Covering Herself

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By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, September 20, 2005

TALKING BACK

. . . to Presidents, Dictators, and Assorted Scoundrels

By Andrea Mitchell

Viking. 414 pp. $25.95

Like a great many prominent journalists -- certainly in Washington, but no less so in other centers of power, wealth and celebrity -- Andrea Mitchell of NBC News wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, she wants to be the prototypical, hard-nosed, gumshoe reporter whose specialty is " 'talking back' to presidents and dictators," but on the other, she wants to be part of the parade, on first-name terms with the powerful, wealthy and famous, invited to their dinner parties and salons, courted and cosseted by them. Thus at the end of this memoir she describes prowling "the VIP section" at the 2005 inauguration of President Bush, which she attended with her husband, Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve:

"In a prominent seat, next to the CIA director, was Alan. . . . As his wife, I could have sat with him among the official guests instead of covering the event as a reporter. But for me, this was a dream assignment: we had a live broadcast, hundreds of prominent politicians with no way out, and no one stopping me from snagging interviews. . . . Knowing me as he does, Alan understood that it wasn't even a close call. But looking across the way at him, I was struck by how different our roles were on days such as this: he was inside, looking out, while I was outside, looking in."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Though Mitchell may have arrived in Washington in 1976 as an ambitious outsider -- hired away from a Philadelphia television station by the local CBS affiliate, WTOP, "to cover the corruption trial of the governor of Maryland, Marvin Mandel" -- she became an echt Washington insider as she moved to NBC, covered the White House, Congress and other highly visible beats, married Greenspan, and became something of a celebrity in her own right, "a player." By virtue of her prominence as a journalist and her husband's prominence in the government, she is strictly A-list.

In this, as mentioned above, she is scarcely alone, but the ways in which she dances around the issue shed some light on the contorted lines of reasoning that permit people in her position to claim journalistic independence -- journalists, she says she learned at an early age, "were supposed to be adversaries of those in power, wardens against abuses and conflicts of interest" -- yet to sup at the tables of the mighty. She's come a long way from the Bronx and New Rochelle, and though she says that "I still love the chase for news," she does her chasing in an environment to which most journalists are denied admission.

Say it for her, though, that what she does, she does very well. She's smart, energetic, determined and fast on her feet: a real terrier. She's in a business that now deals almost entirely in sound bites, but she has higher standards than many people in that business. She's dismayed that "in a nation of people increasingly informed by talk show rant on the right and the left, facts are incinerated in a blaze of rumor and accusation," that "lost in the haze of left- and right-wing polemics is real journalism." As television journalism becomes ever more enchanted by flash and dazzle, she clings to old-fashioned notions of what journalists should do, and she's right.

She's considerably less right in her apparent conviction that a blow-by-blow account of three decades on the front line of television journalism is, in and of itself, an interesting story. It isn't. Mechanically marching through one story after another, "Talking Back" quickly boils down to an endless "and then I covered . . ." plod that has no narrative line. Her prose is clean enough, if susceptible to cliches -- "the grizzled veterans of the press room," "I hammered Gergen with questions," "a heartbeat away from the Oval Office" -- and she occasionally reveals a genuine grasp of complex national and international issues, but she's so intent on leaping from one hot story to the next that she leaves no doubt that it's the chase, rather than what's found at the end of it, that really matters to her.

Thus, for example, there is her exceedingly weird obsession with being the person to "break" the story of a presidential nominee's choice for his running mate. Nothing could more plainly illustrate the inside-the-Beltway mentality to which she's fallen victim. She breathlessly recounts the digging that led to her disclosure in 1988 "that George Bush had selected Dan Quayle to be his running mate" -- "My role in breaking the Quayle story helped people within the network realize I could be a player" -- and her pursuit of 2004's "next big story, John Kerry's choice of a running mate." Though she acknowledges that "to this world outside television news, it may seem like a silly business" -- amen to that -- she insists that "we all became journalists because we love to chase stories, and this was a story worth chasing."

I beg to differ. A running mate probably hasn't changed an election's outcome since at least 1960; being five minutes ahead of everyone else on a "scoop" that eventually will be little more than a press release isn't news at all. It was news of the first order on Nov. 22, 1963, when Merriman Smith of UPI grabbed the telephone in the press car and beat everyone else to the terrible story in Dallas, but chasing around after the vice-presidential nominee is essentially child's play. Mitchell acknowledges as much when she says that "the dirty little secret of journalism is that it's fun, like being hooked on detective novels," but she doesn't really seem to understand just how silly this kind of non-story actually is.

Nor does she seem to understand the compromised position in which she is placed by her dual roles as journalistic celebrity and A-list socialite. She acknowledges that when Colin Powell returned to the government in 2001 as secretary of state, it would be "a difficult balancing act" covering someone whom she "considered a friend" -- Powell and his wife "had both been guests at our wedding" -- but this marginal awareness of the delicacy of her position doesn't keep her from, say, attending a 1991 dinner given by George H.W. Bush in honor of Margaret Thatcher, "upstairs in the White House residence, more private and special than even a state dinner in the downstairs official rooms." It was, she says, "my first time upstairs in the Yellow Room" and continues:

"I enjoyed being a fly on the wall at a private dinner in the White House; at the same time, I felt that the 'designated shouter' from the press corps was a little out-of-place upstairs, sitting with officials whom I covered. I knew I could neither ask questions, nor quote anything that was said to me. It gave me an uncomfortable feeling that I might be gaining unusual access, but losing some independence."

Mitchell isn't alone in this, and the problem certainly isn't limited to broadcast journalists. The spectacle of journalists from all media slurping up to politicos and other "assorted scoundrels" at events such as the annual dinners of the Gridiron Club and the White House Correspondents' Association is repellent in the extreme. Yes, journalists are human, as vulnerable to flattery and courtship as anyone else -- perhaps all the more so since our egos tend to be a good deal larger than our talents -- but the solution to the problem is very easy: Just say no.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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