‘CBS Evening News’ anchor Scott Pelley is all about the journalism
If you look closely at the desk where Scott Pelley anchors the “CBS Evening News,” you can spot about a dozen small, framed photographs standing off to his right.
They depict the 13 journalists who have died in the line of duty for CBS News, going back to George Polk, who was killed during Greece’s civil war in 1948. Polk has a prestigious reporting award named after him. Most of the others are not as well known, but Pelley wants them there as a reminder.
“Every night on our broadcast, somebody, somewhere has risked his or her life to cover the news,” he said as he prepared for that evening’s program in his office at the CBS Broadcast Center in Manhattan.
While authenticity has become a hot topic in TV news, Pelley has never needed to invent it or try to enhance it.
In his 26-year career at CBS News, he spent a year in Saudi Arabia alongside the late Bob Simon in the run-up to Operation Desert Storm, covering Iraqi missile attacks. He put in time as a White House correspondent, where he broke a number of stories on the independent counsel investigation and impeachment of then-President Clinton.
Since 2004, he’s been a prolific correspondent on “60 Minutes,” where he’s still pulling double duty. On Dec. 17, the day President Obama announced that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba, Pelley was on a private plane to Havana, where he delivered the news broadcast that evening and a newsmagazine report for that Sunday.
Although Pelley had long had the credentials to be an anchor, his intensity about the news led people inside the TV business to believe he lacked the human touch needed to be popular with viewers.
“He is not going to be the first guy you hire to host your comedy roast,” said Jonathan Klein, a former CNN president who worked with Pelley at CBS News in the 1990s. “It was, ‘Look at this guy. Can you believe how serious he is about this? Give me a break.’ That was always the rap on him. But he walks the walk. He’s a great field reporter. He always was. He’s no frills and all about the work.”
The audience has slowly come around. Since Pelley took over for Katie Couric in June 2011, his broadcast has picked up 1.25 million viewers. The season-to-date-average is 7.4 million, still well behind that of “NBC Nightly News” (9.4 million) and ABC’s “World News Tonight With David Muir” (8.8 million).
With NBC’s Brian Williams out of the picture for at least six months as he serves a suspension for his false statements about reporting in Iraq, Pelley is for the time the most senior of the broadcast network news anchors. “CBS Evening News” Executive Producer Steve Capus believes Pelley is well positioned for NBC viewers who decide to sample another broadcast.
“I don’t have to change his haircut,” Capus said. “I don’t have to change what he wears. I don’t have to change the way he talks to the audience. I don’t have to change the hours he keeps. He just needs to be himself, and that’s absolutely perfect for these times.”
Pelley’s straight-arrow persona is a stark contrast to that of Williams, whose willingness to dabble on the entertainment side of TV has made him more well known to viewers — and perhaps more vulnerable to criticism when he got into journalistic trouble.
A 57-year old native of San Antonio, Pelley has a polished, baritone delivery that puts him in demand to appear as himself on TV dramas and movies. He’s refused all offers, including “The Colbert Report,” because Stephen Colbert played a character on the show.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for journalists to appear on entertainment programming,” Pelley said. “There’s too much of a risk for the audience to think, ‘Wait a minute — is it scripted? Is it not? Are you telling me the truth? Is it acting?’ That’s a big, red line for me, and I never have crossed it.”
He’s made an exception for his network’s “Late Night With David Letterman,” because “that’s a real talk show with real people.”
When Pelley was given the “Evening News” job by Jeff Fager, then-CBS News chairman who has since gone back to a full-time role of running “60 Minutes,” it was with the intent of highlighting the news division’s reputation for original reporting and strong storytelling. CBS News has historically been far less comfortable — or successful — when it’s emphasized breezier content.
Capus notes that during February, Pelley’s broadcast has devoted 15 minutes to news about the conflict in Ukraine, compared with four minutes on NBC and one minute on ABC. “Is it straight out of a playbook that says, ‘Here’s how you grab ratings’? No.” said Capus, whose last job was president of NBC News. “But to me, it’s what CBS News has always stood for. It’s the kind of thing that the audience expects from us.”
Pelley is completely immersed in the tradition that CBS News wants to build on. In the “fishbowl” where producers meet daily to discuss the lineup for the program, he keeps a plexiglass-covered display of an early 20th century manual Underwood typewriter used by longtime “60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney.
In his office, Pelley has lined the walls with archival photos that include images of the first female network correspondent, Nancy Dickerson; Mike Wallace being thrown out of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; and Walter Cronkite in Vietnam for his documentary that shifted public opinion on the war. Pelley also has one of CBS News legend Edward R. Murrow with his trademark arch look and cigarette in hand.
“I had that one hung at eye level, so every night I can come back up here and he can look at me and think, ‘What the hell have you done to my news broadcast?’,” Pelley said.
The newsman added that he had attempted to make one major break from the past when he took over. He wanted the title of the program to reflect the team effort of putting on the news each night.
“I asked them to take my name off the title before we started,” he said. “Jeff Fager declined to do that. So I did the next best thing. I had all the signage changed.”
In the fishbowl, there’s a “CBS Evening News” logo posted on the wall. Underneath the famous CBS eye — where Pelley’s name would be — it reads, “With all of us.”
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