Journalists have faced escalating attacks in recent years from both ordinary citizens and global leaders. But that animosity isn’t anything new, said Lesley Stahl, who has been interviewing presidents, CEOs and other powerful figures for more than five decades.
“It’s an old story,” she said. “We’re the messenger, and they don’t like being called (out). They don’t like being challenged. Particularly people in power, particularly men in power — they’re not used to it.”
Stahl’s remarks came Wednesday during Poynter’s annual fundraising gala, where she received the Poynter Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism. The award honors accomplished journalists whose work has made a lasting impact in serving democracy. Stahl, who is in her 30th season of “60 Minutes,” joins other distinguished journalists including Chris Wallace, Katie Couric and Lester Holt in receiving the medal.
“For some 50 years in journalism, Lesley Stahl has done it all,” said Poynter president Neil Brown. “Her passion is her pursuit of the story and her pursuit of the facts.”
After accepting her medal, Stahl recounted some of the most memorable points of her career, including the time when former President Donald Trump walked out of an interview and the moment when Representative Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) admitted she was wrong for previously opposing same-sex marriage.
Trump’s decision to cut his “60 Minutes” interview short last year came as a “total surprise,” Stahl revealed. He was in a bad mood that day, she said. During her three previous interviews with Trump, he would banter and engage with the crew. But during the fourth, he was “fed up.”
“When they walk out — and he’s not the first one to walk out on me — you know instantly you have a good story,” Stahl said. “It often says something about their character too because, as I did say to the president, part of your job is to be accountable and to answer these questions.”
The moment with Cheney marked another time when Stahl broke news through a “60 Minutes” interview. It was the first time the congresswoman expressed regret for her previous stance on same-sex marriage.
Stahl said that during the interview, she had the impression that Cheney wanted a question about the issue so that she could publicly make amends with her sister, Mary, who is gay.
“I was thrown back. I couldn’t talk. I just sat there,” Stahl said, describing the moment. “I could feel her. Her eyes actually glistened. You couldn’t tell that on television, but in the room you saw it.”
Before “60 Minutes,” Stahl was the chief White House correspondent for CBS News, the first woman to hold the position. Asked about mentors during her time there, she said there hadn’t been any.
“No one took me under their wing, and there wasn’t a mentor.”
Gender equality in journalism has improved over the past few decades, Stahl said. Women occupy the highest levels of leadership at news organizations, and female reporters cover every kind of beat. But sexism still persists.
“I’m really always so surprised and hurt, almost, hurt that there is still sexism. And where we see it is with sexual harassment and sexual abuse,” she said. “We’re still fighting the fight after 50 years. It’s just an astonishment.”
“60 Minutes” entered its 54th season this year, making it the oldest newsmagazine on television. Stahl, who has been there for three decades, attributed the show’s success to its legacy of strong reporting.
“We do it the same old way. That damn clock is still ticking.”
People know to expect stories covering a variety of topics, each grounded in serious journalism, and that continuity inspires trust, Stahl said. During a time when some audiences refuse to accept facts, it is important that journalists continue their work, reporting stories thoroughly and honestly.
Stahl had two pieces of advice for journalists. The first is to “read, read and then read some more”; the second is to “just do it.”
Journalism, she said, is not only important, but it’s also fun. It’s a profession that allows her to interview the top people in each field, and she’s always learning.
“It’s a joy to be allowed to be a reporter.”