In November, 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl sat down with then-President-elect Donald Trump for his first interview since his surprising election win over Hillary Clinton. Being in front of a breaking story is nothing new for the 40-year broadcast news veteran.
From her prominent coverage of the Watergate affair as a CBS reporter in 1972; to her stint as a CBS White House correspondent during the Carter, Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations; to her stint as moderator of Sunday-morning staple Face the Nation from 1983-91; to her 26-year run on 60 Minutes, Stahl has set a standard for future women — and men — in journalism. She has earned 12 Emmy Awards and, in 2015, she received the Paul White Award for lifetime achievement from the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA).
Stahl, the recipient of the inaugural Multichannel News Woman of Influence award, reflected on her career in an interview with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead. Stahl — whose most recent book, Becoming Grandma, will be released in paperback form in advance of Mother’s Day — also opines on the challenges that women reporters have experienced over the last four decades, as well as what broadcast journalism might look like in the future.
Following is an edited excerpt of their wide-ranging conversation.
MCN: When you started your career in broadcast journalism more than 40 years ago, did you ever think that you would have achieved as much as you have?
Lesley Stahl: When I started back in the very early ’70s, it was kind of a rule of thumb for some that women would not survive on television past the age of 40. It was just a given — women will not be able to age on television. Everybody believed it; I believed it. That’s just the way it was. So the answer to your question is you no, I never thought I’d survive. I thought I’d have to go and find something else to do after I turned 40.
MCN: What was the turning point that changed things so women journalists like yourself could have long and rewarding TV careers?
LS: The women’s rights movement was just beginning to bubble up when I started out in this profession. My timing was exquisite — when I was hired by CBS News In 1972, I was working at a local television station in Boston at that point. In 1972, the word went out that affirmative action was in effect, and all three network-television news organizations were literally scouring the country for women and minorities. I heard about this and applied, so I think my timing was excellent. The early ’70s was the first wave and there have been waves and waves ever since.
MCN: How do you think women newscasters are viewed today, by the industry and by the public in general?
LS: I think they’re pretty used to it now. If you go to virtually any local market in the country and turn on your television at around 5 or 6 o’clock at night you’re probably going to see a man and a woman sitting there together giving the news, and in some markets, it’s just a woman. The sea change is enormous. I think that people don’t even think about it anymore.
MCN: A lot of people will attribute much of the success of today’s female newscasters to trail you blazed over your career. Were there certain events or certain stories that you covered that really stand out in your mind?
LS: Well, I think there were some breaks that I got. When CBS first hired me in April of 1972, the Watergate burglary happened. Now nobody, I mean nobody, thought that was going to be a national story. I had only been there a couple months and they sent me off to cover Watergate. That was probably my major break, and because I was assigned to a story that lasted for years. I was able to learn how to develop sources, investigate and dig, which I think reporters in the beginning of their careers don’t get a chance to do because they’re shuttled from one story to the next story.
MCN: What advice would you give to a young woman journalist looking to get into the business today?
LS: I’d say start out on the Web. You have to learn how to be a different kind of correspondent than I was because you’re probably not going to have the kind of backup I did. As a broadcast reporter, I’ve always had a camera pool and a producer travel with me — this was true when I covered the White House; it’s true today at 60 Minutes. If you’re a reporter online, you’re basically by yourself — you’re shooting the story yourself, you’re editing the story yourself, you’re doing everything — you’re what we call a one-man band. Journalism will not work the way it looks today, and broadcast journalists will not go about getting their stories out the way we do and did. It’s changed already. I’m just very lucky that I’m still at one of the few outlets that does it the old-fashioned way.
MCN: What’s next in the career of Lesley Stahl?
LS: Well, you know, 60 Minutes is this precious, separate little entity but it’s still extremely popular. Our ratings are very strong and because of that we really do journalism the old-fashioned way in many ways. Because we’re still very popular I don’t think we’re going to be going away all that soon, so that’s all good for me personally, and good for the country too because I think there is a hunger for what we do.
I think that people who are considering what journalism will look like on the Web ought to keep in mind that there is a huge audience for long, well-informed, well-reported, story-telling stories.