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â60 Minutesâ correspondent Lesley Stahl described the first time she saw a career as a journalist as an eye-opening experience.
The Swampscott native was 25 and worked as a researcher for New York City Mayor John Lindsay’s speechwriter. The speech-writing team’s office resided in a town hall boiler room not far from where reporters wrote and archived copies.
âOne day I went to a guy in the press room and I said, ‘What are you doing all day?’ Stahl recalls in a recent interview with the Swampscott Reporter. “And when he finished telling me what he did: covered the mayor – I just said, ‘Wow, how come nobody told me? [journalism]? ‘ It was like discovering a brave new world. I thought, ‘This is amazing.’ ”
She added: âAnd I was determined from that minute to be a journalist. I had no idea how to go about it. I didn’t know what skills were needed.
Today, some 55 years later, Stahl is one of America’s most trusted and experienced broadcast journalists with a distinct body of work marked by countless political scoops, exclusive interviews, reporting specials, surveys and foreign reporting.
She has won just about every broadcast journalism award: 13 Emmy Awards, including a 2003 Lifetime Achievement Emmy for Overall Excellence in Reporting, an Edward R. Murrow Award, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton, among others.
On “60 Minutes,” Stahl conceived, wrote and broadcast nearly 570 segments over the air.
The breadth and variety of topics are too many to list, but range from investigating a black market for buying babies in Romania to unprecedented access to Guantanamo Bay prison facilities in the United States.
April 14, 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of his first segment as a â60 Minutesâ correspondent, according to CBS News. Founded in the 1960s, “60 Minutes” is the network’s flagship show known for its serious, hard-hitting investigative journalism.
Growing up in Swampscott
Stahl’s father, Lou, grew up in Peabody, his mother, Dorothy, in Boston. The couple actually met on a beach in Swampscott. They later get married and move into a house on Allen Road in Swampscott, where they raise their two children: Lesley and Jeff.
Although she has many memories of Swampscott, Stahl said she often cried when she thought of the city. All members of his immediate family are deceased. She sold the family home of Little’s Point after her brother died in 1999.
âIt makes me really sad,â said Stahl, who lives in New York City with her husband, author Aaron Latham. âI miss it. I miss smelling the salty airâ¦ I’m stuck in Humphrey Street thinking of the Surf Theater across from Fisherman’s Beach – and I’m like, ‘Wow, that was a long time ago. ”
Stahl loved his friends not only in Swampscott but also in neighboring communities: âSwampscott and Marblehead were kind of a thing,â she said.
âI remember when I was young: driving all the way to Boston was a big deal,â she said. âWe had to go over a drawbridge, so we weren’t even a suburb at the time. ”
Lou Stahl worked in the family business and his mother was a housewife. Her father was very civically involved in more than one way, from helping to found the Center communautaire juif de la CÃ´te-Nord to devoting time to causes focused on serving seniors.
âMy father was very involved in local politics,â she said. âHe was fighting for what was going on in town. ”
His father was “a liberal from Massachusetts”; her mother was “very conservative,” so the Stahl children grew up in what one might consider a purple household.
âI remember they had vicious arguments about Stevenson versus Eisenhower – very big ones,â Stahl said. “Whoever was speaking – I’d be okay with that, so if my mom said anything, I’d be there shaking my head.” And then my dad would say, ‘Oh, wait a minute.’ ”
He would make his point and she said she would think, “Oh, that makes sense” as her head shook in agreement.
“And you know, I guess it was only natural that I became a journalist, isn’t it?” ” she said. “I have to be somewhere in between, listening to both sides.”
Stahl is a member of the 1959 class at Swampscott High School. She holds a BA in European History from Wheaton College, after graduating from Norton, Massachusetts College of Higher Education in 1963.
âI loved college,â she says. “I loved what I studied.”
Stahl said it was important for her mother that she pursue a suitable profession. She actually envisioned architecture before settling on a doctor’s trail. To prepare for medical school, she enrolled at Columbia University for graduate studies in zoology.
âI needed to take my science lessons. I hadn’t taken too much from Wheaton, âshe said. âWhen I got there, I hit a wall. I was really unhappy.
A pioneering career
Stahl said she received some helpful advice from an NBC News executive while working as a researcher and editor for the London TV network in 1968.
âHe said, ‘Do you think you’re going to start at the top? Go find a job downstairs and go upstairs. It’s the only way to get a job as a journalist, âshe recalls.
While she’s won just about every broadcast journalism award, Stahl is no stranger to rejection: Wire services, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe have all turned her down. In London, she approached American outlets without success.
âThat’s when I decided to return home to Boston,â she said.
She got a job as a producer at WHDH-TV, a CBS subsidiary in Boston.
âI was there for six months and built a reel,â she said. “This is what I would use to apply to networks.”
This reel earned her a job as a general assignment reporter on CBS in Washington, DC. She arrived in the 1972 presidential election. The television network put its seasoned reporters on the campaign trail.
The news bureau would credit Stahl with a seemingly small story that turned out to be an explosive and promising story: the Watergate robbery. His thorough and relentless reporting of the 1972 break-in to President Nixon’s 1974 impeachment hearings earned him a solid reputation among political journalists. (She once followed President Nixon’s attorney into the men’s bathroom for answers.)
âI know my reputation,â she told Sky magazine. “I am tenacious, relentless, but I have a soul.”
She eventually became CBS News’ White House correspondent – the first woman to hold the network’s coveted position – in the early 1980s. She covered the Carter and Reagan presidencies and the first two years of George WH’s presidency. Bush.
Stahl would also inherit âFace the Nation,â CBS News’s public affairs program, which airs on Sunday mornings. She changed the format of the TV show to adopt what she said still exists today – where the moderator interviews – not three guests at a time but one.
âI noticed that everyone wanted their own questions. There was no time to follow up, âStahl said. “A guest could filibuster long enough until the topic changes.”
An in-depth one-person interview provided Stahl with follow-up opportunities if political guests dodged tough questions. Between 1983 and 1991, Stahl interviewed Margaret Thatcher, Yassar Arafat, most American officials, Vice President Dan Quayle among other foreign and domestic actors. She moderated the Sunday show while simultaneously covering the Oval Office during the regular week.
“Drop me off in paradise”
In 1991, Mike Wallace, a veteran reporter for “60 Minutes,” called Stahl unexpectedly.
“And he said, ‘It’s hush, hush: you can’t tell nobody, but if I asked you to come to ’60 Minutes’, would you take it?'” Stahl recalled in an interview in ” Archive of American Television. “” It was a shock to me. ”
While she had watched an article on “60 minutes” for a long time, she had given up on that prospect. After Wallace called, she was in agony for months.
âI waited and waited. Nothing happened, “she said.” It was a dream that I had suppressed. ”
She called Wallace back.
âI told him, ‘It won’t happen,’â she told him. âHe said, ‘Just be patient. It will happen.
A few days later, she was invited to audition to join the “60 Minutes” team.
âIt happened just at the right time for me,â she said. “I felt like a big hand from heaven had risen and gloriously ripped me off and dropped me off in heaven.”