Lesley Stahl On Mike Wallace and '60 Minutes'

When it comes to tackling a story for '60 Minutes,' Lesley Stahl has the sophistication of a lady and the eye of a tiger. It is these qualities and many more that earned Stahl multiple Emmys and other awards and solidifying her as one of the most respected journalists in the world.  An edited version of our phone interview with her follows

by Ilyssa Panitz • More.com Celebrity Reporter
lesley stahl image
Photograph: CBS News

More: I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your friend and colleague Mike Wallace.
Lesley Stahl: It was shocking. Although he hasn’t been here for about five-years we are still absorbing it. Don’t forget it comes on the heels of Andy Rooney, Don Hewitt and Ed Bradley. It is the World War II generation, really. It is the end of the era.

More: What does Mike’s passing mean for 60 Minutes and for the industry?
LS: You say that in the sense of it being a closing. But Mike along with Don Hewitt created a whole new form of broadcast journalism, which is 60 Minutes. They made it extremely serious, they gave it the highest standards and it still lives. It does not go away. It is his voice, it is his toughness and it is his interest to getting to the bottom of things. Mike stayed here for 40-years to make sure this wouldn’t die and it won’t.

More: As friends and colleagues share their favorite memories, what were yours?
LS: My mind is darting all over the place. There are a thousand but there are three in particular that stand out. I have known Mike since I got to CBS. We even covered election nights together. In the beginning, I would lean over and quietly pick up the phone and call my mother. Somehow Mike caught onto this. He was so smart and nothing got past him. I have no idea how he figured it out because I would whisper. Mike would teased me so unmercifully saying, “Calling mama again?” It was like the towel snapping thing he did with the guys. It was then I thought, “Wow, I am one of the guys.” Mike just brought me in and I loved him for it. Another memory was when I got to 60 Minutes everyone told me, “It is a men’s club. You will be cut out.” But Mike never let that happen. That was huge. The third memory that comes to mind was when he called me into his office and gave me a lesson in being a tough interrogator. He said the most important thing is you ask the toughest questions and not be embarrassed. Ask your questions without shame. Now go practice!” Mike was a real mentor.

More: He meant many things to you.
LS: I think this is as important as his journalism, which was brilliant. Mike came forward and admitted he had depression. He did it at a time when depression was still a stigma and people did not understand that depression was not a sign of weakness. Here was the toughest guy in the world admitting this and then using his own experience to do public service announcements and encourage people to go get help. 

More: Actors get hit by the acting bugwhen did you get bit by the journalism bug?
LS: I was probably in my late twenties. I was working for the mayor of New York, on his speechwriting staff. The press office was right next door to where I was, so I decided to walk in and ask, “What do you do all day?” When the person I asked answered me, I remember thinking, Why didn’t anyone tell me about that?

More: So no reporting experience?
LS: I wasn’t on the school paper and there weren’t any journalism courses where I went to college.

More: But you just knew?
LS: It was a thunderbolt moment that went Boom! It was then I just knew.

More: As a woman, what has been the toughest obstacle to overcome in this business?
LS: That wasn’t my personal experience. I came into this because of affirmative action—at least at CBS. I was hired in 1972 when affirmative action was very popular in the country. In fact, it was so popular, CBS wanted people to know they hired a couple of women.

More: Did you ever deal with sexism?
LS: I didn’t have a bad experience even when I came to 60 Minutes, when I was the only woman on television. Because I work in an environment where there are a lot of women, I never found any of that to be true.

More: Have you ever been out on assignment and feared for your safety?
LS: I have been out on stories where I should have feared for my safety but didn’t. When you are in the eye of the storm you don’t feel it. It is when you get home you say to yourself, What was I thinking?

More: Give me an example.
LS: I was in Iraq and went to Tikrit when Saddam Hussein was still alive. We just went blindly into that area.

More: Which story has had the greatest impact on you?
LS: There are all kinds of impacts, such as emotional, outrage, and the impact famous people have on you. I think the stories that touch upon sick children are the ones that get to me and linger. I have done stories where kids inadvertently got a blood disease. I have done stories on severely autistic children. It is just heartbreaking to see what they and their families go through. It is those stories that affect me the most.

More: Is that the mom in you coming out?
LS: I think it is me the human being. Anybody would be affected when they are talking to a parent who is completely heartbroken.

More: You also mentioned famous people?
LS: That is the third category, where you end up either admiring them even more or you are so disappointed you just want to cry.

More: Who disappointed you?
LS: I have had government officials storm out over certain questions. Nicholas Sarkozy of France walked out over an innocent question. I remember interviewing Boris Yeltsin when he was president of Russia and he stormed off. You want to know that people in a position of power have a sane temperament. It is disappointing to see when they don’t.

More: Of all the Hollywood and world leaders you have interviewed, has anyone ever left you starstruck?
LS: Starstruck, no, but a few people silenced me, when I was at Face the Nation. One was General Arnold Schwarzkopf. I was interviewing him over the TV lines, where he is looking into one camera and I am looking into the other. Now that is tough, because when you do that you can’t assess their emotional state. You also can’t determine if they are really angry. Anyway, I was talking to him during the first Iraq war and I can’t remember what I asked him but I do remember he got really angry and shut me down. The other was Margaret Thatcher, who chastised me on-camera. She told me off after I asked her a question she didn’t like three different times.

More: What was the question?
LS: She had come to the United States at the height of the Iran–contra scandal. She was also an ally of Ronald Reagan, who was taking a beating because his government had not been forthcoming and honest about selling arms to Iran. Not only weren’t they truthful to the American public, they weren’t honest with the British government either. I was asking her how she could trust his administration. She responded by saying, “We have a wonderful relationship.” I asked it again, and then a third time. It was then she responded by saying something like, “Why does it seem I love your country more than you do?” I was like, “Whoa!” She really sliced me up on the air. I had nowhere to go.

More: Who is one person you have never interviewed and would love to talk to.
LS: I always wanted to interview Nancy Reagan. Actually, I did interview her when she was the first lady. But I wanted to interview her again because she was much more powerful and effective in Reagan's second term than anybody has written about or has admitted to. I just wanted to see if I could get her to talk about that. First ladies totally fascinate me.

More: Why?
LS: They are all more powerful than we realize. Some of them kind of, sort of admit it, like Hillary Clinton. Then they get slammed for it. A couple of them are very powerful yet keep their heads down.

More: Michelle Obama?
LS: Yes, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Barbara Bush—all of them. These women are the last people the president talks to and probably the one person the president can trust.

More: Why aren’t there more women featured on 60 Minutes?
LS: The problem is, no one leaves. (laughs) They hired me when Harry Reasoner died. People do not leave this job because it is such a wonderful job. Really, we don’t want to leave.

More: Is there a lot of pressure being on 60 Minutes, because the standards are so high?
LS: You kind of hope every journalist feels that way about every story they do. I came here 21 years ago, and covered Washington before that. In terms of getting the story right, I think you always have to feel that way. I don’t think about it when I am doing a story because I am so busy working. We know we have to be accurate. We know we have to be precise. We know we have to deliver a 13-minute story that has a beginning, a middle and an end. You are right in terms of quality, because the people who do get to work here are pretty much the best in the business so it does up your game.

More: Does the program have a different feel now that Andy Rooney is no longer there to close the show?
LS: Absolutely. There is not only a feeling within but with the audience as well that we are in some sort of transition. Not only don’t we have Andy at the end of the show but we also have people who are popping in and popping out. The show does need to have some younger people. While the ratings continue to get stronger, the one thing that will never change is the quality of the pieces. Another change with Jeff Fager, who took over for Don Hewitt, is that there is more of an emphasis of being on the news and doing more stories of the week. I think that change has brought us a fresh audience.

More: You once said something along the lines of, TV isn’t what is used to be and social media is hot. Is that why you got involved in WowOWow [Women on the Web]?
LS: Definitely. There were a few reasons, actually. I did want to do something on the Internet because that is the future—journalism will be on the Web. Secondly, I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I have always worked for somebody, and now I wanted to do something new and with a group of women.  

More: How does it differ from what you are used to doing on 60 Minutes?
LS: A million different ways. When I am on 60 Minutes, it is among the biggest audiences in television. The reach is different with the Internet, and this particular site is geared for women in their forties and fifties. We are also much more targeted in the subjects we cover, and are more freewheeling. We do a lot of conversations and chats.

More: Do you feel you get to reinvent yourself by taking on a project like this?
LS: No, because I am still at 60 Minutes. If anything, I got to expand myself.

More: You are the definition of success. You have never failed at anything.
LS: If you ask anyone who knows me, they will tell you I am a very hard worker. I am a hard worker because I like what I do a lot and I put in the hours.

More: Have you had to sacrifice anything along the way?
LS: I did, but I never thought of it as sacrifice. I raised a child [her daughter Taylor]. Although I didn’t go to everything [of hers], I know for a fact she felt it was good that I worked and had a big job. If I had turned all of that energy on her, it would have been ugly (laughs) and she knows it.

More: Who is your hero?
LS: That has always been a hard question. When I started there were so few ahead of me. I always admired Barbara Walters.

More: What’s your guilty pleasure?
LS: What’s funny is that question used to intimidate me. It’s like, what do you do when you are not working? I would go home and try to be a mom. But now my guilty pleasure is getting on an airplane and gong to see my brand-new granddaughter. She is one year old and her name is Jordan. She just started walking and is just developing language. To her I am Lolly and she knows it is me. If I have any free time I am on a plane to Los Angeles to see her.

More: What’s it like being a grandma?
LS: It is so emotional to watch your child parent. Watching it just gets you in your gut. It is an overwhelming emotion, like Wow! I think I feel a tear coming on now. (laughs)

More: So let me guess, Jordan is your screen saver?
LS: Absolutely. Matter of fact, I am looking at her right now.

Click here to read Joan Lunden Takes on Yet Another Role: Family Caregiver.

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First Published Thu, 2012-03-29 23:37

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