Once reporters began memoirs by bemoaning the bad old days and working forward to the more enlightened journalism of modern times.
Like a growing number of other journalists these days, Lesley Stahl doesn't do that.
Stahl has written a testament, instead, to disturbing changes in the news business, especially television, and characteristically she doesn't tiptoe around the point. This is the story, in her words, "of my ride on the decline of network news."
For a quarter century, all at CBS, Stahl has performed in a variety of high-profile capacities: covering Watergate, reporting from the White House, hosting "Face the Nation," corresponding for "60 Minutes."
Stahl considers herself less flamboyant than some of her contemporaries (Sam Donaldson, for instance) and less glamorous than some female peers who pioneered alongside her (Diane Sawyer, for one), but when you think of it she has been a steady, friendly and capable companion through a lot of years and a wealth of news.
Her experiences mean something, and her book, though imperfect and incomplete, will speak to journalists on many levels. It is, first, a readable autobiography of a determined reporter. It is an inside look at the special pressures TV piles onto women. It is a lesson in surviving the jungle of newsroom politics. It is a candid study of how a news job shreds hopes for a normal personal life. And it is a depressing account of riding the dinosaur of quality broadcast news.
This is a lot to attempt, but while Stahl has little that's truly original or surprising to report, her story offers insights and lessons on each theme.
• The autobiography: Oddly, Stahl tells almost nothing of her life before joining CBS in 1972 with two other "affirmative action babies," and she stops the book abruptly with her move to "60 Minutes" in 1991. But we learn much about her work habits (she's tenacious, a tough questioner, a master at gathering scoops by pestering source after source after source); her sweet-and-sour relationship with CBS anchor Dan Rather ("intense and barbed-wiry," but "one of the most generous men in the company"); and her dates with, among others, Bob Woodward and Bob Dole.
Describing the presidents she covered, Stahl jabs like a prizefighter. Jimmy Carter comes across as ineffective, cold and "petty," Ronald Reagan as lazy, erratic and perhaps senile, and George Bush, though likable, as an image-oriented lightweight.
• The matter of gender: Smart, able and attractive, Stahl discloses a surprising insecurity and self-consciousness. She refers to herself as "this new face with the long blond hair" and even as "helmet head," for the buckets of hair spray she applied. She succumbed to taking both smile lessons and acting lessons, and she confesses to being "a sucker for anything that suggested an entrée into the Men's Fraternity." Early on, for career reasons, she ducked a chance to join a fledgling women's committee at CBS, but eventually she "began to crave the company of women" and helped start a lunch group of powerful media women. As late as her arrival at "60 Minutes," she was enduring sexist insults. "I hate your hair," "60 Minutes" commander Don Hewitt is quoted as telling her. "You have to change it." And she did.
• Surviving the jungle: Joining a CBS Washington bureau brimming with broadcast hall of famers, Stahl was assigned a back-corridor desk (but no chair) and generally snubbed by the high-riding sons of Murrow. I don't know if it is petty score-settling or welcome candor, but Stahl's shots hit some big names: David Brinkley calling her a "pretty blonde" who should stay out of journalism; Roger Mudd considering the Senate press gallery his "private domain" and fleeing the room, complaining, "You're wearing too much perfume"; Daniel Schorr falsely accusing her of stealing papers from his desk and leaking them to another reporter.
She acknowledges being difficult. "Trust me," she confides at one point, "I lived up to all the 'bitch' whispers." But she ascended steadily, despite the obstacles, through talent, doggedness and a nose for good stories.
• Balancing the family: Most journalists should appreciate Stahl's brutal honesty about the personal-professional conflicts dogging the news business. Stahl lays out everything from her complicated relationship with her mother (who warned her "never have children" and "bought my clothes until I was 30") to her husband Aaron Latham's excruciating battle with depression. From her daughter Taylor's birth in 1977, Stahl "fretted that I wasn't a good parent," felt guilt that Latham served as Taylor's primary caregiver, and seemed to alternate between being an invisible parent and orchestrating family vacations.
One of the book's most vivid scenes occurs in a taxi, where Mike Wallace, who himself has struggled with depression, grabs Stahl by the shoulders and commands her to get Latham to a doctor. "You find a way," Wallace orders. "Whatever it takes."
"My eyes burned with tears," Stahl confesses. "Why hadn't I come to this on my own?"
• The decline of TV news: Stahl documents the sad decline of the once-golden CBS News department: the slashed news staff, a growing fixation on profit, tabloidization, increasing demands to water down critical copy. "There was a new ethic at CBS...going for the buck was the first, second and third priority," she writes. Again, she names names. She felt onetime CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter "was downgrading us to some second-rate tabloid" and toning down coverage in hopes of winning business concessions from federal regulators. Former CBS Chairman Larry Tisch, who masterminded cutback after cutback, "was the reason I was having a recurring dream that CBS was crumbling."
After building her dismal case, Stahl then devotes just one final paragraph to her leap to "60 Minutes": "I smiled all that day...and I haven't stopped yet, eight years later." Is that her message: News is dead, long live newsmagazines? She doesn't say, and I guess we will have to wait for her next installment. Maybe she'll call it "60 Minutes II."