Andrea Mitchell has been delivering the news in one fashion or another since her elementary school days. According to Mitchell, her journalistic ambitions were born when she delivered the morning announcements from the principal’s office over the school’s public address system. From that humble beginning, she went on to eventually become NBC’s chief foreign correspondent. In between, she has carried a host of other titles, including that of copyboy – the only term available in the all-male newsroom when Mitchell began her career in broadcast media at KYW radio in Philadelphia.
Early in her career, she gained a reputation for ‘talking back’ to high-profile, high-powered authorities and politicians. While covering local politics for KYW, for instance, she often went up against Frank Rizzo during his terms as police commissioner and as mayor. Mitchell calls their verbal duels “legendary.” Rizzo tried often to get Mitchell fired from her job at KYW, threatened her family, and in a bizarre about-face, asked her opinion about the color scheme for his mayoral offices. “He was always ready with a cutting comment putting down women,” Mitchell recalls, and surmises that his request for her input on decorating may have been “the best indication of what he thought was the appropriate role for a woman reporter.”
It’s just as well that Mitchell learned early to talk back to men like Rizzo, since gender inequality and male chauvinism would be recurring motifs in her chosen profession for several more decades.
From blatantly corrupt politicians to smooth-talking playful dictators, Mitchell maintains her spine. While in Cuba to cover the Elian Gonzalez story, she pushed for and received an audience with Fidel Castro. The man she describes in this and their later meetings is charming, gracious, and almost seductive.
A political reporter during the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and current Bush administrations, Andrea Mitchell has watched history as it is made. Even though she’s been there and seen it all, Mitchell still ponders the same mysteries her viewers contemplate.
Given her current level of success and her well-deserved reputation for hard reporting, Mitchell’s frank admissions of mistakes, failures, and insecurity are both surprising and endearing. She reminds us of Summer Sunday USA, the live program that Mitchell and Linda Ellerbee co-hosted in 1984. Traveling across the country with NBC’s new satellite truck, they consistently encountered chaos and downright disaster, prompting Mitchell to compare the experience to “traveling with … a rock group on tour.”
Her first major network story was the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana in 1978. “There was no way to escape the emotional horror that had happened,” writes Mitchell. Young, inexperienced, and covering the tragedy without any of her network companions, Mitchell managed to complete a report that she describes merely as “undistinguished.”
For the most part she is able to glimpse the big picture, but Mitchell still sometimes falls prey to the notion that the most newsworthy events are the ones that occur suddenly and in one fell swoop. For example, on September 10, 2001, Mitchell reported on the sexual exploitation of teenagers. She writes that “325,000 children in seventeen cities were being sexually exploited at home or sold for sex to strangers each year,” but, she goes on, “it would not compare to the horrors we were about to experience.” It’s particularly disturbing to find that someone who has seen the crimes against humanity that occur every day all over the world can so blithely brush off the ongoing abuse of children simply because it is an everyday occurrence.
Talking Back is a memoir, a chronicle of Mitchell’s career in journalism. In true journalistic fashion, she lays out the facts – the who, what, when, where, how, and why— with rare objectivity. In spite of her acquaintance and even close friendship with many of the people she covers in her news stories, Mitchell is careful to keep personal feelings out of the narrative.
Her ability to remain objective in her reporting is admirable, especially given the company she keeps; Mitchell and her husband, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, regularly socialize with politicians in the upper echelons of government. A purist when it comes to journalism, Mitchell imposed her own rule for maintaining her ethical code: “…everything said [at social events] was off the record.” She even goes so far as to avoid conversations with her husband that might compromise her reporting or give her an unfair advantage over other reporters.
Thankfully, this is not a tell-all book full of the kind of sordid details to which we’ve grown accustomed from celebrity authors. Still, in the news business, it’s understandable that Mitchell is discreet about the many famous and powerful people in her sphere. What she presents here is a factual account of a journalist’s experiences when the camera isn’t rolling, and all the players, not just Mitchell, are more complex than most of us imagine. All in all, Talking Back provides a unique insight into the culture of journalism and the people who feed it.