Peter Bart: Lesley Stahl And Counting The Obstacles To Invading The Media Boys Club

Peter Bart
·4 min read

She keeps a list of men who’ve walked out on her. She’s OK with that. She also keeps a list of men who’ve aced her out of gigs.

Lesley Stahl this week starts her 30th year as a top 60 Minutes correspondent, a role model for women who’ve not only survived but thrived in important sectors of the media business.

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With non-scripted television now springing back to life, it’s worth noting that that there’s still a show that dates back to 1968 – a lively variant from Pooch Perfect, Whac-A-Mole, Love Island or the other heavy artillery of Reality Week.

The news business today arguably is run by women, both in front of the camera and behind — prime examples of the not-so-quiet revolution in the media world. A Covid survivor, Stahl, 80, got her first job thanks to the 1970s version of affirmative action. That meant apprentice-level opportunities working for alpha male ball breakers like Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt.

Wallace taught her how to conduct ingratiating conversations with newsmakers, which often translated into self-immolation — “ambush interviews” with hidden cameras. In addition to being her instructor, Wallace was not above stealing stories if he felt they held promise.

Noticing that Stahl was zeroing in on an emerging star named Barbra Streisand, Wallace deftly stole the contact information and research notes from the young reporter, thus confiscating what would become a classic 60 Minutes piece. Wallace even induced tears from the gritty star as she talked about her Brooklyn upbringing.

Even as Stahl was setting forth on TV, I was checking into my first job as a Hollywood studio executive and, from a distance, could appreciate her trials of transition. The first Paramount colleague to greet me announced cheerfully, “Welcome to the boys club.” Her name was Andrea Eastman, and, as chief of casting, she was the only female colleague I was to work with for the next decade.

She was smart, attractive, and, like Stahl, skilled in the weaponry of survival. Her advice on casting decisions were sharp, but final decisions on what films would be produced, and by whom, were made by the alpha males. Eastman never sought nor achieved the CEO jobs now being regularly accorded women in post-pandemic Hollywood.

Meanwhile, Stahl was learning that, in her world, power resided in the stories that she and her producers were boldly generating. Some involved fierce confrontations with celebrated figures who, in frustration, stormed off the set in mid-interview. These included one-time Presidents like Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Donald Trump. “I was disturbed at these tantrums,” Stahl recalls, “because I still had urgent questions to ask them. On the other hand, their behavior, and the resulting publicity, made the stories more important.”

Given her gifts for skilled writing and steely delivery, Stahl continues to make complex subjects seem compelling. Lately her pieces have dealt with technical topics, such as tracing the origin of the coronavirus. She has backed away from her once vivid profiles of Hollywood personalities because, in her perception, stars and their handlers have become “control freaks who want to carve out too many ‘no entry’ zones where questions and cameras are barred.”

In her early days at 60 Minutes, the tone of the show was set by Hewitt, the boisterous personality who created the show and led it to the top of the ratings charts. Hewitt’s mandate was that each story was built around a single personality, thus leading narrative drive to the journalistic forays. A ‘lighter” piece was always programmed as its third act – a profile of a celebrity or sports hero or, even better, a child prodigy.

The current chief, Bill Owens, a dedicated newsman, has strayed from that formula, focusing on breaking news stories while, to some viewers, sacrificing some of the show’s entertainment value. Its correspondents, too, are far more mellow, lacking the semi-homicidal rigor of a Mike Wallace. Wallace’s advice to new correspondents like Stahl was to make interviewees feel like they’re meeting at a comfortable neighborhood bar. There was little comfort in the hidden cameras.

Some of the misadventures of that epoch were chronicled in a new book, Ticking Clock, by Ira Rosen, a long-term 60 Minutes producer. To Rosen, “Wallace and Hewitt were geniuses, but it didn’t excuse their Neanderthal behavior toward women, too many of them left in tatters.”

Stahl did not sign up for the victim class. “We used to have our quarrels,” recalls Stahl. There were fights about who gets the hot stories, and sometimes disagreements about edits. “Let’s describe the relationship between the correspondents as sibling rivalries,” she now says.

Were Stahl starting out today, she would clearly not be intimidated by the boys club or its satellites. That is, if it still existed here or there.

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