Hardball friend, guest and occasional anchor, Andrea Mitchell, has just written her memoir, Talking Back: to Presidents, Dictators and Assorted Scoundrels. Mitchell gives readers a glance at her experience as she rose quickly from police reporter in Philadelphia to one of the first women in broadcast news and finally to her current position as NBC-TV's Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent.
She is scheduled to appear on 'Hardball' on Friday, September 23 to discuss the book and more.
My family was always interested in politics. Even before we moved to the suburbs, my mother took my older sister and me to watch major events-like the first televised inaugural when Harry Truman was sworn in as president in 1949-on a television set in a store window near our apartment in the Bronx. Once we had our own television, I recall our parents watching the Army-McCarthy hearings, and being outraged by Joe McCarthy. As kids, we traded 'I like Ike' and 'All the way with Adlai' buttons in elementary school. And by the time I was in high school, John F. Kennedy was debating Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King, Jr., was marching for civil rights, and the dinner-table conversations with my older sister and younger brother were dominated by arguments over the Vietnam War.
So when I entered college, it was to study liberal arts. At the University of Pennsylvania, I studied English literature, but I fell in love with broadcasting, with telling stories about other people’s exploits.
[At Penn], the [radio] station was entirely student operated, and we took ourselves very seriously. Nominally, we reported to the dean of students, but we were told the responsibility for protecting the FCC license that had been awarded to the university was entirely ours. The station had a four-person management team, by tradition and practice all male. Gradually I took on more and more responsibilities and by my second year became the first woman to break into their ranks by being selected to be program manager of the station. This could not have happened at the other Ivy League schools, even Cornell, which was coed; there was gender discrimination at Penn, but it was well known to have the fewest restrictions on women.
It was a presidential election year, and as a member of a consortium of Ivy League radio stations, we participated in “network” coverage of election night. I had interviewed Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee, when he came to campus to give a campaign speech. He was patient and responsive, much to my surprise, given my youth and inexperience. Heady stuff. As a result, I was a logical choice to go to Rockefeller Center in New York City and take part in election-night coverage for the Ivy stations and their radio audiences from Dartmouth to Columbia. The only problem was that when I checked in at the old Roosevelt Hotel near Grand Central Terminal, I was preregistered as “Andrew” Mitchell and assigned a roommate: a guy from Yale. It took me a while to get my own room.
Once again, no one in charge had given any thought to the possibility that a woman would be involved. I have no idea how we organized the coverage, except that I was assigned to broadcast results of the Senate races. All they expected me to do was rip and read the wire “leads,” without doing any original reporting. It was pretty basic, but gave me a taste of how to combine my love of politics and broadcasting. By the summer of my senior year, I’d found a part-time job at KYW, one of Philadelphia’s top radio stations and one of the first in the country to broadcast “all news, all the time.” It wasn’t to report the news. I only got in the door because my mother had forced her daughters to learn typing and shorthand as fallback insurance against life’s surprises, and the station needed a summer-relief secretary.
Owned by Westinghouse Broadcasting, KYW Newsradio dominated the market and had a sister television station that was an NBC affiliate. As graduation neared, I decided to apply to the management-training program Westinghouse ran for young college graduates. Getting accepted was the easy part-the real challenge was persuading them to let me into the all-male newsroom. Instead, they tried to steer me toward jobs more traditionally held by women, in public relations or advertising, which didn’t interest me at all. Finally, I told them I’d drop out of the management program if they’d give me an entry-level job in the newsroom for union wages, about fifty dollars a week.
With my Ivy League degree, I had talked my way into a job as a copyboy, which is what desk assistants were universally called in those days. I had to rip reams of wire reports spitting out from the old, clattering Teletype machines, then hang one copy on a nail in the wire room and distribute the others to the anchormen of each hour’s newscast. It helped if you remembered which anchormen liked their coffee black and which took sugar and cream. Most of the men helped me learn the ropes. But some delighted in hazing me as the only woman in the newsroom. As best I could, I tried to deflect or ignore it.
To get interviews for their newscasts, I’d work the phones, calling locations to find someone I could interview when a story broke. In between, I’d edit and transcribe the “actualities”-that’s what we called sound bites-from the interviews, and log incoming audio feeds from London and other Westinghouse bureaus.
They put me on the shift where they thought I could do the least harm, midnight to eight in the morning….Although the hours were lousy, they were perfect for an apprentice reporter. Philadelphia reflected the national turmoil over race and the Vietnam War, often exploding on my watch.
Socially, Philadelphia was still a fairly provincial city, its business community governed by the mores of the Main Line. Politically, it was a cauldron of ethnic rivalries, dominated by competing Irish and Italian constituencies. When it came to political power, blacks need not apply. Add to this steaming stew the growing tensions over the Vietnam War and the movement for civil rights, and you had plenty of elements to fire the imagination of a novice journalist.
Reprinted with permission Viking, © an imprint of Penguin Group (USA).