The Book of the Week is “Reporting Live” by Lesley Stahl, published in 1999. This career memoir tells how the author clawed her way to the top of the TV news ladder (especially political news) as a female who eventually started a family, beginning in the early 1970’s, when “… the television networks were scouring the country for women and blacks with any news experience at all” to comply with affirmative action initiatives.
In her early 30’s, the author had a couple of years under her belt when she started gathering stories for CBS radio news. Television news people considered themselves superior to those in radio. Stahl worked as a reporter around the clock to prove her worth to everyone around her.
Covering the Watergate scandal was a particularly trying endeavor for all news organizations. The author was assigned, at dawn, to stake out the homes of the accused in order to stick a microphone in their faces and shout questions at them in front of the camera, and attend press conferences. Nixon was reelected despite his treachery, because when the economy is on an even keel, voters are hesitant to change horses in midstream, even when there are rumors of wrongdoing, according to Stahl.
During the 1976 presidential campaign, the author’s crew used new-fangled cameras that weighed 12 lbs, whose batteries weighed 20 lbs and were supposed to last an hour but never did. There was separate unreliable equipment imported from Japan for the soundmen, that weighed 50-60 lbs.
Stahl had no guilt about working her normal (extremely long) hours during her pregnancy and afterwards, due to her mother’s commanding reassurance that her career should come first. In early 1979, when she was named White House correspondent, her bosses asked her whether she was comfortable being away from her infant daughter, given the demands of her job. They would never have asked that of a man.
Reagan decreased taxes for the wealthy and imposed severe budget cuts in social programs. He appointed an anti-environmentalist to run the EPA. He pushed the national debt to an all-time high and significantly increased military spending. His speeches often contradicted what he was actually doing. Nonetheless, his image as Mr. Charisma endeared people to him on a personal level. The charm of the messenger made people blind to the message. They ignored his numerous actions that seriously damaged the country in many ways during his administration. One of the first problems he caused was a deep recession in 1982. His poll numbers sank, so of course his staff: quarreled, tried to plug the leaks, and bashed the media.
When Stahl’s daughter was four, she and her husband had to undergo a laborious preschool application process. “This was far more of a strain than deadlines or prime time news conferences.”
In the early 1980’s, Stahl’s producer had to do extensive planning when her reporting required her to follow the travels of the president for a couple of days from rural Iowa to Des Moines. The producer had to order rotary-dial phones for every stop, large hotel rooms in which to edit video, motorcycle carriers in which to run video, a microwave transmission facility, and a helicopter to fly the video to Des Moines. These resources were pooled with the other networks. Anyway, the White House deliberately pulled the plug on the audio of the reporters during the president’s speech.
In 1983, CBS changed the look of its evening news slot to show one star: Dan Rather. The other networks followed suit. “Now there were three young, handsome men at the three helms… and I [Stahl] was about to turn 42, the age past which newswomen weren’t supposed to survive on television.”
Read the book to learn what transpired when Lawrence Tisch took over CBS, how the “news” changed in terms of content, how Stahl topped off her career, and much more.