Darienite Scott Pelley, managing editor and anchor of the CBS Evening News and a 60 Minutes correspondent, took time out of his coveraget of last week’s events in Boston to speak to the League of Women Voters’ luncheon at the Country Club of Darien.
Pelley told attendees that following the Boston Marathon bombing last Monday and subsequent chase and arrest of the surviving suspect, the 60 Minutes staff had decided to open the show on Sunday night with a segment on that issue.
Describing the creation of a 60 Minutes segment as like making a movie, Pelley said after spending 13 hours straight on the air Friday during the events that led to the arrest of bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, he spent Saturday in Boston filming eight interviews and returned to Darien about midnight. He then got up at 5 a.m. Sunday, wrote the script, saying “there’s no such thing as good writing, just rewriting.” Pelley said he laid down the segment’s audio tracks in his Darien studio, finished shortly before his LWV talk, and following the talk, had to head to New York City to finish the segment by 3 p.m.
Pelley talked to the crowd about the success of both the CBS Evening News, which he took over in June 2011 following Katie Couric’s departure.
He described journalism in America as “one of the pillars of our country” and the “best in the world.”
“The whole world looks to us for guidance on how great journalism is done,” he said.
Pelley gave some examples of 60 Minutes coverage of important news stories over the last several years, including an interview with a Navy Seal who was part of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. Pelley said the Navy Seal was hesitant to appear on camera and have his identity compromised, so he sat through four hours of disguise make-up for every interview.
He also showed footage of an interview with a crew member from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, who contemplated his own death as he jumped 90 feet from the boat’s inferno.
When asked about the “new media” of today including blogs and social media, Pelley offered his “traditional media guy’s view on that.”
“There has never in human history been more information available to more people. But the flip side of that of that, is never in history has there been more bad information available out there,” Pelley said.
“An enormous amount of what we see out there in this information age is wrong,” he said.
Pelley said those frustrated with the incorrect information look to “brand names they can trust.”
“Whether that is CBS News or NBC News or the New York Times or The Darien Times, what people who tune to these brand names know is that all of us have long traditions of journalism,” he said.
“We hire serious people, we have serious editors, and serious rules of how we do things,” Pelley said.
Pelley pointed out how several media sources reported a Boston bombing suspect was arrested last Wednesday and CBS resisted posting those reports without a second source.
“And we got beat. We got beat like a drum — on a story that turned out to be hugely wrong,” he said
“It’s those rules and standards, as old fashioned as they may be, that keep guys like me out of hot water,” he said.
In terms of bias, Pelley said “all of us have biased views.” But in deciding what to cover, Pelley said his staff discusses whether or not an issue has reasonable debate or is controversial and unsettled, and then will cover however many sides there are on it.
“In politics, we follow this scrupulously. We live in a divided country,” he said.
When asked about some cable news channels that have the reputation of leaning toward one political side or another, Pelley said it is not unlike a newspaper having a news section and an editorial or op/ed section.
“But in broadcasting, the opinion is not as well identified as a newspaper,” he said.
“There’s lots of room for opinion in broadcasting, but it needs to be very clearly defined and walled off from straight news,” Pelley said.
Pelley pointed out that Fox News is known for “catering to the right wing” and MSNBC for catering to the left.
“This is antithetical to the great American tradition of journalism. It is more what you see overseas,” he said.
Pelley said it is a “slippery slope,” and “it concerns me.”
“The American journalism I came through is to stay right down the middle, double-source, make sure you’re right, and hear from everyone who has a stake,” he said.
“This is getting nibbled on, and it concerns me very much,” he said.
When asked about what important issue is not making it to the top of the news, Pelley said this is a question he often asks presidents but has not been on the other side of it before.
Pelley said the “events of the last days and months bring up an important issue we are starting to cover at the news, mental health care in this country.”
“We have heard a lot of discussion about gun control. Depending on how you feel about that, might be a good or bad thing. Guns are out there, always be out there,” he said.
“But the one thing we are not paying enough attention to is mental health care,” Pelley said.
“This country has a lot to do with helping persons and families with mental health problems so we don’t have Newtowns and Auroras,” he said.