Landing an interview with this titan in journalism requires, above all else, persistence. Lesley Stahl, venerable correspondent on the Sunday news program 60 Minutes since 1991, is one very busy professional. Getting six minutes alone with her took four months, a cast of people working different approaches, and a lucky break with her appearance at Fairfield University. Her lecture, “Inside 60 Minutes,” kicked off the tenth season of Open VISIONS, a brilliant, on-campus series that invites students, faculty and the community to hear from authorities across a broad spectrum of specialties. While Ms. Stahl’s discussion this evening focused on the upcoming presidential election and the thrill of national politics, we wanted to know more about the journalist we’ve watched on our television for years—and, yes, see if we can figure out what makes her tick. As you’ll discover from our interview, she’s forever connected to the sound of the second-hand and still handles the unexpected moments in an interview with natural grace.
Q & A
When was your “a-ha” moment, when you knew you wanted to be a journalist?
There was an “a-ha” moment—a serious one. I was working on the mayor’s speech-writing staff. I went into the press room and I asked a reporter, “What do you do all day?” And all he did was go through the day, but no one had ever presented journalism to me. There wasn’t a journalism course back in those days. And when he was finished, I went, “Oh my, I have to do that. I must do it.” And I then tried to get a job. It wasn’t easy for a woman in those days.
What is it like being a woman journalist and being on 60 minutes?
Well, now it’s great being a woman journalist, and journalism has always been good for women. Journalism was one of the few inviting professions for women all along. Although there weren’t many, there were always some, and this is going way back.
But I actually got my job through affirmative action, at CBS anyway. I was already in journalism, but in 1972 CBS hired me—and that, basically, was the year it came into the broadcast companies.
Were you treated as an equal in those early years?
It was very interesting. They hired a group of women and minorities and set up an apprentice program. And it worked great.
We don’t do that kind of thing anymore. But we were all assigned to senior correspondents for about a year. They were called correspondents. We were called reporters; we had a lower rank. And it worked great.
I started out doing a.m. radio and morning news television, and they eased us in, even though I was already a television reporter at a local station. It was terrific. I have no complaints about it.
Another thing, I felt from my colleagues and my bosses that they really wanted us to succeed, and I didn’t feel that I was an interloper—except for the cameramen who I worked with. They gave us a bad time, not just me, but all of the women and minorities—all the affirmative action hires. There was a group of us. It was a hazing. But our colleagues didn’t, and our bosses didn’t.
Did that treatment prep you for asking tough questions in your interviews?
I always thought my job was to ask tough questions, the kind of questions people wanted asked. I thought that was my role. I started out in Washington, mainly asking government officials, whose role I thought was to be accountable. So I never really saw it as crossing a line or being especially tough. I thought that was my job, and their job was to answer and not be evasive.
[At this point, the interview is interrupted. We’re still “clearing our throats,” Ms. Stahl says, but I know it’s time to move along.]
If i were to write a novel, it would be about…a love story that is a true story that I heard from my mother when I was quite young. I don’t know that I’m capable of really making up a story. I would have to take something like that and fictionalize it, because I’m a journalist. I’d have to go to something true and expand on it.
If we’re stuck in an elevator, please don’t ask me…to do a story on your brother-in-law’s business that is having trouble with the government. I get that a lot!
If i could, i’d tell my twenty-three-year-old self…Oh that’s a such a good question. It’s a serious answer. [knock, knock, knock, just as I am hanging on her words. “I’m right in the middle,” she replies, and the door closes] I would tell my twenty-three-year-old self not to be afraid to tell someone how much you like them or love them.
An interview is complete when…whomever you are interviewing says it’s over. I will keep going until someone pulls the plug, because that’s the way I am. So for me the interview is never really over—it’s my nature to persist.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Answers edited for fit and clarity.