Before being honored Wednesday by the New-York Historical Society for their contributions to public life, Cokie Roberts and Lesley Stahl discussed their ever-evolving careers and lasting friendship.
Steadfast as they are, Stahl, a “60 Minutes” correspondent for 24 years, planned to interview Roberts, an ABC News political commentator and NPR senior news analyst, about her new book, “Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington 1848-1868,” during the museum’s annual Strawberry Festival luncheon. (To meet her deadline for what is now her sixth bestseller, Roberts said she spent the month of January waking up at 3 a.m. each day to write until 6 p.m.)
Aside from being a multi-Emmy winner and this year’s Radio Television Digital News Association Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Stahl is penning her second book, which she insisted will not be about work. Interestingly, she singled out her “60 Minutes” piece about a bone cancer-stricken doctor who not only suffered from pain when operating as a personal favorite and not her Guantanamo Bay series that earned her last year’s Edward R. Murrow Award. As one of the few individuals to be named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, Roberts is a three-time Emmy winner and holds more than 25 honorary degrees. She referenced her body of work covering Congress as “something that was useful to voters, useful to the body of politics.”
But while they have spent their careers probing others to say controversial things, they steered clear of it themselves: Neither broadcast journalist chose to weigh in on the George Stephanopoulos or Brian Williams scandals.
Here, Roberts and Stahl talk journalism and more:
WWD: Workwise you live in such immediacy, due to deadlines and assignments. Do you ever give much thought to your own history?
Leslie Stahl: In terms of my personal history, I want to talk about Cokie. Cokie is one of the most important human beings in my life. The first time I met her she had two children, six and eight. I never wanted a child — ever. I was sure I was never going to have a child. Then I looked at Cokie with those two kids…
Cokie Roberts: I was living in Athens at the time [working for CBS]. We didn’t even know each other. A mutual friend put us in touch.
L.S.: We were fixed up. I’m telling you, there was an absolute click. Nine months later, my daughter was born and then Cokie helped me raise her. She gave me advice.
C.R.: That was one of the nice things about our relationship. It was a sisterhood of women in journalism. We really do care enormously about each other.
L.S.: We had a ladies’ lunch in the era, when there really weren’t other men for us to pal with. We worked with the men and we loved working with the men.
C.R.: But they didn’t pay any attention to us.
L.S.: Well, not when it came to talking sports and stuff like that. So we formed this lunch group in the 1970s. Most of us were journalists. It was religious. We met once a month at different restaurants in Washington and you wouldn’t miss that for anything.
C.R.: It was Linda Wertheimer, Dotty Lynch, who we lost last year — younger than all of us — Patricia O’Brien, Nina Totenberg, Cathy Wyler, Ann Smith.
L.S.: We needed it. It’s totally true. We totally bonded. We went through each other’s ups and downs at work and at home.
C.R.: Births, divorces, weddings, deaths.
L.S.: Getting a new job.
C.R.: Right, losing a job…
L.S.: Helping to find a new one. You’re talking to really close friends, not superficial ones.
WWD: Are there any assignments, job offers or interviews that you sometimes wish you had handled differently?
C.R.: I’m sure there are. Work doesn’t haunt me.
L.S.: I had one where I interviewed a defector. We believed him.
C.R.: Yeah, that happens a lot. That’s easy to do.
L.S.: He bamboozled us, so I think about that one. And that was a lead-up to the Iraq war. That’s probably the only one that I think about.
WWD: Who are some of the up-and-comers in media that intrigue you?
L.S.: Here’s what I do, and to a certain extent what Cokie did, meaning politics not as much. There are not many people doing what I do anymore.
C.R.: That’s true — long-form, really good, deep pieces…
L.S.: We’re it, pretty much. We’re it.
C.R.: It’s so interesting because you get such good ratings. You’d think that other people would want to do it, but they don’t. But there are a lot of political reporters — smart young people out there. There really are plenty of people who are coming up.
L.S.: And they’re good. I know a lot of them.
C.R.: They’re in all kinds of media — digital, broadcasting. There are so many outlets now that there is a lot of opportunity.
WWD: As news has become more fragmented with more people relying on Twitter for updates about national disasters or live feeds from incidents of breaking news, how will that bear on more in-depth, quality investigative journalism?
C.R.: I think let a thousand flowers bloom. There are different roles for each one of those. As I say, “60 Minutes” still gets fabulous ratings. [One May 10 episode delivered 8.8 million viewers.]
L.S.: But it’s going to be very hard for any woman or man to gain the kind of visibility that you’ve had and I’ve had because it is fragmented.
C.R.: But NPR continues to build listeners all the time. It opens bureaus when everybody else is closing them. There’s an appetite for this kind of news. You can have both. It’s radio but it’s also a huge number of podcasts, it’s on the phone, it’s digital, it’s every platform. I listen a lot on my phone because I listen to stations all over the country so I can listen in different time zones. And I am a member of all the stations that I listen to. I was at WNYC this morning — b—hing.
L.S.: But selling [referring to the station’s spring pledge drive]. Cokie’s done something quite stunning and that is go from a top national reporter to a top historical writer – she and Tom Brokaw. It’s really impressive that you started a new career later in life and have been stunningly successful. That’s truly rare.
WWD: How do you manage it all?
C.R.: It’s a lot easier than raising children and working. Those were the years that were really hard to manage. I always have had at least two jobs. I worked first for NPR and PBS, and then for NPR and ABC. And I was raising kids and we didn’t have any money. It was really hard. When I talk about it, I get sick to my stomach. When someone says, “How did you do it?” — you just did it. You just got through the days. But that’s why our female friendships made such a difference. By and large, life is a whole lot easier…. [Roberts also spoke of nonprofit work helping children in the northwest frontier provinces of Pakistan, the Armenian regions of Azerbaijan, flooded areas in Bangladesh and Aceh after the tsunami.]
WWD: What do you think of self-branding and certain members of the media finding it essential to be part of the story? Do you find that helpful?
C.R.: No, but in many cases that’s what their bosses want. I think they’re following whatever their news organizations are interested in.
WWD: How is the marketing of news affecting the content?
L.S.: I’m not sure it’s any different today than it’s been. It’s just that it is more fragmented and perhaps more difficult.
WWD: What do you hope people will take from your book?
C.R.: I hope they will learn a lot about the other half of human history. Most of our history books are just about one half of the human race. People present history as dates, battles and documents. History is stories. The women’s letters [in “Capital Dames”] are just a delight. They’re much franker and funnier than men’s letters because they’re not self-conscious. They don’t expect to be published. They tell you the truth. They write real letters. I feel the men’s letters are written by the statues.
L.S.: Because they’re always thinking.
C.R.: Yes, editing for publication so they get quite pompous. But also single-minded. They’re focused on whatever they’re writing about, which is usually politics and other kinds of minutia. But the women write about everything. They write about politics a lot, but fashion, and who’s having and losing too often children, economics.
L.S.: You know the American army is finding out in Afghanistan that the best way to get information is to send a female soldier in to talk.
WWD: Have your careers evolved as you had hoped?
C.R.: Oh, I really hadn’t thought about it, but certainly our careers have evolved from when we were on the beat every day running around like crazy.
L.S.: When I started, the idea that as a woman I was even being allowed in the door was so thrilling. To imagine that I would be in this position was out of the question. I always just wanted to survive because I loved journalism. So I guess that I have. That is the only thing that I planned.
C.R.: Yeah, we’re still here.
L.S.: And we like it. That’s the only way that you really do want to survive — you like the work itself.