Job: Chief foreign-affairs correspondent, NBC news; anchor, Andrea Mitchell Reports
Once: Was thrown out of a photo-op for trying to question media-avoiding secretary of State Rex Tillerson
Andrea Mitchell was 35 when she began covering the Reagan White House for NBC News. Now, at 71, she’s still on the front lines.
Women often say we’re wired or taught to be pleasing. But isn’t not being pleasing part of your job?
I find that I have an instinctive urge to ask the tough question. And then immediately afterward, I want to apologize, to say, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to be obnoxious.”
The other piece of it is that, having been raised to please, we are vulnerable. We’re vulnerable to sexual predators, we’re vulnerable to not being paid enough, we don’t know how to demand what is our due.
When you have that feeling like, “Oh, I was kind of an asshole in that room,” what do you do?
Well, I think a lot about my mother. When she first saw me at the White House on the South Lawn, my job was to shout questions at Ronald Reagan so that he would hear me above the helicopter and stop and talk. I was so short I couldn’t be seen over the cameras and the tripods, so I’d crawl underneath the tripod and pop up on the rope line. And it often worked. He’d stop. Or he would call on me at a news conference and say, “What is it you’ve been trying so hard to ask me?” He literally said that at my first news conference because I was shouting so often. And then my mother saw me do that on television and called me and said, “I didn’t raise you to be rude.”
Have you gotten better at that over the years? Now, when you’re in the room with whoever, do you feel more entitled to your power, or do you still feel apologetic afterward?
There’s always a tinge. I’ll come out of a scrum sometimes and say, “Was I too pushy in there?” And I remember male cameramen at the White House complaining that I had sharp elbows, as though it was not done for a woman to be as aggressive as the guys. But I also remember competing against another correspondent from another network years ago—
Male or female?
Actually, female. And I was being relatively aggressive but also apologetic and trying to be light. It was early on in my career, and I began to notice that this other correspondent would get calls back because sources were afraid of her. Afraid of how good she was as a reporter. I say this admiringly. And so if you’re always nice, they don’t really think you’re going to be persistent.
They’re trying to keep as much information from you as possible, and you’re trying to break stories.
The one who’s kind of a badass gets the calls.
Yeah, I would like to be a badass—
I think you’re a badass.
I’m a badass, but I also want to be liked. I’m not sure men worry as much as we do about being liked.
Talk to me about the way culture and our perceptions of sexism have changed. I was a grown-up during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and the “boys will be boys” excuse was so common then. It’s been very jarring for me to reconsider all of these incidents through the lens of #MeToo. Have you had the same experience?
I now look back and recognize that some of the things I tolerated are simply intolerable.
Can you give me an example?
Just harassment and, in particular, inappropriate language from close colleagues, sometimes in close quarters, lots of dirty jokes and offensive behavior that made for an uncomfortable workplace. There didn’t seem to be a way to complain, and you wanted to be part of the gang because you were often the only woman. So who were you going to complain to? There weren’t women executives then. I think it’s generational to the extent that people’s reaction to the movement is very often dictated by age.
The young women with whom I work, who are my colleagues and on my team here on my MSNBC show, would not tolerate the kinds of things that we put up with in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s — and they shouldn’t. It’s been a rude awakening for women of my generation, who were told all along that you had to put up with it because that’s what happens in the workplace. I’m not talking about assault, because I didn’t experience that. I’m talking just about really nasty behavior.
In order to rise back then, did you make capitulations to male culture or to sources or to ways of telling stories that you feel ambivalent about now?
When I look back at my coverage of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas on that pivotal Friday night of the first day of the hearings, I remember Tom Brokaw was anchoring, and he asked me, “What have we learned?” It was close to midnight. I said something I can’t believe I said on television. I said, “I think we learned that the United States Senate is the last great plantation in American government.” So I didn’t trim my sails at all on that, and no one asked me to.
But I think story selection was dictated a lot by the male dominance of the editorial staff. I don’t think we did enough on women’s empowerment and medical issues and other social questions that were considered soft. The fact is that we have to redefine what is news. Many of these questions about stressful family situations and single moms and social problems, they’re as important as anything else we cover.
It’s the same with the way we define what’s important in a political campaign. The coverage of Hillary Clinton comes to mind. A lot of that was self-inflicted, but as a woman, when I think why she had the private server — which was definitely wrong — why she was so defensive, so secretive, I remember I saw her in 1992 right after the Gennifer Flowers story broke and the draft-dodger accusations. She came to New Hampshire, her first time on the national stage to campaign for Bill, and all the cameras were chasing her down the street. She was cowering like a trapped animal. I’m not excusing the private server, I’m just trying to understand and explain.
Do you think that’s gendered or just her character?
Part of it is gender. I remember reading a good piece about another gender aspect, comparing Hillary to Scarlett O’Hara when Tara burns down. It was going back into her Arkansas roots and saying, “I’m never going to be poor again.” So 1979, 1980, Clinton loses the governorship. She’s got a philandering husband, a baby, aging parents, no money. She has a choice: Am I going to go work in the public sector, or am I going to join the Rose Law Firm, the biggest, richest firm in that part of the country? Am I going to join the Walmart board? I’m going to have to support myself because he may disappear.
Women don’t talk enough, I don’t think, about how money motivates them.
I remember one experience here where I was working so hard and there was a McKinsey study of everyone’s salaries. I was part of the breakout group we had for it, and the leader was putting up a chart, with no names, of who was the most productive correspondent and who was the highest and lowest paid. My colleague, the chief White House correspondent, was the highest paid and most productive. Everybody knew who that dot was on the chart. Then there was another dot with an equally high story count: the lowest paid. One of the bureau chiefs said, “Well, everybody knows who is making the big salary” — the highest salary then was $600,000—
“But who’s the dumb schmuck who is working his heart out and getting nothing for it?” It just cut me to pieces to realize that everybody was making more than me. I did what a grown woman could do; I started tearing up. I was so embarrassed, and I figured everybody’s going to know, but they didn’t figure it out because nobody would’ve thought that I’d be so poorly paid.
What did you do?
Well, what the McKinsey leader did was to call the then-president of NBC News and say, “You’ve got a problem.” And I got called in and the president of the news division said, “I am so sorry. We are really underpaying you, and I’m giving you an immediate raise.” You never catch up, but that was a real lesson.
Were you more aggressive about your compensation after that?
No. You want to sort of say, “Thank you. Thank you for giving me this wonderful job. I’m so grateful.” I mean, that is the female instinct generally.
My stomach is in knots right now.
I mean, it was awful.