On . . . December 13 , Alan and I were going to a holiday party at the Rumsfelds', writes NBC-TV reporter Andrea Mitchell. [There], everyone seemed especially jolly. The defense secretary was almost bouncing on his heels. The vice president [of the U. S.] and my husband huddled in a corner. George Tenet was cracking jokes. At one point, [fellow reporter] Tim Russert told the CIA director that he'd dreamed Saddam had been captured. Tenet looked startled, but laughed it off. The next day brought the announcement that Saddam Hussein had indeed been taken prisoner; but Mitchell says her husband, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, refused to tell her if that was what he and Cheney had been talking about. Such are the hazards of insider reporting.
Mitchell's aim in Talking Back . . . to Presidents, Dictators, and Assorted Scoundrels is to chronicle her rise from local TV reporter in Philadelphia to her current eminence as one of the most familiar faces on American TV news. As part of this account, she also touches on the struggles of fellow women journalists. But her biggest service here is showing how closely big name reporters are involved with the politicians they cover. This intimacy, as Mitchell demonstrates, has its ups and downs. On the plus side, it alerts her to breaking news before it is filtered through public relations. On the minus, it puts her in a position of imposing her own filters. That's because the objects of her reporting are often friends or close acquaintances and, thus, a cause for hesitation. Moreover, she has a strong sense of social propriety: Early on, she says, I decided to play by a very strict set of rules at social occasions: everything said was off the record. Good manners do not always make good journalism.
But Mitchell can be tough, both on herself and her subjects. She recites a series of situations in which she froze in front of the camera, derailed an important interview or otherwise screwed up. And, beginning with her reportorial clashes with Philadelphia's tough-guy mayor, Frank Rizzo, she illustrates how she gained a reputation for pushiness. It is with a certain wistfulness that Mitchell leaves her readers with this assessment of the profession she has reveled in since the mid-1960s: In a nation of people increasingly informed by talk show rants on the right and the left, facts are incinerated in a blaze of rumor and accusation. . . . For an anxious nation in a post 9/11 world, the media have become an echo chamber, reinforcing our misconceptions and exaggerating our differences, real and imagined. Even so, she says, there are still stories she's eager to report.
Edward Morris writes from Nashville.