By Danielle Cantor
It's been nearly four decades since Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News, got started as a young reporter in Philadelphia. Since then she has faithfully and gracefully delivered the news on countless domestic and global events: Jonestown; the war in Bosnia; the Middle East peace process; 9/11 There are too many to list; but suffice it to say, if it made history, she was probably there. No wonder her new book, Talking Back: ...to Presidents, Dictators, and Assorted Scoundrels
(Viking Adult, September 2005), reads like more like a political thriller than a memoir. Mitchell has been a star, both rising and shining, at NBC News in Washington, DC for the last 27 years. She has been nominated for two Emmy awards and in spring 2005 received Harvard University's Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism. Still living in Washington—with her husband, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan—Mitchell continues, night after night, to give her audience the world.You were among the first generation of women to make it in broadcast news. Have things truly changed for women who want to be taken seriously in the business?
I think things really have changed. When I started in the 1960s, there were no women in newsrooms in a lot of cities. And when I started in Philadelphia, there was strong resistance to having a woman in the newsroom where I started. There still are parts of our profession that revert to being an old boys' network. Especially the political world, that's been slow to come into real equality. Most of the people around political candidates in the past were men, which meant most White House officials would be men. But this president has had more strong powerful women in his circle than most predecessors.When has it been most difficult to keep your career out of your personal life?
It's always been hard to carve out any time for a personal life, because the news is relentless and with the Internet and cable, it's 24/7 and unpredictable. I've long since given up having subscriptions to concerts and sporting events. And just getting home for dinner can be difficult. We never know when the president or secretary of state is going to travel and it can conflict with family events.When has it been hardest to keep your personal feelings out of your reporting?
I think 9/11 probably was one of the most powerful moments that I can recall, where you had to just keep going and pushing ahead and trying not to think about how you were affected by the horror. In the aftermath of 9/11, we had an anthrax crisis at NBC, and that demanded a great deal of focus on everyone's part, especially my colleagues in New York who were most directly affected.Have you and your husband had to establish any house rules, to keep worlds from colliding at home?
Oh, you bet. We've got sort of a firewall where we don't discuss a lot of things. I often don't tell him what I'm working on and he certainly doesn't tell me what he's working on.What was the most difficult professional choice you had to make?
I think the turning point in my career was probably, strangely enough, coming to Washington. It might seem logical now, but I was so rooted in Philadelphia and I had such a network of contacts. It was such a secure, nurturing place. Making the leap to national news was a big stretch because it meant starting over from the bottom. And then, each time I left the White House—I was in the White House during the 1980s and then went to Capitol Hill and then came back to cover President Clinton—each of those moves was very challenging. Because you were leaving the White House beat, where you have an enormous technical support system, and going out on your own. As it turned out, those moments were really critical to enlarging my experiences, so they turned out to be blessings, even though it certainly didn't seem so at the time. I was very scared about proving myself once again.Journalistic objectivity aside, does your Jewish identity ever inform your coverage of events?
Strangely not. Perhaps my background made me more interested in foreign policy, and it certainly has made me very eager to learn more about the Middle East.Has Judaism ever been an issue, positive or negative, in the course of your career?
It's certainly not been a negative issue. I think when I was watching the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1979, after the Camp David Summit in 1978, I certainly felt a tremendous emotional connection to the issue and to the chances of a breakthrough between the Israelis and the Arabs. Seeing Sadat and Begin was a very emotional experience. Similarly, in 1993 I was one of many people on the South Lawn who were very excited about prospects for peace, when we finally saw Rabin and Arafat shake hands under the guidance of Bill Clinton. Perhaps it made me more eager to go the West Bank and interview people and learn more about the Palestinian perspective. So I think it's less a religious issue than a cultural connection to the Middle East. One other experience that was important was the controversy over President Reagan's visit to the cemetery in Bitburg where S.S. soldiers were buried. I remember when Elie Weisel came to appeal to the president not to go. That was a very powerful experience for me. I spent a lot of time covering that issue, then we ended up going and visiting Bergen-Belsen with the president. Certainly all of my childhood experiences and my parents' stories about the Holocaust are part of my personal and intellectual history. Our family was not Holocaust survivors, but it was a very important part of the way we were raised. My mother and father talked about it all the time.I've heard you labeled "pushy" and "tenacious." Is this an occupational hazard? An occupational necessity?
You try to be polite, but I do think that women are labeled that way more than men. Men are labeled as ambitious and strong, and those are "good" qualities. Women are described as pushy, and it's pejorative. I think anyone who's going to be a good reporter has to be pushing hard for facts and getting behind the spin and beneath the surface to get at the truth. That's not always easy.You've been highly critical of news coverage watered and fed by government. Do you think your outspokenness on the issue has made a difference? Do you see things cleaning up, or getting dirtier?
I think the atmosphere right now is very poisonous, and it's pretty upsetting. There seems to be a lack of comity in Congress, a lot of bitterness in partisanship. More than there used to be. It's partly that there are very few contested seats in the House, perhaps no more than 10 in each cycle. And people tend to play more to their base because the primaries are where the real contests are fought. At the same time, the most provocative and contentious statements on cable news are rewarded. So people go on the attack more, and we've got this overheated environment which the media plays into.Cable news, the Internet, bloggers, other media outside the mainstreamHow many versions of the truth are we being asked to swallow? Is it a bad thing?
I think a diversity of opinion is a net plus for everyone. But I think all too often what gets out there is a spin from both sides, not the truth, and we have an increasingly heavy burden as reporters to get beneath the surface.How has the shortened attention span of the average viewer changed the way you do your job?
It makes it harder to keep people focused on developing stories and to maintain continuity over a long period of time. Things get a very short lifespan. Sometimes it's harder to get people to pay attention to major issues like AIDS or Darfur.Controversy is inevitable when you keep a high profile. How do you handle accusations that you are biased or unethical? Do you ever respond?
Oh, I respond, but I have to tell you I get as many complaints from one side as the other. And right now the media are not popular. Major news organizations have made some pretty big mistakes. We need to be more transparent about the way we conduct ourselves. I think there are some fair criticisms that we rely too heavily on anonymous sources. We don't pressure our sources enough to be on the record. Sometimes in Washington we get too caught up in bureaucratic niceties and forget that we're representing viewers out there who have no access to these government agencies, and we have to translate for them. It really is a public job.What, besides nearly 40 years' experience, inspired you to write your book?
I think there are a lot of young people, men and women, who might not realize what the challenges were, and still are, in this profession. And I wanted to convey the excitement of being a journalist and the sweep of history that we get to experience. There's a lot of history here—five presidencies, very different styles and different value systems. I wanted to contrast the presidents and their domestic and foreign policies. I think there is a woman's story here, breaking into this profession when we weren't certain that women were going to be able to make it. I also wanted to write about the news media, how it's changed, why I think we have to get back to first principles.Was it difficult to decide which moments in your history would make it into the book?
It was. Once I decided to write the book, then I had to figure out how and when. It means writing late at night and every weekend and taking holiday time to write. It was a great experience, but a much bigger challenge than I would have imagined.Did your husband's position play any part in choosing which stories to tell?
No, I didn't show it to him until I finished it, because I wanted to make sure it was my story and I didn't change anything. He really likes it, and I've been really tickled by his reaction.Are 400 pages enough to say everything you wanted to say?
No, but there's always the next book. It's a work in progress. It was enough to say what I wanted to say about these first years of this career.How is your book different than the memoirs of other seasoned journalists?
Well, I think I've had the joy and privilege of covering more beats than most people. It's been five White Houses plus the State Department, and I've covered the intelligence agencies and Congress. I've gone through the 1960s and 1970s into coverage at the height of the Cold War, superpower summits, the beginning of the age of terror all the way through 9/11. Historical events have really defined my career. And I guess, undeniably, the fact that I see the inside of government because of my experience as Alan's wife has given me a different perspective. I know what it's like to feel the sting of criticism and see what officials experience when they're struggling with a major crisis, and I know something about the sacrifice of public service.What do you think makes you a good role model for Jewish women?
I'm not sure I'm a good role model for Jewish women. I wouldn't presume to be. I think everyone does her own thing. And as someone who hasn't had children, I haven't had the experience of creating a home for children and leading them through education. I have nieces and nephews and a goddaughter, but I don't think I'm the best example of someone who's done all the important things that women who have children do. That's been one of my great sadnesses.What role have women's friendships played in your life and your career?
I think the most important relationships in my life, aside from my husband, have been my sister, my mother and my women colleagues. My sister is still my closest friend. I have wonderful colleagues and friends like Judy Woodruff, who was at NBC when I started. And they've meant all the difference in the world to me. When we were first on the road with Reagan, it was the women who bonded together. These women all watched each other's backs, we all took care of each other. It was completely different from the stereotype of women getting into catfights; That is really a rarity. Usually we are each other's best protectors, because we've all been up against the same challenges.Your mother counseled you to learn typing and shorthand "to have a fallback against life's surprises." What skills or habits should girls keep handy today?
To read, read and read. Study. Learn. Be aware of the world around them.Who was the most honest U.S. president?
I think that's really hard to say. I think all presidents try to project leadership by exaggerating their strengths and trying to minimize their weaknesses. So honesty is a very tough standard to apply to any politician. They operate in a world of imagery and they've all had their pluses and minuses.What wisdom can you share with young women today about weathering career setbacks?
I've had setbacks, I think everyone does. The important thing is to realize, as I was once advised, that this really is a long-distance run. It's a marathon. And you need to have enough confidence in yourself to know that if something goes wrong one day you're going to come back stronger than ever the next. You just have to pick yourself up and get back on. It's something I learned from my parents, really, who always felt we had to be tougher and smarter and braver. It may have come from their experience in the Depression, and living through World War II. They certainly taught us that as girls we had to drive harder. It may have been part of their experience as Jews coming from immigrant parents. They were certainly perfectionists: My father's favorite expression, if I came home with a report card that said 95, he'd ask where are the other five points.You mention in your book that you had an early love of music. Have you carried that with you?
It's a continuing, lifetime passion for music. I was a violinist, and chose a different professional route, but I think if I ever slow down a little I will take violin lessons and take up my playing again. My husband was a professional musician, so that was one of the things that brought us together.How did you meet your husband?
In the early 80s, we talked a lot about the federal budget. After a couple of years talking on the phone, we had dinner one night and we started dating. And then in 1987 he got appointed to the Fed and moved to Washington.