The Bitter Tears of Jessica Savitch

Published on May 30th, 2009 in: Feminism, Issues, TV |

By Emily Carney

“I very much wanted to be accepted by my peers, to be considered a serious journalist.”
โ€”Jessica Savitch

Photo from People archive

Due to dire economic circumstances across the US in the last few years, and particularly in early 2009, there has been a decline in the television news audience nationally and locally. Many TV stations and networks have downsized considerably; it certainly helps one who desires to carve out a niche in broadcast news to have an extremely impressive CV in reporting and anchoring. The ultimate cautionary tale in how not to conduct a network news career continues to be the final, sad slide of Jessica Savitch.

For those who do not remember the halcyon years of television news from the early 1980s, Jessica Savitch was a reporter and anchor at the American network NBC. Jessica’s story really begins in her often-troubled childhood. At an early age, she endured the catastrophic loss of her father, an event which undoubtedly would turn anyone’s life upside down. She became a local radio personality in her teenage years, which gave her a taste of the fame she would later encounter as a network broadcast journalist. At Ithaca College in New York, she managed to complete her college education while modeling and working at a local radio station. She was determined even then to be a network anchorwoman, even though in the late 1960s there were few notable women in broadcasting.

However, she already displayed the anxious, manic tendencies which would plague her future television career; by the end of college, she was under the care of a campus psychologist and would sometimes fly into nervous rages. In an excellent biography of Jessica written by Alanna Nash (Golden Girl), Savitch confidant Louise Schwing recounted, “She couldn’t sit still for ten minutes . . . and she would chatter on in that awful, nervous way. By then she was very thin because she wouldn’t eat a proper meal. And she would bite her nails until they would honest-to-God bleed. I’d have to slap her hand and say, ‘Jess, don’t do that!’ It was terrible.”

After graduating from Ithaca College, Jessica worked for a short time at CBS, and soon landed a reporting job at KHOU in Houston, Texas. She quickly gained renown as a gritty reporter, once risking serious injury while covering a tanker fire. She soon became the first female anchorwoman in the southern United States. A local radio station even had a song about her; she proved to be an enormously popular TV personality. She also met a reporter named Ron Kershaw, who worked at Houston TV station KTRK. Kershaw would alternately be her ultimate mentor and tormentor; they were both passionate about TV news and rock music. However, Jessica was frequently subjected to violent beatings by a jealous Ron, who later admitted some of his anger was at Jessica’s meteoric rise at KHOU and her eventual departure to greater fame at Philadelphia’s KYW station. At KYW, Jessica often had to take time off from anchoring because of the visible physical injuries sustained from her altercations with Ron.

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7 Responses to “The Bitter Tears of Jessica Savitch”

  1. JL:
    May 31st, 2009 at 8:38 am

    Excellent essay. More proof of how the tv/entertainment machine chews up and spits out its ‘product’. Very sad and sobering. And STILL relevant.

  2. Rev. Syung Myung Me:
    May 31st, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    Gorgeous piece — very sad…

  3. Popshifter:
    June 1st, 2009 at 11:24 am

    I must give my kudos to you, too, Emily. My sister’s father had a bit of a crush on Savitch back in the day but I wasn’t old enough to discuss these kinds of issues with him in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, he passed away about a year before she did.


  4. emilyc:
    June 1st, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    Thank you all ๐Ÿ™‚ Her story is very sad and haunts me.

  5. Caique:
    May 22nd, 2010 at 11:22 am

    I wonder if anyone at NBC ever approached Jessica and said something like, “You need help. And I’m going to see to it that you get that help.” Did they just leave her to twist in the wind?

  6. emilyc:
    May 22nd, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    I think some NBC people seriously were going to approach her about an intervention but unfortunately she died before this was going to take place. ๐Ÿ™

  7. Robbie:
    January 15th, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    Not a day goes by without thinking about Jessica Beth Savitch. I remember her well on NBC doing the mini digest reports. She is sadly missed. She was in my view, a great journalist and was ahead of her time. Many books that were written about her tell a biased view and not the truth. I am sure she had problems mostly dealing with the fact her father died when she was a child and that profoundly affected her. She did have relationships with men she considered like her father.
    Her technique and style of broadcast journalism is not as copied or borrowed anylonger. After her death in 1983 many journalists for a short duration of time attempted her style but really could not duplicate her. She was one of a kind journalist.
    She had those piercing eyes that made you pay attention to her on the news. She looked as though she were talking to you only.

    Most journalists do fluff beats and junk news today. They also read the teleprompter so obvious. The makeup and hair today isn’t as great as times past. Pretty random.

    I would like to see real journalists return. Jane Pauley was good as was Connie Chung,Ann Bishop,Linda Ellerbee, and few others.

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