Air Time

Much of Talking Back is a retelling of the last 30 years of American political history as seen through Mitchell’s eyes. This wouldn’t be a bad thing, if Mitchell–who has had a front-row seat to that history ever since 1978 when she was hired by NBC after working in local news in Philadelphia and Washington–had some interesting insights. But she doesn’t. Her political analysis is so conventional it’s practically banal. Ronald Reagan, she writes, “was an actor who had become a politician; by combining his skills, he became a better politician than he’d been an actor.” Bill Clinton “reminded me of a very bright, but undisciplined, college student who left his studying until the last minute, and somehow aced his courses.” And George W. Bush “views the world in sharp contrasting colors rather than shades of gray.”

Mitchell’s behind-the-scenes details of how she has covered these presidents and other figures are similarly dull. No doubt that she works hard–frequently sacrificing vacations to fly to various global hotspots–but she spends much of the book recounting the quality of the hotels she stays in, the types of airplanes she flies on, and the state of the filing centers where she does her work when on the road. “I reported on the deal from Prague, struggling to edit my piece in a smoke-filled cubicle,” Mitchell writes of one presidential trip she covered during the Clinton administration. “Having fought over the years to eliminate smoke from the White House pressroom–a battle that was led, successfully, by Sam Donaldson of ABC–it was tough to be working in Europe, where everyone still smoked. My eyes burned, and I could barely breathe.” Talking Back will never be confused with All the President’s Men.

Mitchell never misses a chance to testify her fearlessness, never more so than when she confronted the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad while in Damascus as part of the press corps covering Clinton’s efforts to broker a peace deal between Syria and Israel. The two men had a brief “press opportunity,” at which Syrian authorities forbade questions. But Mitchell went ahead and ventured one anyway, asking Assad why he still supported terrorism. “The White House and Syrian flacks were flabbergasted,” she writes. “No reporter, and certainly not a woman, had ever dared ask Hafez al-Assad a question at a photo opportunity.” Assad actually responded to her question, but Mitchell wasn’t around to hear his whole answer since two Syrian “thugs” carried her out of the room. Clinton later told Mitchell that he’d finally found a way to shut her up. “Perhaps,” she writes, “but it didn’t last long. As I’d learned with…assorted scoundrels, ‘talking back’ to presidents and dictators was second nature to me.” Of course, it’s a lot less risky to talk back to a dictator when you’re there with the president of the United States, or, as was the case earlier this summer in Khartoum, the Secretary of State.

Then, there’s Mitchell’s misplaced pride in her and her NBC colleagues’ ability to get scoops, particularly when it comes to veep picks. “NBC had a proud tradition of breaking vice presidential running mate stories,” Mitchell boasts, having done so in 1980, 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2000. But nothing made Mitchell more proud, it seems, than her breaking the story of John Kerry picking John Edwards last year. NBC was taking some hits at the time because, a few weeks earlier, the “Today” show had not broadcast live footage of Saddam Hussein’s courtroom appearance, which was the first time he had been seen since being captured by American forces the previous year. Mitchell was determined to get NBC some “bragging rights” by winning the competition to break Kerry’s veep selection which in the world of television news “was the World Series and the Super Bowl combined.” And break the story Mitchell and Katie Couric did when, at 7:30 on a weekday morning, they went on “Today” to report Edwards as Kerry’s choice. “Kerry had planned to announce it in an e-mail to supporters, and then appear together with his choice at a nine a.m. rally,” Mitchell writes. “We had beaten him to it.” By a whopping 90 minutes! As The New Republic‘s Noam Scheiber has noted, uncovering information that powerful people are trying to hide and have no intention of ever making public is a noble endeavor, but revealing something that powerful people fully intend to broadcast to the entire world minutes after you “report” it isn’t really worth the trouble. And yet Mitchell and her television news colleagues go to great trouble indeed. What makes Mitchell’s boasting about her Edwards scoop particularly grating is that it comes just a few pages after she almost off-handedly wonders whether she should have been more skeptical of the Bush administration’s WMD claims in the runup to the war in Iraq. A few sentences later, she concludes she did all she could.

Although Talking Back is not argumentative, Mitchell clearly intends it to serve as a full-throated defense of network news against the creeping encroachment of cable. “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,” she writes. “Lost in the haze of left- and right-wing polemics is real journalism.” But if “real journalism” is the journalism practiced by Mitchell and some of her network news colleagues, then maybe the loss isn’t so great. Bill O’Reilly and the rest of the cable guys yelling on TV and taking up prime shelf space at the bookstore may be terrible blowhards, but at least they’ve got something to say.