from war between India and Pakistan to the hostage crisis in Iran, from unrest in Northern Ireland to the murder trial of Claus von Bulow.

Trotta suggests her conservative politics, along with that outspokenness (she’s wonderfully candid about many of her colleagues, as well as the issues of the day) is what leads to her “demotion” by NBC (just after winning an Overseas Press Club award) and her sacking at CBS (supposedly for being “too old” at age 41), and the quality of her work certainly lends credence to those who suggest that the media is more interested in their own narrative than in the actual story.

It’s a great read, but her second book proves to be a real change of pace, one that’s not only intriguing but quite affecting. Jude: A Pilgrimage to the Saint of Last Resort, written in 1998, serves partly as a biography of the famous “patron saint of desperate causes,” about whom we actually know very little. His actual name may have been Judas Thaddaeus, and during his lifetime he may have been a victim of mistaken identity from those who confused him with the betrayer of Jesus.* The Latin translation of the Roman Canon contains no mention of Jude; instead, he is referred to as Thaddeaus. Aside from the Epistle of Jude, which the saint may or may not have written, there is but one line in the Bible credited to him: “Lord, why is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” (John 14:22).

*Which may help explain how Jude became the patron of lost causes. Since so many wrongly associated him with Judas and for that reason gave him less attention and reverence than the other disciples, "St. Jude is ready and waiting to hear the prayers of those who call upon him."

Trotta shares with us the fantastic story of the Image of Edessa, or Mandylion, a piece of cloth upon which the image of Jesus had been imprinted and which Jude is often portrayed as wearing around his neck. According to tradition, King Abgar of Edessa had written to Jesus, asking him to come and cure him of an illness; Jesus had replied that he would not be able to come, but the king would later be visited by one of his disciples—which turned out to be Jude, bringing the Mandylion as a sign. Abgar was cured of his illness, and the rest, as they say, is history.

While all this is educational, it is the personal testimonials which Trotta relates that makes the greatest impact. In story after story, ordinary people relate how and what circumstances they've turned to Jude. Probably the most famous is that of entertainer Danny Thomas, who prayed to Jude for success in show business and vowed that if his prayer were to be answered, he would build a shrine to the saint in gratitude. This, of course, is how St. Jude Children's Hospital came to be. And indeed there are many stories of people cured of illnesses, freed from unemployment, reunited with lost family members, and so on. Just as impressive, however, are those who come to Jude not in desperation, but for everyday requests—a good day at work, success on a test. To them Jude is not the saint of last resort, but a friend with whom they talk every day. As for her own relationship with Jude, Trotta confides that she has yet to approach him with that desperate petition for help. She doesn't want to take the saint lightly, wasting his time with something inconsequential to her life. When the time is right to go to him, she will know.

There is something about St. Jude, as Trotta notes, that compels people not just to seek him out, but to share him with others. Almost everyone who has been the beneficiary of his intercession has at one time or another "gone public" with their thanks, hoping to serve as an example for others in similar situations. In my own case, I consider my recent success in finally finding a permanent job, after ten months and numerous temporary assignments, to be in due in part to his intervention. It isn't the first time it's happened; our move from Texas back to Minnesota was inexplicable any other way. There was absolutely no reason to think that everything would fall into place the way it did; it's not an exaggeration to say that it happened against all odds. Some might ask for more proof—I rather think that asking for help and receiving it is proof enough. Gratitude does not begin to explain it.

The story of Jude is filled with such examples, and as a result some critics have dismissed Trotta's book as mere hagiography. I'm not sure about that; in the first place, as a journalist she's too good for that. She doesn't attempt to hide her Catholicism, however, nor her belief in the intercessory powers of the saints. If that strikes some as cheerleading, so be it.

With Fighting for Air and Jude, Liz Trotta addresses the two dominant themes of our time, Caesar and Christ, and renders to each their due. We stand to profit from those endeavors. TV  


  1. My sister interviewed her for a D.C. radio station 25 years ago. They talked about "Fighting for Air" . Liz complimented Kate afterwards and Sis said "you worked with my father.
    Pop heard this later, he was so proud.
    PS: it is a good book.

  2. "Caesar and Christ"...also the title of one of Will Durant's seminal books in his series "The Story of Civilization." An amazing read and one of the best in the series.


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