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Pat Mitchell: A Dangerous Woman

Pat Mitchell: A Dangerous Woman


How taking risks shaped the life and career of one of media’s most prolific women

By Amy Meadows

Pat Mitchell was uncharacteristically wavering. She had spent decades telling people’s stories, first in front of and behind the camera as a renowned journalist and award-winning documentary producer and then as the first female president of legendary organizations such as Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), CNN Productions and The Paley Center for Media. Yet, she wasn’t sure that she was ready to commit her own story to paper. She certainly had considered writing a memoir, but something kept stopping her in her tracks.
“I didn’t want to feel like I was writing about the past and not living in the present. I also couldn’t find the time, and I struggled with the focus,” Mitchell reveals. More importantly, though, she worried that telling her story, complete with recollections of all of the incredible work she has done during her highly successful career, would be tantamount to bragging. Fortunately, a good friend pulled her aside one day and said exactly what she needed to hear. “She said, ‘Pat, it’s not bragging if you did it.’ Women struggle with not wanting to praise our own risk-taking, and I had to get past that,” she says. “And I realized during the writing process that I needed to write my memoir to shine a light for those who are following me. Women are still facing so many challenges, and my dream is to help women and girls everywhere
break those barriers and achieve.” Today, women of all ages can be inspired by Mitchell’s new book, “Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World,” which was released in October of 2019. In it, she delves into her life as a journalist and an activist, taking readers on a journey through all of the ups and downs she experienced as she forged an uncharted path to become one of the most influential and acclaimed women in media. And at age 77, even as she looks back on everything she has accomplished, she has no plans of slowing down, as she realizes that there is still much work to do.

Following Her Curiosity
“Unlike a lot of people, particularly men, I did not come into my career with a plan from A to B to C to D. What I did throughout my career was follow my curiosity. I took risks. I may not have known how to do a job, but it was about believing in my own ability to figure it all out,” Mitchell observes. “If you can’t risk failing, then you’ll never have success.” Growing up near and in the small town of Swainsboro, Georgia, Mitchell always felt a certain pull toward academia—a pursuit encouraged by her eighth grade English teacher, Miss Shirley Rountree Reid, who went so far as to help then-high school senior Mitchell secure acceptance and a full drama scholarship to the University of Georgia (UGA). And while Mitchell thrived and planned to go to graduate school, an unexpected pregnancy and subsequent marriage altered her plans. She began teaching, and a divorce not long later transformed her into a single mother with a toddler. She did move on to graduate school, ultimately becoming an English instructor at UGA and then Virginia Commonwealth University. Yet, she reveled at the opportunity to move into journalism and work for
LOOK magazine—until the publication suddenly went bankrupt, leaving Mitchell jobless in New York City. On a whim, she decided to “try television,” and thus began her true ascent as a bona fide media powerhouse.
In fact, Mitchell’s credentials are as impressive as they are copious. She began by working with the media team for John V. Lindsay’s 1972 presidential campaign, and while the bid was unsuccessful, it led Mitchell to begin her television news career in earnest at WBZ-TV in Boston. Her love of telling stories, particularly those of women, paved the way for her to burst onto the scene with such positions as host of the midday talk program “Panorama”; creator, producer and host of the Emmy-winning syndicated female-driven talk show “Woman to Woman,” which was produced through her own independent production company; and as a regular on the “Today” show and an international reporter for NBC. Those experiences eventually brought her back to Atlanta and to Turner Broadcasting in 1992, where she moved into the executive position of president of Turner Original Productions and CNN Productions.
By 2000, she was named president and CEO of PBS, followed by an appointment as president and CEO of
The Paley Center for Media in 2006. Today, she is the co-founder and editorial director of TEDWomen and the chair of the Women’s Media Center and Sundance Institute.
“Everything you do prepares you for something else, even if it isn’t in your plan,” Mitchell says. “With every job, no matter how different they were, I took something forward. Women are fast learners and adapters to new environments. We have to trust ourselves and believe that we can learn as we do.”  PAT MITCHELL P1

At the Intersection of History
Throughout what Mitchell calls her “zig-zaggy career,” her proclivity toward activism has been as important to her as her professional success. Her involvement with both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement is an integral part of her own story, dating back to 1961 when UGA was first integrated and she became friends with Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the first African-American female to attend the institution. As a budding journalist, Mitchell also faced sexism in the workplace. And as a single mother, she realized how few rights she actually had. All of this led her to boost her own efforts as a feminist activist, fighting for everything from equal pay to reproductive rights. From attending marches to working with an array of well-known humanitarians and activists, including good friends Jane Fonda and Eve Ensler, she has become part of a conversation that continues to this day.
“I feel fortunate to have come of age as those big changes were happening. I was at the intersection of historical changes,”
she notes, adding that many of the struggles from yesterday have come full circle and are continuing to be fought today. “We are living in dangerous times. Much of the progress that has been made—there have been rollbacks in those areas. Women have advanced and have greater representation, but it’s far from complete equality. It’s going to take a different kind of commitment, bravery and boldness to meet the challenges of these dangerous and disconnected times, to build common ground and to work toward a more just world.”
To achieve that end goal, Mitchell has dedicated herself to creating a platform of opportunity to help elevate other women.
For instance, she began working with Ronda Carnegie and The Rockefeller Foundation in 2019 to convene the
Connected Women Leaders (CWL) Forum, which brings women together to problem-solve the issues facing females from all backgrounds around the world. “In many ways, the most important thing to do is to build alliances and coalitions. We have to reach out to other women and show up for one another. I believe that showing up for each other is the biggest game changer of all,” Mitchell says. “In fact, my friendships are my renewable source of energy and power.” Recently, Mitchell moved from serving on corporate boards to dedicating all of her time to the boards of nonprofit and service organizations. For her, it’s a powerful choice. And while she has declared herself “a dangerous woman” in these times, she looks at that phrase differently than most people. “I have become braver and bolder. I want to carry the torch higher and brighter to encourage others to be bold and brave and to take risks,” she concludes. “Each of us can make a difference. Each of us can help create a better world where everyone has more equal opportunity. It’s possible. But you have to take risks. You have to step forward and imagine the future you want and go for it.”