Midway through the promotional tour for her new book, Andrea Mitchell took time out to talk about her chosen professionand her chosen spousewith senior editor Samuel Hughes.
Apart from the obvious reasonsyou’ve had an incredibly interesting life and careerwhy did you want to write this book?
I had grown increasingly concerned about the divisions in our society, and the partisan divide in both politics and journalism. The lack of credibility that politicians are enduring is only equaled by the decline in credibility for journalists. I wanted to take a closer look and dig more deeply into my own career and look at the more recent events, such as the reporting we did before 9/11, before the Iraq war, and try to come up with some answers. I also thought it was a good time to look back at five different administrations that I’ve covered, and recall a time when civil discourse was a lot more civil in Washington and in the rest of the country. And as I went back over my career as a journalist, I tried to come up with reasons why that has all changed …
After so many years of protecting myself behind the barrier that we journalists create so that we don’t hack into our own feelings about issues, I just started scraping that back, and trying to better understand my own emotional responses to things that I’d covered. Some of those feelings had been buried for decades.
Journalists in general like to see themselves as sort of the scrappy underdogs speaking truth to power. There’s obviously a lot of truth to that self-image, but what’s the downside?
We have to be careful not to make ourselves the story. This summer I was in Sudan, in Khartoum [where she was dragged out of a room by Sudanese bodyguards for questioning President Omar el-Bashir about his government’s role in the country’s violence]. And what’s so humiliating about what happened to me in Sudan was that I became the story, and we should’ve been focusing on millions of displaced people in refugee camps. So I kept trying to turn the focus back towards them, especially when we got to Darfur.
As a broadcaster, we always have to be aware that we are on live. To talk back to power, you have to do it within certain boundaries.
But I am really proud of my colleaguesBrian Willams, Ted Koppel at ABC, all of our correspondents in the field who have been talking back to administration officials, especially at FEMA as Tim Russert did, memorably, on Meet the Press with Michael Chertoffbecause they are taking journalism to the next level, to advocate for the powerless. And if what we see as ground truth does not match briefings that people in Washington are getting, then we have to say that.
What do you think has been your single most important character trait for your success as a journalist?
I think not taking No for an answer. Being appropriately skeptical and adversarial. I just think we have to really be tough. And enough people are [tough] in journalism. ’Cause we’re really the sole representatives for our viewers and readers and listeners who don’t have the ability to ask the president of the United States a question.
Compare the world of broadcast media for women today to the way it was when you were breaking in.
Broadcasting is much more open today to women on many levels. Not the top level. Women can now get jobs as reporters and producers both in front of and behind the camera. We are still lacking in women who hold the top executive positions and top producing positions. While it is easier for women to get jobs, there are still barriers to rising in the profession.
What were the high points and low points of your journalistic career?
I think my interviews with Castro were one of the high points because I think I got to dig deeper with him than most people who have met him before, and we did various interviews over the years that shed a lot of light on him, on a man who is very hard to approach, very reluctant to go on television these days.
My low point may have been Jonestown, Guyana. Just because of the horror and also because I was so overwhelmed by the challenge of covering it.
You’ve acknowledged the tradeoffs of being married to someone in government. Did you have any concern about writing about your relationship with Alan?
I thought that to do a memoir that was honest, I had to talk about it. I did have some qualms; I tried very hardand usually successfullyto keep our lives private. I also wanted to acknowledge him, because he has been such an integral part to any success that I’ve enjoyed. He’s so supportive, and so encouraging, and easygoing when things are most difficult. So I wanted people to know the other side of Alan.
How has your relationship with Alan affected your perception of the demands of people in government? Did you get a slightly different sense of them as people?
That’s such a good question, because I’ve seen the sacrifices that people make all the time, and how devoted some people in government can be. Alan’s team, and his colleagues there, and some people I’ve met through him in other agencies, are not only hard-working, but they are incredibly talented, and they are working for a fraction of what they could make in the private sector. I’ve also learned, as any spouse would tell you, that it can be a lot more painful for the spouse than for the public official when you have to face press criticism.
Any advice that you would offer to anyone breaking into the business these days?
I would just wish that aspiringjournalists would commit themselves to real journalism, rather than wanting to be anchors or talk-show hosts. That they learn the fundamentals, so they can really follow in the tradition of broadcasters like [Tom] Brokaw and [Peter] Jennings and their successors.
The other advice would be to getthe best well-rounded education they can, and study everything and read everything and write. Good writing is still reflective of clear-headed thinking. If I had not had a good liberal-arts education, I don’t know that I would have been nearly the journalist that I hope I’ve been.
©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette