Critic’s Notebook: With Scott Pelley, it’s news front and center

In a gray suit, blue shirt and red tie, Scott Pelley got right to work as the anchor of the “CBS Evening News” on Monday night, after the five-year run of Katie Couric, whose move back to daytime was officially announced the same day. (She will fill some portion of the hole left by Oprah Winfrey at ABC but also work within the network’s news division.) The headline stories cleaved to the solemn and monumental: Pakistan, Iraq, cancer and the D-day anniversary; inside the broadcast, as it were, were pieces on the slump in new housing, Apple’s cloud software announcement, the Arizona wildfire and the Anthony Weiner Twitter debacle.

There was no personal preamble or coda to the broadcast, no minute taken to express his hopes for the program or himself — he had, it is true, done that through other venues already — or to tip his hat to Couric. (She had closed her own run describing him as “a great reporter, a consummate professional and a real gentleman.”) Seen generously, it was as if to say, this is not about us, it is about the world.

Couric, an outsider, was supposed to spearhead a warmer approach to the news — and I think to a great extent successfully did. Straightforward and dry, Pelley seems like a step back toward fellow Texan Bob Schieffer, who filled the anchor space between the departure of Dan Rather and the coming of Couric and whom Pelley resembles physically, allowing for the 30 years’ difference in age. As a known quantity within the department, and already part of the brand, he seems a safe and a smart choice. (Indeed, he was considered a front-runner for the job before Couric took it.) Pelley does not have to prove himself as a newsman but rather as a big-league personality. It’s rather like moving from Congress to the presidency: The job carries more weight and affords you less cover.

Pelley has been at CBS for 22 years, a war correspondent and a White House correspondent, and an investigative reporter at Sunday’s “60 Minutes,” his home since 2004; he projects an air of quiet righteousness unallied to any particular political position, though in a general way he seems on the side of “the people.” Even when he’s putting himself in danger, he doesn’t add the drama that might make one mistrust his facts. (It is true, of course, that some viewers trust only a voice loaded with drama, and for them there is ABC’s Diane Sawyer.) As close as he got to spin Monday night was a slight, schoolmasterish lilt to his voice when he pronounced the phrase, “Dominique Strauss-Kahn got quite a reception in New York today.”


He also stays remarkably crisp in all weathers.

Interviewed by David Letterman recently, Pelley was more comfortable with the practical answers than the personal ones; he was not loose like Couric in such a circumstance or NBC’s top-rated Brian Williams, who is both a news anchor and, away from his day job, ironically plays one on TV. Pelley has said that he’s more interested in the managing editor part of his new job than the anchoring and that he wants to imbue the “Evening News” with the aggressive original “shoe leather” reporting elements of “60 Minutes.”

But this will be of no use to CBS if that diminishing part of America that still likes to get its news from television, right around dinner time, does not take to his face and manner.