For many political journalists, Philadelphia is nothing more than a stop on the campaign trail. But for Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent and host of her own MSNBC show, “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” it’s a return to her old college town.
Mitchell, a 1967 graduate of Penn's College of Liberal Arts for Women and vice chair of the Board of Trustees, got her start in journalism through WXPN radio. In an interview Tuesday morning at Le Meridien hotel in Center City, The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with the acclaimed journalist between reporting stops to discuss her time as an undergraduate and her career in media.
The Daily Pennsylvanian: What is it like for you coming back to Philly now, and what are the biggest changes you’ve noticed from when you went to college here?
Andrea Mitchell: Being a trustee, I’m on campus a lot and I’m in Philadelphia a lot. But the city itself is so vibrant and so different from when I was an undergraduate, and certainly when I was a working reporter here in Philadelphia, because it was much more provincial and much more divided. And I was an undergraduate in the 60s, and that’s a period of great unrest and political change. We had the Vietnam War, protests, the Civil Rights Movement. And so it was just so much going on in the city. The city was very divided; there was a lot of racial tension. We had a controversial police chief who became the mayor. I ended up as a reporter covering him, Frank Rizzo. And now you have a much more inclusive city and a city that arguably still has problems which reflect national issues and profound economic concerns, but I really think that there is a much deeper sense of political leadership and civic engagement.
DP: So you said that you come back to campus often. What are the biggest changes that you’ve noticed there?
AM: Well, the campus is transformed. One of the biggest changes was when, in the '90s and after 2000, we really, as a university, engaged with West Philadelphia and became partners with West Philadelphia, did all sorts of initiatives through health care and housing … and things like the electrification of urban spaces and parks. This is first under President [Judith] Rodin and then continued, of course, under Dr. [Amy] Gutmann.
We really engaged in the community and made an enormous investment in building and expanding to the East, not the West, so that we were no longer gentrifying and compressing the community, in fact we became partners with the community and with the political leaders. And I think it’s a much healthier relationship by far. It was a big investment financially and a big commitment in West Philadelphia campus development.
Campus is simply beautiful now. The architecture, the wonderful spaces that we’ve created, the athletic fields and all of the plans that we still have, the master plan. I think Amy Gutmann’s compact is [a] tremendously important part of the institution. And I am personally committed to faculty resource development — that’s why I’m so involved with that.
DP: What are your favorite memories from when you were at Penn?
AM: Certainly being involved with WXPN, which was then student-run, and it was my first real introduction to — beyond high school journalism — getting involved in journalism. I found my mission there. I thought I was going to be an English professor. I was an English major in what was then the College of Liberal Arts for Women because we were not officially co-ed. We took classes together but there were separate rules for women. And all of the sudden I was involved in the radio station, I got to cover the senate races and for the Ivy League radio network we did joint programming on election night. And I got the bug and ended up not going onto graduate school and taking a job right here in Philadelphia, an all news radio, KYW.
DP: What drew you to radio in particular when you joined WXPN?
AM: What actually drew me there was classical music. It was a classical music station and I was a violinist and so I was at Houston Hall, our studios were on the third floor of Houston Hall, I heard music at the end of the hall and wandered down and found it. I was actually there for an NAACP meeting because we had a lot of issues, of housing issues in West Philly that campus undergraduates were involved in.
One of the things that’s really transformed is much more political engagement and volunteerism by the undergraduates. Foreign study, inter-disciplinary curricula — it’s really a case where Penn had a great reputation, but I think all of us would acknowledge that academically our reputation exceeded the depth of what we were offering. And in the last two decades I think we’ve really blossomed through a lot of hard work, a lot of philanthropy and engagement by the alumni, expansion of alumni relations, and by tremendous leadership by the first woman to lead an Ivy League university and then followed by yet another who’s been a complete star.
DP: You said that Penn students are more politically engaged now, you think. So what was the engagement like when you went to Penn?
AM: There were many people who were very involved in the anti-war activity and the Civil Rights Movement. But there was a large — I would say a majority of students — who were much less engaged, and so it was not your typical 60s campus, just a hotbed of activity. And I don’t think there was as much, as I recall, civic involvement, volunteerism. And now with the Penn Alexander School and things that our Graduate School of Education is doing, and things that our health care system, which has been brilliantly expanded and developed and really has a big role in West Philadelphia, the larger community and now the region, we are really the biggest employer, the biggest economic driver in the city and largely in the state. It is an institution of which I am enormously proud.
DP: In that setting, what drew you to be civically involved and what made you feel like that was important to do? And did that have to do with your involvement in journalism?
AM: Absolutely. I made a big decision. Two big decisions when I was an undergraduate: One was not to be a violinist. I didn’t think that I was good enough to be a concert violinist and I could have continued and been an orchestra player and develop[ed] my career. But I wanted to expand beyond the single focus of music that was so intense with practicing 8 hours a day. I wanted a broader education. And that developed my view of what a liberal arts education should be. And I studied everything: political science and history, of course my literature courses and music. And it better informed what kind of person I wanted to be. I just wanted to be more engaged in the world.
I think I was always intuitively political, coming from a very news-conscious family. And I had done a lot of writing as I grew up, had even written for our hometown newspaper. So I guess it was an unconscious desire to be part of that world. And once I started programming classical music at the station then they said, well, do you want to start doing the newscasts? Eventually I was the program manager and then got an internship at KYW, which was then was … the NBC affiliate. And when I graduated I went right to work at the NBC local station. The radio station was on all the time, as it is now, and it was a tremendous opportunity. They sent me in 1972 to my first conventions in Miami, the Democratic and Republican conventions. And then in 1976 to New York and Kansas City. So that’s how I first got interested in national politics.
DP: So you mentioned you went to the women’s college at Penn. What was it like being a college student as a woman at the time and getting into journalism as a woman? And how has that changed?
AM: It was almost impossible to get into journalism, broadcast journalism, as a woman. They had no desire to hire women. And in fact I had qualified and been hired out of Penn for the management trainee program at Westinghouse Broadcasting. And then they told me that I couldn’t be in the news room and I couldn’t be a journalist, I had to go into public relations or advertising or sales, which was not my interest at all. So instead I talked them into giving me an entry-level job as copy boy, ripping wire copy on the night shift at KYW radio. And that’s how I started. So it was very, very hard to break into the business as a woman.
As a woman undergraduate, we, unlike the boys, we had a dress code. We could only wear pants on snow days. We had curfews, 11 o’clock. We lived in an all-girls dorm. I lived in what we called Hill Hall, which was all women, even though we didn’t have closets, room for books, but that’s another whole story. And the Quad was all male and we were not allowed to walk through the Quad except, I think, on Sunday afternoons. There were a lot of strict rules for women, to put it mildly.
DP: What made you keep pushing? Pushing to get into a field that wasn’t necessarily open to you?
AM: I suppose it was the influence of my parents who always said we could do anything we wanted to do. I was always aggressive. I’m something of a fighter. And endless curiosity.
DP: Why journalism? Why was that what you wanted to fight for?
AM: I always had an interest and had done writing, even in, would you believe, elementary school. I was the school reporter for our local hometown newspaper and wrote a weekly column about school activities in the elementary school, believe it or not. So I loved to write.
DP: What’s your favorite story that you ever worked on?
AM: Well, there’s so many. Certainly Cuba and the evolution of Cuba and my interviews with Fidel Castro. But actually, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Clinton-Gore bus tours. Of all the campaigns I ever covered, the 1992 campaign, where we left Madison Square Garden at the end of the convention and came down the New Jersey turnpike ending in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and then off through Pennsylvania and Ohio — and it was a wonderful way to get away from the pre-fabricated campaign rallies, flying state to state. It had been the method of campaigning. It was back to a very old-fashioned kind of people-to-people campaigning, much more improvisational.
And that’s what Hillary Clinton is going to try to replicate this Friday in Philadelphia with a rally at Independence Hall, and then leaving on a bus tour through Pennsylvania and Ohio. And I think she recalls it as fondly as I know I do. Every reporter I know who was on that '92 campaign recalls those bus trips. We went all across America and we didn’t have real cell phones, I mean it was primitive technologically, to keep up and get our stories out. Computers were very, very basic. So, it’s going to be interesting to see how it works in this area of social media.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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