In her decades as an award-winning reporter covering energy, the White House and foreign affairs, longtime NBC News and MSNBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell has gone head to head with world leaders and doggedly chased down U.S. politicians for answers. Her husband Alan Greenspan was chair of the Federal Reserve for nearly two decades, overseeing the world’s largest economy.
But at home during the pandemic, it turns out they’re just like the rest of us, shushing each other during work calls — or in Mitchell’s case live on air in front of 1 million-plus viewers across the country; scheduling clashing Zoom meetings and turning their living room into a makeshift office.
“I have a small house. My husband is working from home also. We’re filming over each other. He has to shush up when I’m on the air, and sometimes we’re both doing Zooms at the same time,” she said. “The house is getting worn out from all of this because we’re not used to being home and we’re not used to all the traffic.”
The pandemic hasn’t slowed her down, though, even though Mitchell, 73, and Greenspan, 94, are spending much of their time at home. Speaking to WWD a week ago in the run-up to Senator Kamala Harris being unveiled as Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate, she had been up since 4.30 a.m., preparing to appear on “The Today Show.” That included last-minute fact checking for her story, which she finished at 11 the previous night, and doing her own hair and makeup for safety reasons. In between “The Today Show” and her weekday MSNBC show “Andrea Mitchell Reports” at noon, she squeezed in no fewer than five conference calls. Then it was time to grab some cheese and crackers and water for lunch while on a vice presidential planning call, before sketching out a “Nightly News” piece on the latest on Biden’s VP pick in between calling sources. The rest of the day was taken up by refining her script for “Nightly News” and recording her voiceover on her iPhone and sending it to her producer, who packaged it all together from their home.
That all took place in her living room, although she has gone out to report a few times. She traveled to Delaware for the VP announcement and will be in the Washington, D.C., studio Monday for the Democratic National Convention — the first time she won’t be hosting her show live on the floor, with it being transformed into an a mostly virtual event. Originally, 50,000 delegates, journalists and party officials were set to descend on Milwaukee for the four day event.
Here, Mitchell describes how reporting on this election will be like nothing she’s ever seen before, and how her work life has changed during the coronavirus crisis.
WWD: You’ve been in this business for a long time. Is this your wildest election year yet as a reporter?
Andrea Mitchell: There are some wild elections, but this one is the most unusual because of the pandemic and that’s what makes it so challenging. You don’t have as much access to the candidates. You can’t interview voters. They’re not in the field. Even the president has stopped doing the rallies and Joe Biden is not able to campaign as he would like to do because he knows keeping people safe….is much more important than holding a political rally. So this virtual campaign, it’s hard to figure out how to approach this and how to get the best information to the viewers, to our audiences on all of our platforms. That’s the challenge that we have to meet, especially as we cover the conventions.
WWD: What impact will the lack of a campaign trail have on reporting?
A.M.: It has a profound impact, limiting our ability to understand how these candidates are going to interact with voters and how voters are responding to them.
In a virtual campaign you are left calling sources, and also doing fact checking, and that’s becoming more and more important to test the policies to see how they add up, to see whether they’re practical. In the case of some of the recent executive actions the president took to talk to lawyers and find out whether they’re constitutional. So all of these things that are being debated. We also have to cover whether or not the election can be held fairly and clearly, whether there is suppression of voters and we are out covering that, especially with communities of color and other minorities being discriminated against in the past in states that still try to keep minority votes down. And most importantly, the challenge we now face with mail ballots because of the pandemic and because of efforts by the administration to cut the budget to our postal service and make it extremely difficult for people to safely vote. These are very big issues. [After this interview was conducted, it emerged that the Postal Service informed 46 states in July that it could not guarantee that all mail ballots would arrive in time to be counted.]
Also, I cover foreign policy and the intelligence communities and I’m working very hard on what credible information the intelligence agencies are collecting about Russia’s chance to already interfere with the election. So there are a lot of different aspects to this, but I think investigative reporting becomes even more important when you’re not out in the field talking to the voters and covering a rally every day.
WWD: How will you cover both conventions this year?
A.M.: I will be with Chuck Todd, our political director, in our Washington studio, broadcasting with Lester Holt anchoring in New York with Savannah Guthrie. I always did my MSNBC show from all the conventions and was on “Nightly News,” “The Today Show” and on the floor of the convention, so that is something I’ll really miss because I loved interviewing the governors and the senators and the mayors and the delegates and getting a real feel of the cross section of the party from being on the floor. That was always the real fun of being at the conventions.
WWD: You’re known for asking the tough questions throughout your career. A few broadcast journalists have faced criticism from some quarters for not being tough enough during one-on-one interviews with President Trump. In contrast, Axios reporter Jonathan Swan, a print journalist, was praised for his recent interview with Trump. What’s your take on this?
A.M.: Well, I think it’s very hard to interview President Trump. I’ve never had the opportunity, but I know that he does not answer questions directly. He has his own very different grasps of fact, especially on scientific subjects. I think Jonathan Swan did a really good job, I think Chris Wallace on Fox News did a really good job because I think it’s very important with any president — not just Donald Trump — to hold them to the facts and to not accept statements that are clearly wrong. And so that’s what we would’ve done with any of the presidents — President Bush, President Reagan who I covered, President Clinton. You always have to know your own facts, ask questions very clearly and when you have the opportunity to follow up as you do in a one-on-one interview, make sure you do follow up. It’s not always possible during a news conference because right now the White House tends to limit you to one question and no follow ups. There have been different practices I should say over the years. It’s hard to second guess someone in the middle of an interview, especially a live interview. It’s very, very tough and I think those recent examples of Jonathan Swan and Chris Wallace really led the challenge.
WWD: Trump appeared to struggle in this particular interview with Axios. Is this a sign of what could come, especially at debates?
A.M.: Debates can be performance as much as knowing the intricacies of policy. This is political theater. And while they would, you hope, be a direct examination of policy and of someone’s qualifications to be president, that’s not always the case. So I wouldn’t predict anything about the debates. It’s a long way off, and a day or a week is a long way off in the politics of today. I think we really have to see how this campaign shapes up.
WWD: Mail-in ballots are expected to surge due to the pandemic and there are serious concerns about delays and how they will be processed. Do you think it’s possible that election night could become election week or even election month?
A.M.: I think if it is a close election it is probable the count will take days, even weeks, and will be litigated. The battle over mail-in balloting is probably the most important story we are covering between now and the election. Voting by mail is essential during the pandemic and is widely used across the country, but President Trump has escalated his opposition to it despite little to no evidence of fraud. His appointment of a major donor with no experience to be Postmaster General who then fired top management and cut back deliveries, and the President’s own acknowledgement, make it clear this is likely an attempt to suppress the anti-Trump vote.
WWD: How do media organizations avoid premature claims of victory?
A.M.: We are very, very careful. We have a standards operation, a decision desk, and nothing gets reported until everyone signs off on it and all of our election experts tell us that there is no way that one of the candidates could overtake the other. So a declaration of victory is not victory. And we don’t decide races at the state or local level, Congressional races, Senate races until everyone signs off on it. We don’t declare a state in one candidate’s corner or the other until the decision desk decides if that state has in fact been carried by that candidate.
WWD: How has the pandemic impacted you personally in terms of on-the-ground reporting? Was there a long time where you were only able to report from your home?
A.M.: I have been, since the second week in March, doing my program from home. We have a TV camera and equipment set up in the living room. The living room is basically turned over. It’s a small Victorian house and the living room is now a TV studio and we’ve been doing that since right after Super Tuesday. I’ve gone out during the protests, for a report on a statehood vote for Washington, D.C., but for the most part I have been at home. I have not been in the studio. I was in the studio once when the home camera didn’t work and I was anchoring “Meet the Press” on the July 4 weekend, and at 5.30 in the morning we had problems with the home camera. And so at 6 I was told it couldn’t be repaired in time. So I went into the studio. That’s the only time I’ve been in the studio since March.
WWD: You’re obviously used to being very active. Has it been difficult for you to stay at home and do everything from there?
A.M.: Yes. I should preface this and say that everyone in the industry really admires what the amazing technical wizards at NBC have managed to do for all of us at our home studio because it’s really been extraordinary that they could design and install all this so quickly and in so many places. That said, I have been straining at the bit to get out.
We don’t have the creativity of the newsroom. I don’t see as many video inputs. Producers do have screens that can show them a lot of different feeds, but it’s just a lot harder to make sure you’re not missing something. When we’re all in the newsroom or in the same corridor, getting our show on the air is frankly a lot more fun. I miss my colleagues, I miss my friends.
And one of the other things I should add is, I used to travel with the secretary of state for decades and do my show all over the world. But that has been limited, not by the pandemic, but initially by this administration’s secretaries of state, they don’t have traveling press corps in numbers large enough where we could do a show and bring a camera crew. So that’s been a real problem. They take two or three people or at most six people rather than as many as in the past. So that’s been another big loss. I really miss traveling around the world with our diplomats and covering foreign policy.
WWD: How do you still have the stamina and passion to continue covering politics?
A.M.: Oh, I love it. I would jump at the chance to go and cover a story tomorrow. I like to say it’s our Olympics. NBC has the Olympics every four years, but this is it for a political reporter. This is the most fun, and the most challenging time that we have every four years. I love it because everything changes. Politics is important because it is deadly serious. You’re deciding who is going to be the president of the United States. And we have to make sure we really dig down and find out, is this person qualified, competent, what is this person’s character, are they fit for the job? Campaigns are becoming more and more sophisticated, through social media to manipulate the voters and to even fabricate fake rallies. And do the things that were described, not only in the Mueller report, but in many academic studies and intelligence studies in the aftermath of the 2016 campaign, where there were protest groups that were not really protest groups imitating Black Lives Matter to try to frighten people in areas that were resisting any talk of the Black Lives Matter movement. There were so many things that happened that we were unaware of, where the voters were manipulated and where reporters did not discover what was happening until long afterward. In past campaigns, there have been other issues that have exposed how much the clever political campaigns can manipulate both the media and the public. That’s our constant challenge. There has always been an adversarial relationship between reporter, between the press, and the people we cover, to try to keep them honest and try to communicate as best we can what is really going on so the election can be fair and the voters can be educated.
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