It was the day after Hillary Clinton’s big win in the New Jersey and California Democratic primaries. Although many in the media had considered Clinton the party’s presumptive nominee, it wasn’t until those victories came that there was a feeling of finality to the primary race. Scott Pelley, who had just conducted an interview with Clinton by satellite, noted that the candidate sounded “haggard,” a feeling that he and other journalists covering the race likely understood. Despite another late night of anchoring CBS’s political coverage, Pelley, 58, was similar to his television persona – pensive, yet quick to pro- vide a response; confident but keenly aware of the language he selected to answer questions.
The journalist, who celebrates his fifth anniversary as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News this year, got his start as a broadcast journalist in his home state of Texas in 1975 for Lubbock’s KSEL-TV, an ABC affiliate. He made the move to CBS in the late Eighties, where he would eventually be sent to cover the Gulf war in 1990 and the invasion of Iraq in 1991.
A year later, he was assigned to cover the 1992 presidential campaigns of Ross Perot and Bill Clinton and would later serve as CBS News’ chief White House correspondent during Clinton’s presidency from 1997 to 1999. He would go on to join 60 Minutes, where he still serves as a correspondent. During his career, he’s collected multiple journalism prizes, from the George Foster Peabody Award and the George Polk Award to the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award and a slew of Emmys. A recent achievement includes growing the audience of the “CBS Evening News” for six consecutive seasons, adding 1.4 million viewers since he took the anchor chair in June 2011.
Although Pelley’s program, which is averaging 7.4 million viewers in the 2015-16 season, still ranks third behind NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (9.1 million) and ABC World News with David Muir (8.6 million), his show has had greater audience growth in the period than its competitors’.
Pelley, who is married and has two children, spoke to WWD from his spacious, memorabilia-filled office overlooking the CBS newsroom about the fate of network news and journalism, the presidential showdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and why courting Millennials isn’t a sound strategy for media companies today.
Is the political climate as divisive as the media is portraying it or it is politics as usual?
It’s not politics as usual at all. I think it’s extremely divisive in the country, and interestingly within the parties. You’ve had this sharp split within the Democratic Party, which, given Donald Trump, not a lot of people have been focused on. But there are a significant number of Democrats who are not lined up behind Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders has shined a light upon that. On the Republican side, I can’t imagine how the party could be more divided. You have the top leadership of the Republican Party calling Donald Trump racist and bigoted. My goodness, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s the most unusual election in my experience since 1992 when Governor Clinton ran for president and there were all of the allegations about him, and he persevered through that, but we had a third-party candidate in Ross Perot. That was a very unusual election, and this one is going to be very unusual as well.
In terms of Trump-like name-calling in politics, that isn’t new. Abraham Lincoln was called an “ape,” for instance. Is this year a throwback?
It’s a little bit of a throwback to that. Fortunately, dueling has been outlawed. The duel between [Aaron] Burr and [Alexander] Hamilton began over negative campaign advertising and the things that were being said about each other. So, dueling has been outlawed. I think that’s a big step forward for American politics, but we haven’t seen anything quite this raw, this bare-knuckled, this vicious, in a very long time.
Can Trump win?
I am out of the business of predicting what is going to happen with Trump because everything I’ve predicted has been wrong, and I think I’m in very good company that way. It’s completely unpredictable. There are powerful, built-in forces that would suggest that Hillary Clinton is going to win, but I cannot put anything past Donald Trump and his campaign. I did not expect him to be the nominee.
I don’t think anyone did.
That’s what he says now. How is Hillary Clinton to interview? Do you find it’s hard to get her to talk off the cuff and to get real answers?
I’ve known her for 26 years. I knew her when she was First Lady of Arkansas, and so, I’ve seen her evolve over this period of time. She is very thoughtful, incredibly bright, wants to be candid, but is very disciplined when it comes to staying on her message and the points that she wants to make. This is not a fault. This is what a presidential candidate must do in our media age in order to get their message out there and explain to the American people what they want to do with the country. For an interviewer, it is often difficult to get through all of that and find something original and new, which is, of course the very definition of news.
And Trump? It seems hard to pull out any concrete plans from him.
The interviews I’ve done with Trump have been very lively and very interesting. For example, he said he was going to tax automobiles made by American companies in Mexico that were imported into the United States. I said, “What about the North American Free Trade Agreement? You can’t do that.” And he said, “Well, we’re going to do it.” And I said, “It’s the law,” and he said, “Well, we’re going to break it.” When you’re a reporter and you’ve got someone telling you that whatever rejoinder you have — “we’re going to break that law, we’re going to ignore that, we’re going to change it” — it’s hard to pin him down. But our job, with both candidates, is really to illuminate who they are, what their ideas are. Our job in journalism is not to close minds, it’s to open them. We’re working very hard and will continue through November, to tell the truth on the candidates to the American people, to tell them what they’ve said, what they’ve done and to analyze their policies for their practicality — or lack thereof.
What are your interview tricks to get past the spin?
The news-making answers and the really illuminating answers are never the ones you wrote down and walked into the room with — never. It’s always in the follow-ups, you know this, too. It’s that spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. I did an interview with Hillary Clinton in Nevada a few months ago in which I asked her about her credibility and the fact that most people in our polls had an unfavorable opinion of her and asked if that cut to her honesty, etc. We began a conversation about that and she was dodging all around it. I thought, let’s just cut to the chase. Jimmy Carter said in ’76, “‘I will never lie to you.’ Can you say the same thing?” Well, she took off from that point and said, “I hope I never lie to the American people. I certainly try not to.” It was illuminating in the way that she wouldn’t come out with a straight answer to that question, which she got pilloried for in the late-night talk shows. The key to making news in an interview and to breaking through all of this is to listen very carefully to what they’re saying and pivot off of that into a place they weren’t expecting.
Since you’ve been an anchor, what has been the most challenging and exhilarating experience or interview for you?
The most challenging experience in these five years was Newtown. I was interviewing Elie Wiesel that morning, and my producer, in the middle of the interview, whispered in my ear, “There has been a shooting at a school and we might have to go.” I came back here and went into the evening news office and asked, “How many people have been shot?” The senior broadcast producer said, “26.” That just stopped my heart cold. We jumped in a car and we went up to Newtown and we went to the fire station where the police had set up their command post and we watched the mothers and fathers, the parents, as they were told about their children who weren’t coming home — 20 six-year-olds. That was the most wrenching story of these five years and the thing that I’ll never forget, never forget the way that felt, having to tell the American people about what had happened. It was incomprehensible. It is still incomprehensible.
In terms of exhilarating — I’ve discovered something about myself I didn’t know. I’ve never anchored a news program before [this]. Throughout my entire career I’ve been a field reporter, all the way through 60 Minutes. This is the first newscast I ever sat down and anchored, which is a challenging place to start. One of the things I discovered is, I really love being on the air live without a script during a breaking news event and trying to stitch together the story of what is happening without a net for the audience as it is developing. There have been a number of times when we’ve had to do that — the day the Boston Marathon suspects were on the run in Boston and we were on the air for eight or 10 hours nonstop that day. There was the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine. We were on the air for many hours and we didn’t know exactly what had happened to that airplane. There was the terrorist attack in Paris, the terrorist attack in San Bernadino. What I’ve discovered is, that is the most challenging thing that I have done. We lament these terrible stories, but in terms of the job, it is to me, exhilarating to put together the story of what’s happening from all of these elements coming in from all over the world and stitching it together for the audience.
Do you see a public service element to your job?
That’s the reason I’m here. It’s all a public service.
Did you feel that as a field reporter?
Absolutely. Since I was a boy, it has always been about public service to me, and also all of these wonderful people at CBS News. Why else do our correspondents and producers and cameramen risk their lives to cover the news? Somewhere in the world every day, somebody at CBS News has risked his or her life to tell the news. It is all about public service. When we had our fifth anniversary toast in the newsroom the other day, I told everybody, “Let’s rededicate ourselves in the next 365 days to public service.” The kinds of things we’ve been doing on the air recently, especially in regard to the opioid epidemic…a great deal of our coverage has centered on the fact that there is addiction treatment, it does work, you can find it. When we do those stories, we direct people to our Internet page and [phone] numbers, and websites to treatment, etc. I think that’s an enormous public service.
What are your thoughts on the volatility of the media business and how has it impacted journalism?
It seems to me we are in the midst of a revolution in terms of distribution, but not in terms of content. Those rules haven’t changed. It doesn’t matter if you’re working on a stone tablet or a glass tablet. Those rules have been the same for hundreds and hundreds of years. You want to get it right. You want to be honest. You want to make sure that you’re fair. Whether that is consumed on a phone or a tablet or any kind of device you want to talk about, doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care how our audience sees us. I just want them to see us and I want them to know that the content is right and fair and honest. We live in this age when never before in history has more information been available to more people. It’s a great thing, but it’s also really imperative to understand that never before in history has more bad information been available to people. That’s where journalism comes in. All of the unsubstantiated claims and innuendo…that’s all gossip. Journalism was invented as the antidote to gossip. I think what we do, you and I and all these folks, has never been more important in human history because we are now pushing against this digital wave of bad and false and spun information. Journalism has never been more important and people are going to look back on this time and realize that.
When you look at buzzy digital companies such as the Gawkers, Buzzfeeds, Vices and blogs, there is an element of aggregation happening… how do you fight that?
Aggregation is just the most insidious…we fight against it at 6:30 p.m. [via the newscast]. At 60 Minutes, we fight it by covering news our way and trying our damnedest to get everything straight and fair and accurate. The evening news has been growing. How can that possibly be in this age of revolutionary changes of distribution? How could we have added 1.4 million viewers in these five years? I think it’s because people are seeing stuff on the Internet all day long and at the end of the day they wonder whether that was right. Did Donald Trump really say that? Did the unemployment rate really fall that much? They go to a place where they can see the news in a concise 30 minutes and they go to a brand name that they know is serious about covering the news. They know that CBS, The New York Times, any main news organization that you want to talk to, they know we have an enormous amount to lose if we get it wrong. And by god, we’re working as hard as we can to get it right. Because of the Internet — I know, this is counter-intuitive and self-serving — but I think people are being driven to the evening news.
You mentioned the Times, which competes with digital natives, and thus, must work to build up its digital business in the face of a waning print business. The paper is going through buyouts again. Most new hires are in audience development and digital while reporting and foreign correspondent jobs get cut. What is wrong with journalism today when a place like that has to shift its gaze?
Newspapers in particular, and a lesser extent, electronic media, are at this transition point where our business model is not necessarily or completely in line with where the audience [is] and where we used to be. That will straighten itself out. The Times, for example, or every newspaper, will develop a business model and a content model that works, but right now they are in that transition phase. I think it’s just a matter of time — maybe another five or 10 years — when everybody will figure this out and be charging the kind of rates that support great content. The quality of our country is directly tied to the quality of our journalism. There’s no democracy without journalism. We must have a vibrant, strong, independent journalism to have a vibrant, strong, independent country. It’s one of the things that has made America great.
Do pop culture and reality TV play too strong a role in the kind of news that we see on TV? Look at our political candidates — seems like America wants to be entertained.
The American public always wants to be entertained.
How do you balance that in your coverage?
We have to have an educated audience. We have to have an audience that cares about the direction the country is going in and I’m not sure that’s up to us. I think we have to put the very best news products that we can out there. They are clearly attracting an audience. I think it would be better if they attracted a larger audience because you’re right, it’s beginning to show up in our politics.
Who have been your journalistic heroes?
My journalistic heroes — they have been passing, unfortunately, at a terrible rate. They are here [points to framed photos in the room], Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Don Hewitt, Bob Simon. Simon taught me how to be a war correspondent in The Gulf War in 1990, 1991. He, by example, taught me how to write and taught me what writing could be, by example. I feel a great deal of responsibility at this moment because I worked with all of these men and women and a lot of the young people in the newsroom never knew them. I’m the connection. I’m the touchstone to those great days of CBS News that came in the past…and that will come in the future. I feel an enormous responsibility to pass on what I learned.
What do you read?
I’m a big fan of John McPhee. He’s written about 25 books, won the Pulitzer Prize. His books are mostly about the natural world. They are all nonfiction, but they are written with a beautiful literary sensibility. “Grapes of Wrath” was also an enormous influence on me as a young man. My family was from Oklahoma. They lived there during the Dust Bowl, so it’s really a story about my people. But the most important thing about it, I think, is that it’s a parable about the dispossessed of all time. If you change the Joad family name to Said, you’ve got Syria. It applies to the world’s most vulnerable people. Those are the people who have no voice that depend on journalists to speak for them, and that’s what they try to do here.