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Mitchell: When our bosses were all men

by Andrea Mitchell, NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent

We spent some time this week trying to find a picture of Christie Basham.

Most of my colleagues asked, "Who was Christie Basham?" Then, they asked, "Why do you want her picture?"

The answer is simple, and complicated. Basham was a pioneer in our business: quiet, strong, talented, and professional. And did I mention that she was a woman? The hunt for her picture was a another story.

One stalwart colleague found a small glimpse of Christie in a group picture taken for the 44th Anniversary of Meet the Press, a group shot among a series mounted along an upstairs corridor. At the time, Christie was senior producer of the Sunday broadcast. Tim Russert hadn't yet taken over as host from former anchorman Garrick Utley. In the picture, Christie stares out with an even, no-nonsense gaze. We stole it from the wall to digitize it. No one noticed it was gone.

I also recalled another, larger picture of Christie, unposed, and characteristically intent, leaning over the assignment editor in our old newsroom. For years, it hung on the wall of Christie's office, once she became deputy bureau chief and had an office. We tracked it down in storage, packaged in bubble wrap, at the home of one of Christie's recently retired successors.

Christie was a pioneer, one of the first women executives in broadcast news. For that matter, for much of her 41 year career, she was the only woman executive around these corridors. Still, she never became Bureau Chief.

As Christie's good friend Haynes Johnson recalled nine years ago, she had started out at the old Washington Star, in 1953, as a "dictationist," earning $37.50 a week. She was told that she shouldn't expect to get paid much because women would get married and have children and leave the paper. She did leave the paper - in 1957, to join NBC as reporter and researcher for the great David Brinkley. Except for a few years at CBS and PBS, Christie spent 36 years here, rising through the ranks and helping invent television news. Once again, when NBC hired her, some functionary in personnel told Christie not to expect much, and certainly not to expect to become an on-air reporter. That was just fine with Christie, thank you very much. Her primary interests were decidedly unglamorous: writing and reporting. In fact, women didn't think about being in front of the cameras back in 1957. It was a time when women covering speeches by newsmakers at the National Press Club had to sit in the balcony, unable to ask questions. The Gridiron and other clubs were restricted to men. Women felt isolated, and bonded with each other. We needed leaders. Christie was our guide.

By being such a quiet, solid professional, she became a comfort and an inspiration to a lot of other women trying to break into the profession in our Washington bureau, women like Cassie Mackin, Linda Ellerbee, Judy Woodruff, Carole Simpson, Katie Couric, Lisa Myers, and Jamie Gangel.

Once she retired, Christie spent a lot of time in her beloved Maine. She had all of the virtues of a plainspoken New Englander. Blunt, to the point, sensible, smart and kind. Christie died of brain cancer in July, 2000. I don't know if there is a connection, but I don't recall seeing her without a cigarette. In newsrooms back then, most everyone smoked.

Now there are women in the front office -- like Senior NBC News Vice President Alexandra Wallace, previously the first Executive Producer of an evening news broadcast. It's hard to remember the days when our bosses were all men and we had to sit in the balcony to cover assignments. But every once in a while, it's worth remembering the missing portraits from our walls.

Editor's note: Women now make up virtually half the U.S. work force. "A Woman's Nation," a special report that examines how U.S. culture has responded to this change, begins this week on the networks of NBC. Click here to learn more and to watch videos of Mitchell talking about challenges in her early career. Click here to see a timeline of milestones for women at NBC News.