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Keeping an eye on television

FIGHTING FOR AIRIn the Trenches With Television News

By Liz Trotta

Simon and Schuster, $19.95


The Story of Broadcast Journalism

By Edward Bliss Jr.

Columbia University Press, $34.95

Thief of time, baby sitter, entertainer, vast wasteland, companion _ television holds a different definition on various days for all of us.

But one thing is certain, almost everybody spends way too much time watching TV without much sorting out of the ways its warm glow is affecting our lives. Yet because television is the main circulator of the cultural mainstream, once in awhile it's more than a good idea to read a book that brings some perspective to the medium.

There aren't many books written about television, not anywhere near the number of cookbooks and not even close to the amount written about personal relationships. Maybe it's because it's just television, the small screen dubbed the boob tube. Or perhaps, it's so all-consuming that people who work in TV don't often take time off to clarify what they're doing.

And how about us, the devoted TV watchers? Can these latest Nielsen statistics released for spring 1991 really be true? When do we have time to read if they are? The average viewing time for adults is 4 hours, 44 minutes per day, with the total time the set is on in households 7 hours, 35 minutes. With that much exposure to television, why would anyone want to spend down time reading about TV?

It would have to be a damn fine book.

Two new books both have their merits but aren't worth skipping the Monday night CBS line-up for. One is a wordy collection of personal experiences, Fighting for Air, In the Trenches with Television News by Liz Trotta. The other, Now The News, The Story of Broadcast Journalism by Edward Bliss Jr., is in the textbook category and will probably only fall into the hands of those who need some specific information.

Still, because there aren't near enough comments on the state of television, let's consider what these authors have to say:

Fighting for Air isn't the usual chatty memoir, and that's too bad. This book would have worked better if Trotta, the first woman war correspondent for television stationed in Vietnam, had relaxed a little in telling us about her incredible career. She supplies too much detail, often leaving a good tale she's begun to fill in some background and then returning to the story-in-progress.

For example, she begins Chapter 13 by telling us how she bumps into Peter Arnett in a buffet line at the Tehran International. We all know the CNN correspondent from the Persian Gulf war, so this should make interesting reading. But Trotta drops "Big A," her nickname for Arnett, and moves on to reminisce about how five months earlier she was riding a subway in New York and then pages later she's back with Arnett where he says, leering, "I've got a bottle. Let's go to my room."

Trotta obviously never had the luxury of telling a full-blown story, having worked with sound bites and instant analysis all her career. So now that she has a book to fill, she's thrown in everything she can remember happening to her.

Another example: Not content just to say she's in Tehran and let it go with a general geographic description, Trotta writes: "More than 300 foreign newsmen had moved in on Tehran, a doleful city of 4-million people dating back to the ninth century, bowed under the ugly assertions of defeated empires."

What does Trotta have to say about television? Mostly, she never lets the reader forget that she had a hard time breaking into the all-male bastion of TV news. Her career began in 1965 at NBC, where she spent 13 years. Then she moved to CBS for another seven years. She left CBS because "middle-aged lady line reporters" weren't hot commodities. She was told abruptly, "You're fired" by her boss. And then she was told it was a "budget cut." That night, she charged her dinner at the 21 Club to CBS.

"TV news being what it is _ fast money and big egos _ few tears are shed in that brass-knuckled world," Trotta concludes. But now with the book, she's taken the time to do some public sobbing about what happened to her.

Bliss' Now The News, The Story of Broadcast Journalism belongs in a book bag where surely it will fall. On the cover, Walter Cronkite endorses: "A fascinating chronicle of broadcast news."

This is fascinating? Bliss, a former writer-producer at CBS News, concludes, "Radio and television are tools. They have been, still are, and will be no better or worse than those who use them."

Couldn't one say that about the fry basket at McDonald's?

Bliss has compiled the history of television in a neat manner. But there isn't much daring here. He writes meekly at the end, "One hopes that the networks will not only survive but continue to report the news. For if in great contemporary moments the networks, including CNN, are not there to report them, who will?"

Shouldn't Bliss feel a bit more passionate about his subject?

By the way, Bliss makes reference to Liz Trotta, giving her background. He writes that Trotta "in a drastic economy wave" was dropped by CBS along with dozens of other news people. But Bliss doesn't say whether he thinks Trotta was any good or not. Or whether she deserved to be dumped. Missing is what Bliss has to say, and that's too big a void, because TV needs all the criticism and understanding the modern wired world can muster.

Janis D. Froelich is the television critic for the St. Petersburg Times.