By Maury Z. Levy
The other reporters, the ones without the pencils in their hands, the ones without the questions in their heads,were gobbling up the $100-a-plate meal like it was real food. Andrea Mitchell, who was covering this Democratic dinner for both KYW radio and KYW television, was the only one not eating. It’s not that she wasn’t hungry. It’s just that she’s a stickler for facts. And she just won’t swallow a lie, even the smallest one.
“You didn’t like your chicken cordon bleu?” the waiter asked as he lifted her still full plate from the table.
“This,” she said, “is not cordon bleu. This is an inedible lump of chicken on a slice of canned ham camouflaged with cold gravy.”
Anyway, she was too busy running the dinner to eat. She picked up a copy of the program and skimmed down to the end. Teddy Kennedy wasn’t scheduled to speak until 9:15, which probably meant he wouldn’t get on until at least 10:15.
“No way,” Andi Mitchell said. “If he doesn’t get on by 9, I’ve got to let the film crew go. And we’re not going to have anything for the 11 o’clock news.”
She pushed her way up to the head table on the very large Civic Center floor. On the stage, at the right, the entertainment was going full blast. Some people in costumes were singing selections from The King and I, which seemed appropriate enough. She shoved her way down the crowded front aisle, the one that was full of security guards. One of the guards told her to stop and go the other way. She ignored him. The next guard grabbed her by the arm and told her a little less gently. “Mr. Camiel,” he said, “doesn’t want anybody in this aisle. You’ll have to go back to the press table. You’ll have to go the other way.”
She looked him dead in the eyes. “No,” she said, “I’m going this way.”
Before push got to shove, Bill Green jumped down from the head table and called the goons off. He asked Andi Mitchell what the matter was. She told him about her deadline. “You people do this thing,” she said, “for the publicity. What good is it if you don’t get any?”
“I know it’s asinine, Andi,” he said. “But there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Sure you can,” she said, “go tell your buddy Camiel he’s screwing up my television feed. Go tell him people won’t even know Teddy Kennedy was in town tonight if he doesn’t get this thing moving.”
Bill Green shrugged his shoulders and said he would try. He went over to Pete Camiel, the city’s Democratic boss, and started talking. First Camiel was shaking his head “no.” Then Green pointed to Andi Mitchell down there in the front row, where she shouldn’t have been, and Camiel stopped shaking. He quickly started talking to some other people at the table, including Teddy Kennedy. And then, when the music stopped, Pete Camiel went up to the podium to make an announcement. Andi Mitchell signaled her film crew. “I think we’ve got it,” she said.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Pete Camiel said, “there has been a change in the program. As you know, Senator Kennedy was scheduled to be our final speaker. But the Senator has just informed me that he has another commitment tonight. And so, we are changing the program to make him our first speaker.”
The crowd cheered. Andi Mitchell smiled. Teddy Kennedy didn’t have another commitment, except maybe one to get his face on television. And Pete Camiel hadn’t changed the program. Andi Mitchell had.
SHE HAS THAT WAY about her, Andi Mitchell. She never gives up. She keeps pushing and pushing until she gets the answer she wants to hear. She just won’t let anybody off easy. She’s one of the main reasons Frank Rizzo stopped having press conferences.
“She is,” a colleague on the KYW- TV side says, “the best radio and TV reporter in town. She may even be the best reporter in town, period.”
But Andi Mitchell isn’t really working for television. That’s just freelance work. Her real job is on radio, ugly people’s television. Which is not to say that Andi Mitchell is ugly. Certainly not. She’s very average-looking. And in a television world of fair-haired people, there just doesn’t seem to be much room for someone with the frizzies.
“We’ve had a lot of fine reporters in this town,” Andi Mitchell says, “who’ve been shunted to the side because they don’t have the kind of looks they’re looking for on TV now. There are a few exceptions. A guy like Dick Sheeran managed to make the transition. But there are just too many good people who don’t fit into the cookie cutter.”
KYW-TV manages to squeeze Andi Mitchell into that cutter every so often when they need some quick political reporting. But it’s only a once-in-a-while thing. That’s not a priority item on local television.
“A city councilman goes on trial. The mayor vetoes a tax bill. But the top story tonight is a special report from Orien Reid on how to make your own mayonnaise.”
Oh well, Andi Mitchell never fit very well into the cookie cutter anyway. She’s a little too short and her face isn’t peaches and cream and she has a very intense, businesslike voice, a voice that doesn’t sound right doing happy talk. But then she never really figured on any of this.
Andi Mitchell came here from New York in the mid ’60s to be an English major at Penn. Her only tie with the arts was that she played the violin. Andi Mitchell looks like she plays the violin. Anyway, she was in Houston Hall one day waiting for a meeting, when she heard that the campus radio station, WXPN, was looking for somebody to play classical music on the air. She went in, got involved and, as in most situations, took charge.
Her interests expanded and she moved into news and public affairs. And then she became program director. In her junior year, she pushed herself right into a job at KYW, the all news radio station. That was in the unliberated ’60s.
“I wanted to be a reporter here,” she says, “but I was really getting knocked around. First they made me a secretary and then they put me in charge of a student reporter program. I never did get on the air. When I finished school, I was asked to come into a management trainee program. But I just wasn’t interested in public relations. Besides, it was oriented towards men. I asked for a job on the news side. They finally let me be a correlator. It was an inside job, checking out stories, calling police stations. It was tough training. They spent a lot of time trying to break me because they didn’t think it would work. There just hadn’t been any women on the air here before. But they finally let me out of the cage.”
Andi Mitchell was turned loose on the education beat, something you might figure they’d put a woman on. But then she moved right into the police beat and then up to City Hall and you had to figure that she was doing something more than just being a woman. And now, at 28, she’s working two jobs.
“Radio,” she says, “is my love. It’s instant communications, the ability to get on the phone with a minimum of technical difficulty and convey information. You can’t beat it on a breaking story. School strikes, things like that. You don’t have to worry about expensive film crews to get your reports in. All you need is a telephone and a dime.
“Television is a whole different thing. There are stories TV wants to cover, but they don’t want to commit someone full-time to City Hall or politics. They’re just not visual enough beats. A city council story may be terribly relevant, but it takes a bit of doing to convey that visually. So none of the three stations in Philadelphia is covering City Hall as a regular beat. They send people over every once in a while, but they just don’t have the background to pick up a story and run with it.
“It’s been convenient for everybody for me to double for KYW-TV on City Hall and political stories since I’m covering them for radio anyway. But television gives you a whole new set of problems. You’ve got to worry about film deadlines and technical difficulties. On radio, they just flip a switch and I’m on live.
“It’s easy to criticize TV reporters for being superficial and for showing up at the last minute with all kinds of gear. Hell, print reporters are just starting to accept radio reporters as human beings. They’ll never accept TV reporters. Not with all that equipment.
“But that’s the wrong way to criticize them. There’s plenty else wrong with TV people. Not enough of them know the nuts and bolts of reporting. They’ve never been trained. TV news has become, to a large extent, entertainment. Well, it’s fine if people want to be entertained when they see the news. But underneath that coating, there should be solid, hardcore journalists. And hard news, if it’s available. You can’t sugarcoat your whole show with happy talk and features.”
The people on the radio side just have a lot more time to spend on reporting. They don’t have to worry if their hair is on straight or if they’re wearing the right color shirt.
On the reporting side, radio has become a haven for creative people who don’t fit into the TV mold. But there are definite marketing problems in broadcasting. The market target is people who have money to spend. And it’s an economic truth that radio, especially all-news radio, is not about to make too many people rich. There’s only so long you can survive economically with the elderly and the shut-ins. The guy who tunes in for two minutes to catch the weather and the traffic just doesn’t mean very much to your ratings.
“You’ve got to realize,” Andi Mitchell says, “that people want the sugarcoating of television. I used to be very conservative about what journalism is and isn’t, about what I would put on television. But what’s the point in having a station that nobody watches?”
Andi Mitchell tends to be a perfectionist. And she finds there’s little room for perfectionists in journalism, even print journalism.
“I spend a lot of time with the reporters over at City Hall,” she says. “The former ones used to be the laughing stock of the city, until Rizzo hired most of them. Now I think they’ve been replaced with a pretty good bunch of people who are well backgrounded on what they’re doing.”
Andi Mitchell used to spend a lot of time around City Hall, especially around the mayor’s office. But over a year ago Rizzo called off the regular press conferences. Andi Mitchell, who often played the role of prime interrogator, misses them. But it’s doubtful that Frank Rizzo really misses Andi Mitchell.
“I think he enjoyed the combat,” she says. “It was the kind of adversary relationship which is healthy between a public official and a reporter. It wasn’t hostile from my point of view. I was just doing my job. Asking the questions and questioning the answers.
“I’m sorry he’s closed himself off like this. I think he has an obligation to the public to talk on issues. I enjoyed my tug of war with him, but I think, towards the end, that he began to have a jaundiced view towards me and everyone else in the media.
“After the stories on the special squad and the lie detector test, it was really quite a different atmosphere. He didn’t accept the fact that we were doing our job reporting the news. He had a lot of favorable press coverage before. It wasn’t just a honeymoon, it was a long marriage. Any time he did anything it was given a great deal of weight because the media were anxious to see this administration work.
“And it’s a damn shame that he takes criticism personally. He blamed the reporters for the things that went wrong. He began to view us as hostile creatures, as enemy representatives. He said things like, ‘You’re in favor of all the criminals,’ and told Charley Thompson of the Bulletin that he’s just anti-Italo-American. And Charley Thompson was moved off the beat. Now we haven’t seen the mayor for a while. And the public is being cheated because of it.
“I call him all the time and ask him for reactions to things, and I don’t get it. When I see him I ask questions and he doesn’t answer. But that’s nothing new at City Hall. The same thing happened with Tate. He used to keep me waiting for hours, sitting on the floor outside of his office. When things were in a critical stage and you had to get the mayor’s response, he was never available. He would come out of his office four hours later and say, ‘Oh, are you waiting for me?’ It’s become even worse with Rizzo. And that makes our work a lot harder, trying to let the public know what’s going on.”
But Andi Mitchell’s been kept busy of late with other things. She covered all four candidates in the recent gubernatorial and senatorial races for both radio and television. And it’s not that there weren’t enough bodies around to cover all of the candidates. It’s just that they were busy with more entertaining things.
“Broadcasting is a big business,” Andi Mitchell says, “and the executives think they know what people want because they’ve done a lot of market research. Television stations especially, tend to underplay things they think are unappealing to the viewers.
“The trial of Izzy Bellis fell into that category. Here was a city councilman on trial for very serious offenses and they barely gave it a few seconds every day. There were a lot of things in that trial that came out that are important to our community.
“But the television stations know the people are fed up with politicians, fed up with the whole Watergate mess. Therefore, they don’t budget much time for political stories.
“The attitude in the business is that TV news has too many things to cover to do basic political reporting during the campaign. But they spend a fortune election night with razzmatazz. And then they call the voters apathetic.
“Well, the voters are apathetic because television hasn’t given them enough to get them interested. They don’t know what the issues are. They’re not even sure who some of the candidates are. But they sure as hell know how to make mayonnaise, don’t they?”
She has become, Andi Mitchell, one of the last angry women. She refuses to be sugarcoated and she refuses to give up. She still calls Frank Rizzo regularly. She knows he can’t stay quiet forever.
And she has a lot of trouble buying the notion that what all women are really interested in is how to save money preparing dinner. So she keeps pushing the politics and she keeps hounding the politicians.
A FEW WEEKS BEFORE last month’s election, she was out at LaSalle College covering a campaign stop by Pete Flaherty, who was running for the U.S. Senate. A man in the small crowd walked up to her.
“They’ve certainly been running a low-key race,” he said. “None of these guys have really been campaigning much, have they?”
Andi Mitchell got very angry and her face turned red. “Like hell,” she said. “They’ve all been keeping up an almost unbelievable campaign schedule. They’ve been making a half dozen appearances a day. It’s just that you don’t hear about it. It’s not that the candidates aren’t campaigning. It’s that the television reporters haven’t been covering them. Somebody in some executive office at some TV station has made a decision for you. He’s decided you don’t care anymore about politics. Just look around. Ask any of the other reporters here.”
The man looked around. “I don’t see any other reporters here,” he said. “You’re the only one.”
“There you go,” Andi Mitchell said.