By Donna Francavilla, RTDNA News
In a packed, standing room only session in Orlando, two veteran nationally-known journalists from competing networks were brought together. Shortly before receiving the top honors available from their peers, the pair sat side by side, taking turns answering impromptu questions before attendees at the Excellence for Journalism conference.
Lesley Stahl, the long-time 60 Minutes correspondent, was asked about which story she considered to be her biggest scoop. Stahl referred to her years at the White House. She said on the night of the 1980 convention, at a time when entire CBS team was mobilized on a story, she learned George Bush was chosen to as the Republican nominee for President, a surprise to everyone, including legendary anchor Walter Cronkite, who at first doubted her word. But Stahl’s sources were correct and she broke the story. Breaking that pivotal story launched Stahl’s career forward. It what a career it has been! Stahl is one of America’s most recognized and experienced broadcast journalists. Lesley Stahl’s career has been marked by political scoops, surprising features and award-winning foreign reporting. She has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since March 1991; the 2014-15 season marks her 24th on the broadcast.
ABC correspondent Pierre Thomas is this year’s 2015 John F. Hogan Distinguished Service Award winner. Pierre Thomas is the Senior Justice Correspondent for ABC News. He joined the network in November 2000 and reports for “World News Tonight with David Muir,” “Good Morning America,” “Nightline” and other ABC News programs. Thomas was a key member of ABC’s team of correspondents covering the terrorist attacks of September 11, which earned the network a Peabody, DuPont-Columbia and Emmy Award. Thomas also participated in a “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings” broadcast which won the Edward R. Murrow Award for best newscast in 2005, and was a key part of the ABC News team honored with two additional Murrow Awards in 2012 for the network’s coverage of the tragic Tucson shooting and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and in 2014 for ABC’s coverage that included the Boston marathon terrorist attacks. He received an Emmy Award as part of team coverage of the inauguration of President Barack Obama and, in 2011, the Houston Association of Black Journalists honored him with its Pinnacle Award. He was recently featured in the American Journalism Review, and in 2011 was the focus of an hour-long C-SPAN broadcast about his career and thoughts on journalism. In 2012, the National Association of Black Journalists named Thomas Journalist of the Year.
In the Q & A featuring both famous journalists, the audience wanted to know how long it took to get a 60 Minutes piece on the air. Lesley Stahl said it could take a little as one day. “I’ve done one live interview. I may be the only correspondent who did that. But it can take a year or more.”
Stahl pulled the curtain back on 60 Minutes a bit to let the EIJ15 attendees see behind the scenes. “We’re supposed to come up with our own stories. If you come up with the story, you show you care about it, and show the bosses you were right. You show you are committed to it, “ she said. Then she paused and explained, “We work as a team. Each correspondent has a team. Whoever has the best ideas; we go out and produce the piece. Afterwards, we write a note to the boss—a paragraph or two.”
Why don’t some story ideas make it to air? “Some decisions are based on cost, if it costs too much to produce or if similar stories have been done,” those stories won’t make air, explained the news veteran. But, she added, “We can fight for stories.”
After getting the nod, the producers really “get to work.” Lesley said, “I work on 4-5 stories at the same time. I am called in to the do the interviews. I don’t screen the videotape, they do. I have to rely on my memory. We write the story on paper. We think it’s brilliant. We put it on videotape and sometimes it falls completely flat—it has to do with a lack of energy or inflection. It’s like an oral exam. We go before the boss. Usually they tear it shreds.” Stahl told the audience that often she is given an opportunity to “fix it” before the story is reviewed once more.
Pierre Thomas was asked about his workflow at ABC Television. “I have responsibility for daily beat coverage and breaking news coverage.” Sometimes breaking news dictates that Pierre is given just a couple of hours to get the job done. Woken up in the middle of the night, “I dictated the story as I was driving in, by Bluetooth,” he revealed. Then he laughed, “I wasn’t breaking any laws.” Pierre was live on television just three hours later at 7 A.M.
Each correspondent humbly talked about his or her most embarrassing moment in the industry. Lesley Stahl admitted she wanted to resign after her live interview with Former United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Stahl asked Thatcher multiple times why she stood by President Ronald Reagan knowing full well that Reagan had lied to her. The first couple of times the question was asked Thatcher got twitchy. Then, according to Stahl, Thatcher snapped, and turned the tables on Stahl. Thatcher shot back, saying, “Why do I seem to love your country more than you do?” Stahl recalled, “I was a puddle of a blob on the floor. That was my worst time ever, and it was live.”
Pierre Thomas reflected a moment before revealing his most humbling moment on national television. He said it happened while a new employee at ABC News. He didn’t think he ought to do a live shot during a terrible storm, but the producers disagreed and put him in danger. “The heavens opened up,” said Pierre. Said an eyewitness in the newsroom, “What are you doing to Pierre?”
There was another embarrassing moment that came to mind for Pierre. It happened during the harrowing, stressful marathon broadcasts during 9-11. Pierre had spent hours responding to ABC News anchor Peter Jennings’s questions. When news anchor Ted Koppel took over for Jennings, the obviously exhausted Thomas answer Koppel’s question saying, ”Well, Peter….” If that error wasn’t bad enough, Thomas confessed, he did it again until a producer whispered in his ear, “Ah, Pierre, ah, you’re talking to Ted.”
Both journalists were asked what advice they’d offer to young journalists. Lesley Stahl replied quickly as it’s a question often asked.
“I was actually young once, so I should be able to answer that one,” she said with a broad smile, alluding to her long career in the industry. “Read everything.” Stahl indicated that if you present your idea with confidence, your career would benefit from the effort. “Secondly,” she said, “Work harder than you ever think you’re going to work.”
How do you become good at the craft of journalism? “The secret is doing it over and over again. You will learn to be a journalistic writer. Get a job where you can go out and get a job where you can be a journalist,” said Stahl. Pierre Thomas concurred saying, “Go somewhere you can learn. Put yourself in different situations.”
Lesley Stahl, now a proud grandmother who is starting her 25th year at 60 Minutes, described that essentially what she does has NOT changed over the years. Stahl indicated that unlike younger journalists, she has time to think, develop sources and follow through with the story.
Pierre Thomas reflected on his use of social media, saying, “I don’t tweet crap unless I know it’s a good story! You need to be careful, the best you can, with what you are publishing.”
The pair was asked about their start in a business that didn’t easily promote minorities or women. Pierre Thomas said, “I believe diversity is extremely important in the newsroom.”
Lesley admitted that she was hired under affirmative action.
“I was lucky because my boss really wanted us to succeed. I don’t believe one story can kill you. I don’t mean that you won’t be fired from that organization. I believe that anyone can stand up and fight back. “ You just stay with it. You just don’t give up. Get yourself up and go back to the beginning.
Lesley Stahl indicated that each journalist should discover what skills they have which work for them individually. “You just have to do it over and over again.” “Since I got my first job, I loved every day. I’m not kidding. I loved it every day.”
Pierre Thomas chimed in about his love for his job. “The great thing about this job is what Lesley just said. Every day is new and every subject is new. That’s the great thing about this job is to not have a cookie-cutter approach necessarily. “
Pierre Thomas believes some reporters could improve by just listening more carefully and more intently. “Listen.” It drives Thomas “crazy” when a question is asked, but the reporter doesn’t follow up because they weren’t listening.
Thomas indicated that if he had to name most of his sources, he couldn’t effectively do his job. “Without that cloak, if you will, I would not be able to do what I do.”
Thomas and Stahl were asked about how they viewed colleague former NBC anchor Brian Williams’ fall from grace. Stahl believes Williams “will and can bounce back.” Pierre said he agreed.
During a tender, humble moment between the two veteran journalists, Pierre turned to Lesley and said simply, “She is such a master journalist and I’m taking notes on everything she’s said.”