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Leslie Stahl

In her early days, Stahl was often tapped for the gossip angle of a story, and her office was stacked with storage items that included a child's second grade desk.

By JANE AMMESON

Emmy-winning Leslie Stahl has been a CBS 60 Minutes correspondent for the last 14 years, scoring exclusive interviews with heavyweights such as Al Gore, Boris Yeltsin, Yassar Arafat, George Bush and Margaret Thatcher. Also the anchor of 48 Hours Investigates, Stahl, a graduate of Wheaton College in southern Massachusetts, has seen numerous changes in how women are treated in the field of journalism. In her early days, Stahl was often tapped for the gossip angle of a story, and her office--much different from a man's at her level--was stacked with storage items that included a child's second grade desk.

But Stahl, a former White House correspondent under the Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and part of the George H.W. Bush administration, is today at the top of her field, having recently been presented with a Lifetime Achievement Emmy. Married to author Aaron Latham, Stahl lives in New York. Calling 60 Minutes her "dream job," the word "passion" is ever-present in her vocabulary.

Chicago Life: What is the best type of story to cover?

Leslie Stahl: Luckily, I like to cover all different kinds of stories. I like the variety, and that's good because that's what they want at 60 Minutes. When I got here, my boss at the time, Don Hewitt, said he saw 60 Minutes as a repertory company with all of us playing all of the parts. One week you're Hamlet, but the next week, you're the clown. Each one of us present a variety of different kinds of stories, so we don't get pigeon-holed and stereotyped. And not only that, but our stories are sometimes tough, sometimes amusing and sometimes hard-hitting--the whole spectrum. It's expected that I will cover all different kinds of stories and all different genres of journalism. I do, and I like that--so do my producers.

Chicago Life: Do you think news is becoming more shallow and less informative?

Leslie Stahl: I sit in a place where none of that is true, which is another reason I like this job. Everyone keeps coming up to us 60 Minutes people and saying, "You're the last one." And we know it, and we love that. Everyone here does foreign stories. Everyone here does investigative stories, but the thing that's true is that our stories are shorter. When I got here, the average story was at least 15 minutes, if not longer, and now it's down to 12 minutes. That side of it is an aggravation to all of us. We are 60 Minutes, and we're going to give you in-depth stories--though I think 12 minutes is too short. But I thought 15 was too short.

Chicago Life: Who were your journalism role models when you were young?

Leslie Stahl: I didn't have role models growing-up because I didn't want to be a journalist when I was young. I wanted to be an architect, and then I wanted to be a doctor--then I didn't know what I wanted to be for a long time. I wasn't looking at journalism or journalists, and when I did come into this there were so few women.

Chicago Life: What are the current, predominant trends in journalism?

Leslie Stahl: This business is driven by technology. You can be called upon to report a story right away. So, there's no time to think, and that happens constantly each day. It's changed the depth, and I even think it has affected the public's respect for journalism because there is a sense of that. They know. How can they [people] watch a reporter come out and tell us instantly when they haven't been able to make a phone call? They haven't checked with sources. I think there is a feeling out there that we've lost something by not spending more time digging.

Chicago Life: Should a journalist always protect a source? What would you do if you were Judith Miller (the New York Times reporter who has been jailed for the last several months after refusing to reveal her source to the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame CIA leak)?

Leslie Stahl: Yes! I'd protect my source. In the cases of the others who did go to the grand jury, I understand that their sources let them off the hook, and so, in that case I would cooperate. But if my source didn't, I would have given my word, and I would keep it. I haven't been faced with it, luckily. That Judith Miller has been in jail for so long is outrageous.

Chicago Life: How do you pick your stories?

Leslie Stahl: The way we do it is just every way you can think of. We read out-of-town newspapers, we read a lot of magazines, we often say, you know, I'd like to do a story on breast cancer--let's go see what's going on and what's happening out there. Or, you know, I haven't done an education story in a long time, let's go see if we can come up with a good story. But very often people call and give us a great idea. We don't confine ourselves. We get lots of people who write us to send in ideas.

Chicago Life: Once you pick a story, what's next?

Leslie Stahl: The way the system works here at 60 Minutes is interesting and unlike any of the other magazine shows. Each correspondent here has a team, and my team only works for me. There are 10 on a team, and on my team, we get to organize the way it works best for us. My team is made up of four producers and each producer has an associate producer. These four teams are responsible for coming up with story ideas. Once I like an idea, the producer and the associate producer go out and do the legwork, and legwork can mean investigating the source or it can mean meeting a whole lot of people and finding the best spokesman, characters and people to illustrate the story. And when I say best, I mean people who are articulate, have energy, speak well and with authority and passion. We call that casting, like Hollywood in a way. They are out there doing auditions, and they travel and do all the background. Once that process is finished and the team figures out who I'm going to interview and has a rough outline of the story, they have to present a budget. That has to be approved because when we go out to do these interviews, it becomes a Mission Impossible group. We all move together--the crew, the producers and I into many different sites, cities and locations. It can take anywhere from two days to two weeks. Then all of that material that we've put on tape comes back here. An editor and producer are now brought into this process. They screen everything that was shot, transcripts are made of all the interviews, and the producer will do a first draft. Then I will work with a producer on the script, and then that's recorded. The producer, the editor and I will then go back into the edit room and edit the piece together and then we present it to our boss. It's a lot like going in for an exam--it's critiqued and a lot of questions are asked. We have to go back and make changes and bring it back again, and then finally, an executive looks at it and gives it final approval. Sometimes there are legal issues, and lawyers are brought in. That's the process.

Chicago Life: The process sounds so physically and mentally demanding, yet you always appear upbeat and energized on camera.

Leslie Stahl: I'm always invigorated because I'm always caring about these subjects. I've chosen them.

Chicago Life: How's print reporting different from broadcast?

Leslie Stahl: Not everybody likes to work this way, but I like very much to get the story down on paper. That's the way I've always worked, and it's still working. I will look at it on paper and think, wow, this really sings. This is wonderful. And then you watch it on videotape, and 90 percent of the time it's different. It's all in the inflection of the person who speaks and in how his eyebrow arches or some pause that isn't reflected in the transcripts, a pause that means everything, or a smirk or whatever. So, the camera is the third dimension. You're doing all your reporting, you're getting all of your information, you're hopefully writing well--and then the chemistry on the screen is another element that becomes that last thing that you really have to contend [with]. Sometimes a story that looks beautiful on paper, something that you would love to read in a magazine, doesn't work at all. It has to be completely redone from beginning to end. It happens quite a bit.

Chicago Life: You have been quoted as saying that the camera sometimes sees things that a reporter doesn't. Can you tell us about that?

Leslie Stahl: It's not just that the camera is finding and looking behind the eyes or liking or not liking someone. It's even more than that. It has to do with the chemistry between me and the person I'm interviewing. Is there some sense of anger that I didn't feel that the camera really grabs? Or some sense of fun that I just missed sitting there--such as, he was joking. And it's like, oh, my God, I didn't even get that. Sometimes there's a subtlety in an answer that goes over your head, and then you listen to it on tape and say, wow, that's great. I hadn't even thought of that one. Put that in. That's good. The camera is both a documentarian but also, in a way, like a psychiatrist. The camera will see things behind things, things that the eye can miss--like a psychiatrist.

Chicago Life: You recounted in an interview about an incident that occurred when you were covering Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign in 1984. At the time, Reagan had proposed very unpopular budget cuts for federally funded nursing homes and benefits for the handicapped. To overcome the impact of these cuts on his re-election chances, Reagan was filmed presiding over the opening of nursing homes, hugging handicapped kids and other positive imagery like that. You, while these images were being shown, made sure that the public also heard about his cuts, and yet according to a CBS study, less than 25 percent of those watching heard your message. You said, "When the pictures are emotional and powerful and when you are saying something that conflicts with them, the messages aren't married; the pictures will drown out what you say." Do you still run into that?

Leslie Stahl: It's not really a problem at 60 Minutes. I haven't had that be an issue for me since I left the White House. I think it's still an issue for daily broadcast reporters. I think you can deal with it in the writing, and once you at least understand the problem, I think you can then address it. We didn't understand that for so many years. It wasn't until 1984 when someone at the White House told me that the pictures were overwhelming the words, and then I went around and told everybody else. Now, it's taught in journalism schools. It's taught with that story that there was this wonderful Reagan piece on CBS, and the reporter, that's me, thought it was very tough--but the White House loved it because they knew what I was saying wasn't getting through, and it was true. It wasn't getting through. But I didn't know it. But now we know it, and I think you see that reporters are now on camera more than they used to be. We understand that a little better now. o

Published: October 01, 2005
Issue: November 2005