60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl on journalism’s new rules of engagement

Mar 27, 2017
60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl on journalism’s new rules of engagement

60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl interviews President-elect Donald Trump in New York City on Friday, Nov. 11, 2016.

The President and the press are at war as Trump jumps from reporter to reporter, insulting some, praising others, and imploring them all for a “nice question.”

Trump calls his detractors in the media “the enemy of the American people.” He is naming names on Twitter. His White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, referred to reporters as the “opposition party.”

What should journalists do while their entire profession is being insulted?

It’s an unprecedented time for American journalism so I put it to Lesley Stahl, who has intense experience in the political arena.

She says her track record of 25 years on top-rated “60 Minutes,” White House Correspondent for Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, “Face the Nation” moderator and interviews with countless world leaders didn’t prepare even her for today’s media deep disruption

For “The Saturday Evening Post” I asked her:

JW: How has the growth of social media and the ability even of the president to talk directly to constituents without the filter of a reporter changed the kind of journalism that made you famous?

LS: It changes everything. It changes everything dramatically. I’d like to think that we had a chance to evolve and adjust to this new kind of journalism and in a minor way we did because after network television came cable and I think that kind of diffused the power of the press a little and then we got the Internet.

But now with Twitter and Snapchat and all these other ways for our politicians and leaders to communicate, it feels awfully abrupt. It feels like it just happens. Somebody like Donald Trump and all the others can put out a tweet and communicate with millions and tens of millions of people without the press. That’s all new. So how do we adjust? It’s not just an adjustment. It’s “boom” here we are and what do we do? I don’t think anyone has the answer.

I wonder if we’re just not going to become analytical. We’re going to stand back and write think pieces and I don’t know what it’s going to do to interviewing, which is what I do for a living. I guess that’s why I’m saying, “Boy, here we are. Now what are we gonna do?”

JW: Yes, because the think pieces can be too much like the spouting pundits that we see on television and read every day.

LS: I think that’s going to be where we head. Not just punditry but long, analytical investigative stories, trend pieces. Even interviews have to be rethought. You know, so much is unrevealing – particularly if there’s a time restriction because politicians will filibuster anyway. It’s hard to say where journalism is heading.  

What always surprises me is how young people are attracted to this profession. The journalism schools are brimming with brilliant students. I get calls all the time from people asking how someone could break into our world. It surprises me because it’s such an unsettled place.

JW: It’s true. I guess every place in the media is unsettled. We don’t know what’s going to happen. It can be frustrating to figure out. Well, I guess you always did – try to figure out ways to get revelation or get truth?

LS: The joys of my job, and I know I’m lucky, is that 60 Minutes is one of the few places where leaders still want to come to communicate and where the audience also still wants to come to listen and we can’t say that about a lot of other venues but ours is going strong.

JW: It’s interesting that it’s going strong at a time when everyone is saying that you gotta gimmick it up or do everything in very short bites and very short pieces.

LS: That shows you that there is a healthy appetite for long form. Where I say long form, and this too is funny, because real long form is pieces that are like 13 or 14 minutes. Long form used to be three hours! A three-hour or two-hour documentary. Now long form is 15 minutes. That’s funny in itself.

I do think there’s an appetite for depth for a large number of people. We have a huge audience. But it’s always been true that different journalistic organizations will attract eyeballs.

JW: Ideas about the future of news?

LS: The problem in many ways is financial because to mount a research project takes money. The internet can’t always support in-depth stories. A lot of the sites don’t make nearly the kind of money that network television shows did and do. I fret not just about the questions you’re asking – how will journalism survive and communicate – but how will we raise enough revenue to support the smartest kids in the class. All these things are worrisome.

Jeanne Wolf earned prominence for being a source of inside news. She built her reputation as one of Hollywood’s most respected journalists by delivering in depth and headline making reporting on all aspects of show business. Follow her on Twitter @jeannewolf.

Photo via Saturday Evening Post by Ken Pao

About the author

Hollywood Journalist

Signup for the Muck Rack Daily email

A digest of journalism, written by journalists, delivered to your inbox daily.