When Andrea Mitchell was NBC News’ energy correspondent in 1979, the worst commercial nuclear power plant accident in United States history happened at Three Mile Island. It should have been her story, one of the biggest so far in her burgeoning career. Yet, Mitchell wasn’t assigned to the rotation of reporters at the reactor in Middletown, Pennsylvania.
She stormed into her bureau chief’s office and demanded to know why only men had been sent to cover the meltdown while she was told to staff the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Bethesda, Maryland.
“He said, ‘Well, it’s because you’re of childbearing age, and I don’t want to expose you to radiation,’” Mitchell recounted to the audience at Kelly Writers House. After she fired back that men’s reproductive organs are just as vulnerable as women’s—using more colorful language—the bureau chief went quiet.
“I was sent the next day,” she said.
The story was one of many Mitchell, veteran chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News and a Penn alumna, shared in her Dec. 10 chat with Kelly Writers House faculty director Al Filreis. Before a packed house, Mitchell highlighted the battles she fought trying to break into the boys’ club that once was TV journalism.
Mitchell, a University trustee emerita, together with her husband, Alan Greenspan, have been supporters of Penn with gifts supporting Kelly Writers House, the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, and two endowed Penn Integrates Knowledge professorships.
She told the audience she always thought she would be a writer or an English professor, and it was after she failed to get a fellowship to study in Cambridge that she decided to pursue her interest in television.
Her interest in broadcasting began while she was a program manager at WXPN, then a student-run station at Penn, and she had been interning at KYW news radio in Philadelphia. After graduating from Penn, she was accepted to the station’s management training program. There was one hitch: KYW’s owner, Westinghouse, said women couldn’t work in the newsroom but could be in advertising or promotion. Mitchell wasn’t interested in either.
“So, I asked for an entry level job as a copy boy, which is how I got my first job: A copy boy in radio on the overnight shift,” she said.
It was the 1960s, and there was a lot of racial tension and police tension in Philadelphia. In covering those conflicts, Mitchell first encountered then Police Chief Frank Rizzo. The loved-and-loathed Rizzo would go on to be a controversial mayor.
“He was very tough, he was very threatening, and he had not been challenged by a lot of reporters, certainly not by a woman, and did not like it one bit,” she said.
During live, weekly press conferences broadcast on the radio, he would respond to her questions with vulgar, profane replies, she said.
“Today, we would have said it went viral,” said Mitchell.
The verbal duels with Rizzo helped steel her for her next career move to Washington, where asking tough questions and withstanding threats from government officials continued.
At the time Ronald Reagan was in office, she recounted how she was always stuck in the back of the room during press briefings, and the president had been instructed not to call on her. During one prime-time news conference in 1987 when Reagan was answering questions about Iran-Contra, he actually called on her. However, a New York Times reporter popped up in front of her and took the question for himself. At the end of the news conference, Reagan said, “Andrea, I owe you a question.” She said she asked one, and he answered it incorrectly. The White House had to put out a correction 20 minutes later, and she had to run it out to her colleague Chris Wallace, crawling on her knees on the North Lawn below camera level to hand it to him while he was on air with Tom Brokaw.
When she returned to the NBC booth at the back of the White House, the phone was ringing.
“It was White House Chief of Staff Don Regan threatening to have me fired. He was really rude and crude. And that was scary,” she said.
A question-and-answer session with audience members followed, covering everything from the stress of hosting the Democratic presidential debate, with Ashley Parker, Washington Post White House reporter and a fellow Penn alumna, to the erosion of the relationship between the White House and the press, to the best way to ask a question.
She finished off the night reading the final passage from her 2006 book, “Talking Back,” at the request of Filreis.
“If asked what qualities helped me earn whatever success I’ve had in this venture, I’d have to list endurance near the top,” she began. “But perhaps even more important is an insatiable curiosity about the way other people live their lives. Their hopes, disappointments, privations and triumphs. Those are the stories that inspired me to want to be Brenda Starr, girl reporter, imagining an adventurous life then available only to women in comic strips.”