Truth Worth Telling: Darien's Scott Pelley pens memoir
You’d think, after nearly five decades in the news business, covering every story from his beginnings in a small town Texas newspaper to the war zones of the Middle East to local tragic gun violence, it would be hard for CBS 60 Minutes Correspondent Scott Pelley to name one story that changed him the most.
“That would have to be 9/11,” he told The Darien Times.
“I was on West Street when those towers came down — that has to be a life-changing experience,” he said.
Pelley’s harrowing, gut-wrenching first-hand account as one of the first journalists on the scene opens his recently published memoir, “Truth Worth Telling,” subtitled, “A Reporter’s Search for Meaning in the Stories of Our Times.”
Pelley, now a Darien resident, was a Washington, D.C., resident at the time, but he was in New York working on a story for 60 Minutes on Mad Cow Disease.
The chapter moves from the perspective of individual stories of those on the planes that were used in the terrorist attacks that day, to the perspective of New York Fire Department members, to the last hours of those trapped in the Twin Towers to his own.
One thing they all have in common is at first the confusion, and then disbelief, and eventually, the uncomprehensible horror of what the day truly came to be to New York, the United States, and the world.
It is unlikely that anyone could forget what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, or how it made them feel, but reading these first-hand accounts — getting to know these innocent lives, whether private or emergency responders, and knowing what their future holds, gives a whole new layer to the loss.
Pelley hailed a New York City cab after the planes hit and got as close as the cab would take him. He ran the last two miles through crowds of confused New Yorkers trying to get as close to the World Trade Center.
It was not his first experience with an emergency at that location — he had been on the scene in 1993 when a bomb was set off at One World Trade Center.
He looked down to see what was slowing his speed and realized it was hundreds of pairs of high heels women had abandoned to run from the site faster.
Pelley called into CBS from the Tribeca area, where he was told the Pentagon had been hit by an aircraft. It was then the events of 9/11 hit even closer to home. Pelley’s wife and young children at the time lived a few miles from the Pentagon.
The chapter intertwines a specific and reverent history of the New York Fire Department’s beginnings and ultimately Pelley’s awe at their bravery that day. The chapter is titled “Gallantry.”
“I watched those firefighters of the FDNY go charging up those stairs, knowing the risk, against the chance that they might be able to save someone. Three hundred and forty-three members of the FDNY were killed in about 90 minutes on that day,” Pelley said.
“It was the greatest act of gallantry ever to grace an American city,” he said.
It includes a near-tragic moment for himself, and Pelley’s gut-wrenching, emotional reaction to watching the first tower collapse in front of him — falling to his knees in tears and praying for the countless lives lost.
Pelley told The Darien Times the chapter was incredibly difficult for him to relive in writing it.
“I started with that chapter. It was the hardest chapter to write. I would literally cry so much that I couldn’t see the words on my screen anymore and I’d have to stop,” he said.
Pelley said it was the chapter he worked on the longest and did the most research for — and he finally completed it. Then it came time to read the audio book.
“I couldn’t get through it. I had to stop from time to time and collect myself,” he said.
Getting through tough stories
How does a journalist move past being on the scene of a story like that?
“I tell journalism students that empathy is the most important gift that a writer or reporter can have —with empathy you can put on those clothes of the people you are writing about but it is a double-edged sword because when you’re writing about tragic events, if you have empathy you are taking some of that on board yourself. I tell young people they have to recognize it and guard against it,” he said.
Pelley said it was years after 9/11 he recognized he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — including anxiety and depression.
“Having a great spouse and a strong family is the best thing you can have – it is important to recognize internally those feelings and sort through them in a way that you can glean something positive,” he said.
Pelley’s memoir also includes his own personal journalism journey, culminating in his dream job at CBS and 60 Minutes, marked by a pattern of perseverance and unrelenting determination. To earn his job at WFAA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Dallas/Fort Worth, Pelley called and sent letters for a year. He finally was offered a job one day a week — on Saturdays. He turned that into a full-time job, spending all that unpaid time making his Saturday productions as high quality as he could — until he eventually got hired full-time. Eventually, his work caught the attention of CBS News.
“As excellent as WFAA was, attempting to leap to CBS was like moving from Division 1 college ball to the NFL,” Pelley wrote.
His first interview after being invited by the recruitment office went well, but a job didn’t materialize. Pelley wasn’t daunted.
“My heroes at CBS didn’t want me, so by God I was going to make them want me,” he wrote.
A few more years went by and a few more unsuccessful attempts.
Finally, in 1989, returning from a second honeymoon with his wife, Jane, to a full answering machine — message after message from CBS — “We have a reporter’s job open and wondering if you are still interested. Please call us as soon as you can,” “CBS calling, if you’re not interested in the job, give us a call — we need to fill it this week.”
The next day he called — and dropped everything to fly to New York when CBS asked him to come that day — and was hired.
Pelley tries to pass on that perseverance to college students he speaks with.
“I tell them, if journalism is the song in your heart, and other people can’t hear that, that’s their problem, not yours. The only people who don’t get jobs in our industry are the people who give up,” he said.
Pelley also talked about taking the helm of Evening News anchor in 2009. One subtle yet important change he made to the Evening News desk was adding small black and white photographs of those who had given their lives in the line of duty for CBS.
Other chapters cover other parts of Pelley’s history, and the many critical stories and personal profiles he has done — from both President George Bushes, President Bill Clinton, meeting the Pope, covering various war zones to being on the scene shortly after the tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook.
Each chapter has a name or value that the story is exhibiting, such as “Selflessness: Paulette Schank,” about a nurse in charge of the operating rooms on an Iraqi air base, or “Gratitude: Early lessons,” or “Hubris: Trump v. Clinton.”
So why did Pelley opt to write a memoir, and why write “Truth Worth Telling,” now?
“I wanted to write a memoir but I didn’t want to write a memoir about me — I didn’t think anyone would care about that. But it occurred to me I had met the most fascinating people in the world — during a time when they had discovered the meaning of their lives, during the historic events of our times,” Pelley said.
“Why now? Most of the people I encounter throughout the country are feeling a little off-balance right now — the political climate has created a lot of questions about where we are today as Americans and who we want to be as Americans,” he said.
Pelley said he wanted to look at the world in terms of those uncertainties, and said people can take responsibility for how they react.
Returning to how journalists can take the sometimes tragic and difficult stories and turn them into something worthwhile, Pelley said one of the things that helps him find the positive is to “look at those attributes those values, those principals that people show during difficult times.
Hopes for the book
Pelley’s hopes for the book are twofold. One is that he hopes “the members of the FDNY today feel I have paid some kind of adequate tribute to the sacrifices made on that day.”
His second is his last chapter, called “To a Young Journalist.”
“We need a new generation of great journalists, particularly now. There is no democracy without journalism,” he said.
He said James Madison said that Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press were the rights that “guaranteed all of our other rights.”
“It is just that vital to the future of America. And so I hope that last chapter will be inspirational to a new generation of young reporters,” he said.