“My Eyes Have Been Opened”: Lesley Stahl Talks ’60 Minutes’ Survival and CBS News’ Year of Scandal
After a year of scandal and change, 60 Minutes' top female journalist Lesley Stahl opens up about her staying power, the "boys club" culture at CBS and the #MeToo reckoning.
Lesley Stahl is standing in the doorway of her 60 Minutes office. “I’ve been waiting for you,” she tells me, a hint of impatience in her voice. I am seven minutes late and, as she reminds me, “We have a lot to do.”
She ushers me into a workspace stuffed with the detritus of her 28-year career at 60 Minutes. There are books, Emmys, photos. But I don’t get much of a chance to snoop around. “This is your only shot at my office,” Stahl says. Then she’s gathering her things: coat, handbag, black roller bag. And we’re off, hustling down the hall to a tracking booth where she’ll record two lines of narration for a segment about the dismal safety record of U.S. railroads. She reads the lines three times. It takes her all of one minute.
Next, we are crossing West 57th Street to a studio where she’ll tape an intro for a piece about Nigerian refugees. On the way, she notices I don’t have a tape recorder, just a notebook. “You getting all this?” she wants to know. A few minutes later, she’s perched on a stool in front of a greenscreen, taking care to hide from the camera the bandaged pinkie finger on her right hand. I ask her — not seriously — if she broke it on someone’s jaw. She laughs. “I wish! I wish I punched somebody.” (She actually broke it last year, falling on the stairs at Cipriani Wall Street while emceeing a charity event — a “mortifying” experience.) By 12:30, she’s done and moving on to a segment about the Arab-language version of Sesame Street, set to premiere in September and aimed at the Middle East’s millions of refugee children. But as we head for the exit to make the drive to Henson Workshop in Long Island City, Queens, we hear a voice calling after us. “Hey!”
It’s Susan Zirinsky, tapped in January as president of CBS News. Stahl and Zirinsky have known each other for more than 40 years; they both started at CBS News’ Washington bureau in the early 1970s as the Watergate scandal was unfolding. Zirinsky, who is known as a hoarder of mementos, leads us to her office and pulls her wallet out of her purse to retrieve a scrap of yellowed paper. It’s a note that Stahl left on her desk in the ’80s, during the Reagan administration. It was written, Zirinsky explains, after a brutal night during which she and Stahl were crashing a piece for the Evening News. Neither can recall what it was about, but they were getting an earful from producers in New York who were concerned they weren’t going to make air. “They were shrieking at us,” says Zirinsky. “It was ugly.”
The note reads: “Don’t cry. They are fuckers & we can have a good time. Honest.”
Later, as we’re driving away from CBS News headquarters in a black Escalade, Stahl fills in some details about the note. “We used to call them ‘the-assholes-in-New-York,’ like it was one word,” she says. “Every piece was an argument. We had a lot of fights. And she’s a crier.”
She gives me a sideways glance and adds: “I wasn’t crying. I don’t cry.”
There are plenty of other things Stahl, 77, does not do. She does not sit, unless she is in a car going to a story. She does not eat or drink anything. At least she didn’t during the five hours I spent with her. She does not outsource the legwork to her producers.
“She doesn’t parachute in at the end,” says Rich Bonin, who has worked with Stahl at 60 Minutes since 1995.
She does not suffer fools. She was once detained for four hours at the Tel Aviv airport because she refused to tell border patrol agents why she was entering the country. (It was for a story about the settlements outside of Jerusalem.)
And when her daughter, Taylor, was born in 1977, she did not breast feed. “The men didn’t breast feed, we’re not going to show up at the office and be different from the men — we’re just not.”
Here are the things she does do. She gets on the phone to book her own interviews. She prepares. Incessantly. “You usually expect the correspondents to read like the first 10 pages of research,” says Shachar Bar-On, who has produced many of Stahl’s foreign stories. “But she will pull up in an interview something from page 37 — or 57.”
She goes to the ends of the Earth for a story. In 2017, she went to the Arctic for a piece about the competition for oil and mineral rights underneath the fast-melting sea ice. “We were on a block of ice that no human had ever set foot on,” says Bonin. “And the closest thing to a bathroom was a barrel with a wooden toilet seat nailed on to it.”
And she will make herself at home if you tell her “the door is open.”
Two years ago, Stahl and her producers were working on a story about the Remington 700 rifle, which was spontaneously firing and killing people. They arranged to interview a gun owner at his home. He told them if they arrived before him, just head on in. “We’re in this guy’s kitchen,” recalls Bar-On. “And Lesley is warming stuff in the microwave, and stuff spilled and she was sort of cleaning up. And he walks in and he’s like, ‘Well, this is surreal.'”
Stahl has anchored 640 pieces for 60 Minutes since she joined the show full time in 1991. Her range is eclectic: politics (two interviews with President Trump, a lacerating grilling of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos); investigations (unprecedented access inside Guantanamo Bay prison in 2013 earned her the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award); mogul sit-downs (Elon Musk in the wake of his resignation as chairman of Tesla and $20 million settlement with the SEC). In the Trump era — where vast swaths of the national media are devoted to breathless coverage of the president’s petty mendacities and much of the newsmagazine competition long ago reverted to crime stories — 60 Minutes stands out as a bastion of seriousness and purpose. And Stahl offers a weekly master class in the art of the TV interview, wearing down obfuscating executives and double-talking politicians with a blizzard of follow-ups. “She is a tenacious reporter,” says executive producer Bill Owens. “That is so important to the show.”
CBS News is emerging from more than a year of uncertainty, spurred first by the ouster of Charlie Rose and then, in September, the stunning fall of Leslie Moonves, the powerful CEO of CBS Corp. Much scrutiny fell on 60 Minutes in large part because of Rose’s long association with the program but also because of the show’s notoriously challenging environment. In a July New Yorker exposé by Ronan Farrow, 60 Minutes was characterized as a “toxic” work environment, with then-executive producer Jeff Fager singled out for enabling bad behavior and also accused of sexual misconduct himself (which he has denied). Several women — and men — who work at the show tell me they were distressed by what they felt was an egregious mischaracterization of their workplace. There were discussions about disseminating a letter of public support for Fager, whom Stahl defended in Farrow’s piece. “Jeff was not the person who was portrayed in The New Yorker,” she says. “Jeff was not a sexual predator. He wasn’t.” (Fager was fired in September for sending a threatening text to CBS News correspondent Jericka Duncan, who was reporting out misconduct claims leveled at him in a second New Yorker piece.)
Still, Stahl tells me, the #MeToo reckoning overall has made her re-evaluate her own career and climb up the media ladder. “My eyes have been opened,” she admits. “There was an element of a boys club, even for me. But I didn’t feel it at the time because I put blinders on. I love what I do. I’m able to focus on my work. And then I go home. But I have had a little bit of an education about myself.”
By the time Stahl got to 60 Minutes, she already had put in two trailblazing decades at CBS News. She joined the network in 1972 as an affirmative-action hire. “They were desperate for women,” she says. Richard Nixon was running for reelection, and there was an odd break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters inside the Watergate complex (where Stahl happened to live). At the time, she recalls, the story was considered a “nothing burger.” All of her seasoned (as in male) colleagues were out on the campaign trail. So the assignment editor sent Stahl to the arraignment of the Watergate burglars. “No camera, just me all by myself,” she remembers. “And I’m in the courtroom. And there’s one other reporter in the courtroom.”
It was Bob Woodward; the two would date briefly and remain friends to this day. “He kept saying to me, ‘You hold on to this story. This is a story.’ “
She did, and it was. And as the scandal mushroomed, Stahl’s doggedness grew. She staked out John Dean’s house. When he wouldn’t come to the door, she shouted questions at him through his mail slot. She chased Alexander Haig from a hearing room until congressional security tossed her to the ground. “They picked me up and threw me,” she recalls. But it was on grass, so she wasn’t hurt. “I just got up,” she shrugs.
Stahl filed a series of scoops, logging more time on the CBS Evening News, which was then watched by nearly 30 million people each night. By 1977, she was named White House correspondent and anchor of CBS Morning News, only the third female anchor at the network (Dorothy Doan and Sally Quinn preceded her). In 1983, Stahl became host of Face the Nation, transforming the then-30-year-old Washington staple from a genteel discussion program into a bare-knuckle debate. She also had a young child at home (her daughter is an L.A.-based film and TV producer who is co-producing M. Night Shyamalan’s psychological thriller series for Apple). “It was crazy, I was crazy,” Stahl says now. She was working nearly every day; prepping for her Sunday show on Saturday. But she didn’t struggle with the guilt that haunts so many working mothers, she says. “I always said to my daughter, ‘A little of me goes a long way,’ ” she recalls with a laugh.
It helped that her husband, Aaron Latham, a well-known magazine journalist (he wrote the Esquire article that was the basis for the film Urban Cowboy), appreciated the rigors of the profession. Still, the sexism of the time was systemic. And so was the competitiveness. “Everyone is aggressive and assertive [at 60 Minutes],” says Bonin. “We all have our work-life balance out of balance, all of us. Nothing is given to you, whether you’re a man or a woman. You have to be first, you have to be fast, and you have to be tenacious.” He adds, “I think Lesley was born that way.”
But she still needed a support system. And early on, she amassed a klatch of fellow pioneers — NPR’s Nina Totenberg and Linda Wertheimer, literary agent Esther Newberg, U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood, prosecutor Linda Fairstein, author Anna Quindlen — for regular lunches, which continue to this day. “We needed to have a girly conversation,” Stahl says.
And she is acutely aware of the need for the current reckoning. She recalls a conversation she had with a female producer on her team in the mid-1990s. “We were on a story, in the car together. She told me how afraid she was to ask for time off to go to a soccer match or take her kid to the doctor. And I said, ‘What?! You’re afraid of me?’ She said, ‘Yeah, because I think you’ll think I’m not as available as the guys.’ I was absolutely stunned. I came to CBS News in 1972 and that was an issue. And when I had my child in 1977 it was an issue. And that it was still an issue in 1994 just blew me over. That was well past the time that that should have been wrung out of working mothers’ minds.
“My generation felt that we needed to prove that we were exactly like the men in every way,” she continues. “That we were as available, could go anywhere, cover any subject, do it as well as the men. We were the provers.”
Stahl stands on an apple box at a large wooden glue- and paint-stained craft table at Henson Workshop. Across from her are two Sesame Street producers and between them are three Muppet stars of the upcoming Middle East version of the show. The workshop is quiet; puppet makers have been asked not to talk or move around while 60 Minutes producer Shari Finkelstein and her team shoot the interview. Stahl has changed out of flats and into a low heel. Her questions are printed on yellow paper in large font. She underlines questions, making notes in the margins. After nearly an hour, Finkelstein calls for a break.
“The staff needs to make some noise,” she says.
Stahl does not take a break. She stays perched on her apple box. Five minutes later, the cameras are rolling again. After another 30 minutes of questions and a few minutes to get reaction and listening shots, the shoot wraps. And we’re in the Escalade again, heading to Manhattan. Leaning back in the leather seat, she gets a bit more personal and discusses her hair. Specifically, the time 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt told her how much he hated it. “You look like Nancy Reagan,” she remembers him saying as he passed her the card of a hairdresser who could help. “I wasn’t young, I was seasoned,” she says. “And I surprised myself by laughing it off. Five years before, I would have been, ‘You can’t talk to me like that, I’m a feminist!'”
She pauses. “But you know, I’ve always just wanted to stay in the game. I always loved what I was doing, loved covering the White House, loved doing Face the Nation. From the minute I got into journalism, my main goal was just to survive. And I wake up now and say, ‘Oh my God! You did. You did survive.’ “
A version of this story first appeared in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.