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Leslie Stahl: From Behind The Podium

By Anirban Nayak

Last Tuesday, Leslie Stahl, 60 Minutes correspondent and reporter for CBS News, gave a lecture at the main branch of the Boston Public Library. While promoting her new book Reporting Live, Stahl spoke at length on various aspects of television journalism, her experiences at CBS, and the many scandals involving the Clinton administration.

From the outset of her talk, Stahl revealed her fascination with the television camera. “The TV camera loves and hates as if it were a person,” she said. “It loves some politicians like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and dislikes others like Bob Dole and Dan Quayle.”

She cited an instance when she interviewed Dan Quayle during the 1992 presidential campaign. During the interview, Quayle had apparently responded to her questions very diplomatically. He had not committed any of his usual gaffes, and it had seemed to Stahl that he had succeeded in giving a good interview.

However, the next day when she zoomed in on Quayle’s face while editing the videotaped interview, Stahl noticed that “the camera had gone in and magnified and pulled out whatever fears and insecurities he was feeling and basically blew them up on the screen.”

She explained, “When the camera was in so tight, Quale had that ‘deer caught in the headlights’ look, and this changed the whole quality of the interview. Because instead of seeing someone confidently answering all the questions, he seemed to be unsure of himself. He seemed scared.”

Surprisingly, Quale’s ill-at-ease expression was not readily apparent to Stahl while she was conducting the interview. She said, “Even when I sat knee to knee with him, this look was not there. Our producers did not see it, his own people did not see it, and I did not see it. But the camera went in and found it,” she said.

While the camera became Dan Quayle’s enemy, Stahl said that some politicians like Bill Clinton “can mask completely what’s going on inside.” In fact, Clinton is so good on camera that, according to Stahl, every time he makes a televised speech, his public approval ratings soar.

Stahl remarked that Clinton had vigorously used these high approval ratings to make it more difficult for the Senate to impeach him during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. According to her, it was no coincidence that he had decided to address the nation on TV two days after the House prosecuting team had made a compelling case for his ouster.

Besides commenting on the Clinton scandals, Stahl talked a great deal about 60 Minutes. “I love what I am doing, and I love 60 Minutes,” she said. “We choose our own stories. We pick what we’re gonna cover, and so we’re involved, passionate, and caring about everything we do on the show.”

She also said that she felt younger ever since she had joined 60 Minutes. “But, of course, you’d feel younger too if you worked with guys that old,” she explained jokingly with reference to her male colleagues on the show.

Although the current atmosphere at CBS News abounds with humor and camaraderie, this was not always the case, said Stahl. During her early years at the network, she had encountered a great deal of sexism.

“When the Watergate story broke, CBS sent me. It was a measure of how unimportant CBS thought the story was in the beginning,” she said. However, as Watergate started to become one of the biggest scandals of the century, the story was essentially taken away from her and given to one of her male colleagues.

She also remembered a time when the male reporters of her rank were given “huge, fabulous offices,” while she was relegated to a room that had “cartons stacked up, old newspapers piled up, and had a second grade children’s desk in it.”

What was most frustrating to Stahl during her early days as a newswoman was that her male peers refused to take her seriously. She recalled a time when she was the only woman on a roundtable TV show that discussed Washington politics. When the show’s moderator once asked, “Well folks, what’s the gossip about John Ehrlichman,” one of her male colleagues pointed to her and replied, “Well, if it’s gossip you want, that’s why we have a woman here.”

Despite these obstacles, Stahl maintained that her early years with CBS were positive because they were “a huge learning experience.” She had made her share of mistakes as a rookie and had learned from them.

One such mistake occurred when she was covering Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign in 1984. Apparently, Reagan had proposed some budget cuts in federally funded nursing homes and benefits for the handicapped. These cuts were very unpopular, and during re-election time, he wanted very much to improve his image on the issue. So while campaigning, he would engage in activities such as inaugurating new nursing homes and hugging and putting medals around kids at the handicapped Olympics. During these times, he would, of course, invite the press along to get some free publicity.

While covering these events, Stahl was keenly aware of Reagan’s ulterior motives. So every time the camera showed Reagan’s affected support for nursing homes and the handicapped, Stahl would steadfastly remind her viewers of his budget cuts.

To her surprise, her words did not have much impact on her audience. In fact, a CBS study found that less than 25 percent of Stahl’s audience understood her message while most thought that her piece was a positive news story on Ronald Reagan. It was then that she realized that “when the pictures [such as Reagan hugging a handicapped child] 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.”

Leslie Stahl has come a long way since her early years at CBS News. Today, she is one of America’s most respected TV reporters and has won such awards as the coveted Alfred DuPont Columbia University Journalism Award. Recently, she also received the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in TV journalism.