Reporting Live

Caroline Knapp reviews 'Reporting Live' by Leslie Stahl.


Caroline Knapp
January 7, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Early in her memoir, "Reporting Live," CBS journalist Lesley Stahl notes that there are two kinds of reporters: those like the late Charles Kuralt, whose talents lie in lyrical writing and powerful storytelling, and those like Stahl herself, who rely instead on hard facts. True to form, Stahl has written a very straightforward, fact-laden account of her career as a journalist, starting the story in 1972, when she first landed a job at CBS News in Washington, and ending in 1991, when, after long stints as chief White House correspondent and host of "Face the Nation," she joined "60 Minutes." Stahl's career during those years was impressive and rich, and her narrative, organized chronologically, is driven by the events she covered. The hard facts take us from Watergate to the Gulf War; they give us close-up looks at Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush; and they provide an insider's look at the daily strains of Beltway journalism and at the forces that have shaped broadcast news over the last two decades.

This is fertile territory. There are juicy details about news personalities (Dan Schorr as a back-stabbing sexist) and amusing asides about the special challenges faced by feminine reporters (chasing down stories, literally, in high heels). There are also heftier observations about the interplay between journalism, politics, economics and culture, which Stahl is singularly well-equipped to address. She has witnessed firsthand the various ways in which presidential administrations and the press use, benefit from and antagonize each other; she has seen news organizations radically reshaped by new technologies, financial pressures and sources of competition; as both a working mother and a woman in a once male-dominated field, she has watched, and been a part of, seismic cultural shifts involving women.

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Stahl comes across in her work as highly ambitious and rather frantic, the kind of person who thrives on pressure and rarely stops long enough to invite insight. "Just when you have time to contemplate how you feel," she writes, in what may be one of the most inadvertently self-revealing lines of the book, "wham! -- a story breaks that blots out every second of your life." If her book has a central flaw, it's that her narrative often has the same frenzied, underprocessed quality, feeling more at times like a chronicle of change than a considered analysis of it. She tends to fire off descriptions of news stories, one after the other, pausing briefly to raise larger, more essential questions (What does it mean that Sam Donaldson is considered assertive while she's considered bitchy? How should journalists handle the blurring line between news and entertainment?), then dashing off to the next press conference, the next "Face the Nation" interview, the next contract negotiation. The overall effect can be choppy and overwhelming: You wish she'd take a vacation, sit back and reflect rather than report.

Stahl's more personal descriptions have a similarly underdeveloped feel. She characterizes the bulk of her 40s, for example, as "a decade of rage," a time dominated by personal fury and bouts of laryngitis, but she never explores the real sources of her anger; nor does she comment on the apparent connection -- familiar to many women -- between rage and voicelessness. Her domestic life gets the same choppy, fits-and-starts treatment as her professional descriptions: nods here to family trips; nods there to interactions with her daughter; brief accounts of major life events (a husband afflicted with clinical depression, a brother with malignant tumors on his vocal chords) that often have the hurried feel of asides.

By definition, memoir demands a certain degree of introspection and self-disclosure: In order to fully engage a reader, the narrator has to make herself known, has to allow her own self-awareness to inform the events she describes. As the title of her book suggests, Stahl is more intent on describing her career than her inner life, but without some sense of who she really is, without some understanding of how the external dramas have shaped the internal, you're left a bit disoriented and a bit hungry, wanting to know less about Stahl the journalist and more about Stahl the person.


Caroline Knapp

Caroline Knapp is the author of "Drinking: A Love Story." Her most recent book is "Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs."

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