Reporting Live by Lesley Stahl
University of North Texas
October 22, 2017
Lesley Stahl could have written her book Reporting Live (Simon & Schuster, 1999) today and most women in television news would be able to relate. What she has experienced for decades in her career at CBS News is a very familiar journey for female reporters even now.
Robin Toner reviewed the book in for the New York Times (January, 1999) and called it “… most gripping when it sticks to the arc of Stahl’s career and, by extension, that of a cohort of women.” Stahl laid out her exciting but challenging career in her 444-page memoir. Her honesty even sheds light on her weaknesses that turned to personal sacrifices.
The passing of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act in April 1972 opened the door for Stahl at CBS. She knew the networks were desperately looking for women.
With only two years of television experience in Boston, Stahl got a fast track to CBS when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required television broadcasting companies to hire females and minorities. The FCC had its own affirmative action program.
Stahl knew she had to prove herself. Affirmative action opened the door for her at the network, but she needed to show she could do the job. “I knew my colleagues saw me as a light weight, unqualified to join the Super Bowl champs of TV news. I had to find ways to convey my seriousness, to send out signals that I was resolute and earnest, not what the wrapping said I was.” (Stahl, 1999,p.15).
As a rookie in TV news, Stahl also promised herself that she would never blame any setbacks on sexism. “If thoughts like ‘It’s just’ cause I’m a woman’ crept into my head, I sat on them. I told myself ‘Lesley, work harder. If you’re good, they’ll have to use you.” (Stahl, 1999,p.15).
Yes she faced sexism at many turns in her career. NBC News anchor, David Brinkley, had no faith in her. She knew him before her days at CBS. “Brinkley had told me I was not going to make it in journalism. “You’re a pretty blonde” he’d said.” (Stahl, 1999, p. 16).
She felt the resentment of men from all angles. “They acted as though we had cut in line, hadn’t paid our dues, didn’t belong in the precious orbit of the CBS Washington Bureau. How do I know they resented our being there? Because they wanted me to know.” (Stahl, 1999,p.15).
Stahl doesn’t whine about the negative attacks and undermining by men. She used it to fuel her to keep going. Tobin at the New York Times (January, 1999) said “…what shines through this memoir is how much Stahl loved the work…”
In 1972, when the rest of the Washington Bureau was on the presidential campaign, CBS assigned Stahl to a story it didn’t consider that important. Some men had broken into one of the Watergate buildings. “That CBS let me, the newest hire, hold on to Watergate as an assignment was a measure of how unimportant the story seemed.” (Stahl, 1999, p.16)
Stahl had no idea Watergate would become one of the biggest stories in American history and would eventually take down a president. “When the five Watergate burglars asked the judge for a bail reduction, I got my first scoop.”
The book touches on Stahl’s personal life: her tense relationship with her mother, dating Bob Woodward when they covered Watergate, and also Bob Dole. She eventually married Aaron Latham, another journalist. They had one daughter, Taylor.
After Watergate, CBS News made Stahl its White House correspondent. She would cover the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. Once again proving she could do the job that CBS always gave to a man.
By September 1983, Stahl was also added as moderator of “Face the Nation.” A position she held until 1991 and eventually she got her dream job as a correspondent with “60 Minutes.”
Stahl had covered many of the most important events in history: Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, hijacking of flight 847, Iraq bomb in Tel-Aviv. “…when I stopped to live in the moment and say to myself, ‘Wow, kiddo, you are there. You are a witness, you lucky son of a gun. Just be still, slow the engine, and make sure you remember.” (Stahl, 1999, p.200).
She learned to be tough on the outside even though inside she wanted to cry. “When critics scraped me over, I simply flexed my well-developed I-don’t-care muscle.” (Stahl, 1999. p.200).
She was working in a man’s world where showing any kind of emotion made a woman look weak and vulnerable. “When someone at the White House complained in an unpleasant decibel range, I’d turn some optic handle and dam up the water…” (Stahl, 1999, p.200).
Publishers Weekly (January, 19999) said “…she never quite explains what drives her to contend with the sexism, the network politics and the strain on her family life that the job demands.”
The job challenges were one thing but the guilt from not spending more time with her husband and only child ate at her all the time. Stahl told People magazine (1977) “Everybody in the country goes to bed with Johnny Carson, I go to bed with Walter Cronkite.”
She felt more guilt when she realized her husband suffered from clinical depression and she didn’t have a clue. “He was in the grips of the disease, but I was either too busy, too self absorbed , or too irritated with him to put it all together.” (Stahl, 1999, p.335). Today they are still married with grandchildren.
Stahl’s book is learning tool that I would give to every woman who wants a career in journalism. If you want a career as much as Stahl wanted, then you have to make sacrifices and tough it out during difficult times.
Today Stahl is still one of the best correspondents on 60 Minutes. She paved the way for more women in television news, but the sad reality is in 2017 not much has changed for females. A 2017 report by The Status of Women in the U.S. Media (March 2017) revealed “men still dominate media cross all platform…with change coming only incrementally.”
Toner, Robin (January 24, 1999) Book review: ‘Stahl’. New York Times.
Publishers Weekly (January 4, 1999) Book Review ‘Reporting Live’
Women’s Media Center (March 21, 2017). The Status of Women in U.S. Media
Smilgis, Martha. (1977) Mixed Media Marriage, People Magazine.