The Producer I Can’t Live Without is a recurring feature from TVNewser, in which prominent on-air TV news talent and their longtime producers take us behind the scenes—and talk about their successful, long-running work partnerships.
For this installment of The Producer I Can’t Live Without, we spoke with NBC News/MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell and her longtime producer Michelle Perry. This duo started working together in 2005—and remain close colleagues and friends to this day.
The late Tim Russert played an integral role in their establishing their partnership.
“In 2005, Tim Russert, our bureau chief at the time, said that we were going to promote [current Today show svp] Libby Leist,” Mitchell told TVNewser. “Libby had been my researcher, then my associate producer and then she was going to become my State Department producer—and we needed to replace her.”
“Tim came to me and said, ‘I’ve got the perfect candidate for you. It’s Michelle Perry, who is working for me at the show [Meet the Press],'” said Mitchell. “Michelle was filling in as a maternity leave replacement for Tim’s assistant. Tim said, ‘I know she doesn’t have a whole lot of the editorial side training, but she’s the smartest, most intuitive person I’ve ever had work for me. She knows what I’m thinking before I ask for it and knows what I need before I need it.’ That’s how Michelle from Tim’s office came down the hall to me.”
Perry remembers the move well.
“Tim’s assistant was coming back [to work] soon. I started to look for other jobs, I wanted to stay in the [NBC Washington] bureau, if possible—and I knew a position with Andrea was coming open,” said Perry. “I was very excited, very interested in it—and I did not know Tim went and did that until years later when Andrea told me, which was extremely flattering. It was 17 years ago, but I remember like it was yesterday. Libby and I were and are friendly, so I certainly knew what the job was—and it extremely exciting. I leaned on her [Leist] a lot in those early days.”
By speaking with the two of them, it’s obvious Mitchell feels Perry, now the ep of Andrea Mitchell Reports on MSNBC, is truly the producer she “can’t live without.” Here’s more from the duo on their partnership:
TVNewser: Why do you think your partnership has proven so successful over these 15+ years? Any secret or secrets to the success?
Mitchell: We forged our relationship not just in the bureau, but on the road covering presidential campaigns—2008, ’12, we did inaugurals, debates, debate prep, primaries and overseas.
From my perspective, first of all, Michelle is fun. We enjoy each other, we became fast friends. But it’s also that she knows when to assert herself and she has always had a firm hand. There are times when she had had to rein me in and tell me that I cannot do something or I have to do something and—in each position she’s held with everybody, which was previously as a senior producer—and she became such a logical person for executive producer role.
She’s just got a really fine tuned hand as manager and as a recruiter of very good talent. She has shaped the team so that we have people—segment producers, graphic producers, researchers, who all understand our dedication to hard news, to fact-checking and breaking news, to handling emergencies. She is unflappable, plus she’s strong and intelligent and she works hard.
Perry: I think we have a really great mutual respect for one another. It was intimidating at first walking through those doors in the early days working with Andrea—and knowing who she is and what she represents. But from the very first day, she brought me right into her office and there was a chair at that time right behind her desk—and I would sit in there for hours and hours. Then, we’re crashing stories, we’re planning shows, trying to come up with questions for interviews—and she just let me be part of it all from the very beginning.
First of all, anything I’ve learned in this business has come from Andrea certainly and— for me—as great and as legendary a reporter Andrea is, she’s an even greater human being. She’s super generous with her time and she has helped me in so many ways. I’ve grown in my career here and when she says, “we’ve had a lot of fun,” it’s true. We have traveled all over the world, all over the country—and we work really long hours in sometimes really terrible conditions or covering really terrible stories. I think the way you get through it is with someone that you are able to have a lot of fun with, or you’re able to lean on in ways that we do.
Mitchell: Michelle is also a really good editor. We go over scripts every day and when— before we had the show—and I’d be working on a Nightly News script or Today show script, she would be in with me and providing ideas. But now with the show being our primary focus with each other, she’s really a great script editor, which I think everyone on the team appreciates.
Perry: At this point, we’ve worked together for so long that we can kind of read each other’s minds at this point in time, which is sometimes creepy. It’s especially helpful in cases of breaking news when we’re on the air. It’s important to me that I’m watching her, because I can look at her face and know if she raises an eyebrow or she’s looking a certain way, I can pretty much know what it is that she is thinking or needing to know.
Is there a specific story or specific day that stands out where you two were together?
Perry: There have been so many memorable ones. I think I would say the first Obama inauguration was super memorable. We had a couple of great assignments that day in terms of Andrea’s positioning. First, she was on the Capitol steps doing interviews there. Then, we had to get her from the steps to a flatbed truck that would ride in the parade route with them. It was a little dicey getting through the crowd and getting to the different positions we needed to be in. But I think both of us kind of looking at each other—as crazy as it was—we just kind of couldn’t believe that she had the best seat in the house for that moment in history, certainly.
Mitchell: We were positioned—before they put all their restrictions, which they did in subsequent inaugurals—behind the podium in the VIP area. We were right up there doing interviews with everybody, cabinet officials, speechwriters, John Legend, which was cool. Then, Michelle had to get me to the flatbed truck through several lines of security for the parade, where I was the correspondent going live—as the truck moved down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, to the viewing stand.
Along the way, it was super complicated—I pulled a tendon in my ankle. It was really bad.
Perry: She was going for the interview and jumped off the truck.
Mitchell: Balancing the whole time on a moving truck, holding the microphones and you’re not leaning on anything. It was so challenging. Then, we couldn’t get through the crowds, so she [Perry] had to walk back to the bureau to get started on my Nightly News script, which she was starting to write for me.
Perry: You had to find a way to get to the White House from where you filed that night.
Mitchell: Yep. So she had to walk all the way back—what was it, five miles? Four?
Perry: Almost all the way back until I could get a ride, yes.
Mitchell: It was just one of the crazier days. Also, the Republican convention in St. Paul, Michelle—
Perry: I was supposed to meet Andrea on the perimeter of the convention floor with an interview that I had lined up for her. She was going to come meet me—and I think it was Tim [Russert] and Tom Brokaw and others were supposed to throw to us with this interview—and I’m standing there with the crew and Andrea is nowhere to be found. I ran into the booth to tell them that I couldn’t get Andrea over to me—and I see on the screen at that moment Andrea famously covered in balloons in the balloon drop. Everyone, including Tim, is doubled over in laughter and they’re pointing to the screen, saying, “Here’s Andrea, we found her!”
Mitchell: I kept punching the balloons up to dry and breathe. I was too short and the balloons were just falling all over the place in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was just to break balloons so I could be seen. They were shoulder-high, almost head-high.
Perry: Tom called you, “Andrea ‘Boom Boom’ Mitchell..”
Mitchell: Then, there was the beginning of the Iran nuclear negotiations at least five years before they came to a head, I guess. We were in Geneva together, trying to find a place that wasn’t in the pouring rain outside of the hotel, where Russians, Iranians and the US and the other leaders were all huddled. Michelle, I think you found the gas station on the corner. We were trying to get underneath.
Anyway, those moments you know when history is being made. Beginnings of talks between Iran and the United States. When I started my career in Washington covering the hostage taking, Iran and all of that under Jimmy Carter. Those are really meaningful, meaningful moments.
Andrea, what’s one of the biggest ways that Michelle has saved you over the lengthy period of time that you two have worked together?
Mitchell: During Covid, I was doing the show from my living room—and it was the day of the congressional commemoration for [the late Supreme Court Justice] Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They had done the Supreme Court [commemoration] the day before. This was on a Friday and so justices were not there.
We were asked if I could book a Supreme Court justice to talk about RBG. So, I called [former Supreme Court Justice] to see if Stephen Breyer would do it. It would need to go at the top of the show, it was a big deal. And he said, “I have a conference with my clerks at noon, but I’ll delay it.” He was back in Cambridge, back home in Boston during Covid. They were not meeting at the Court. He had to return home. He was going to Zoom in at the very top of our show. I was in my living room. Michelle—you were in your living room.
Nobody was at the bureau. We get ready to go on the air and I hear in my ear from the line producer, “We’re not seeing you.” I said, “Did someone punch up the wrong remote? Why aren’t you seeing me?” They said, “It just looks funny, I don’t know what it is. Looks like a ceiling somewhere—and then it’s black.” We’re going on the air and they’re rolling b-roll of what has happened so far and the casket going into the rotunda. But they can’t see anything. They can’t see me and I’m just voicing over any kinds of pictures. I know that the Supreme Court justices don’t usually go on the air—and I don’t want to lose this interview.
So, finally, I hear Michelle say, “Andrea, Andrea, that’s your carpet, that’s your living room carpet!” And what happened was that the camera was rotating—the robotic cameras and they had lost control of it. It was spinning, it was doing a 360. It was my mantle, it was my piano and nobody would recognize it except Michelle, who knows me so well, that I had a pattern within the living room carpet—and now the camera was focused on the living room carpet and not me!
They tried to figure out a way back at 30 Rock to regain control of the camera so that they could fix it on me, so I could interview Justice Breyer, who was in his bedroom on his laptop where he was working. So, thanks to Michelle, she absolutely saved the whole show and the interview. It was the only interview with a Supreme Court Justice talking about his very good friend and colleague. They managed to stabilize the camera and finally focus on me within seconds of starting the interview. I think that might have been her best “save.”
Being on at noon—so much news breaks at noon and this was breaking news and so no matter what we’ve planned, so often. It’s just 11:59 a.m., something is happening and she’ll say, “Kill the open, Andrea, just talk. We’ll get you some pictures. We’ll get you some guests just to fill just as long as you can.” And she’ll have somebody running copy into me. And I’ll just start talking about something until she can line up a guest.
I would say she saves me every day.