The ‘60 Minutes’ correspondent, winner of 51 Emmys, has thrived on showing viewers ‘what they should be paying attention to.’
December 15, 2023
The Wall Street Journal
Nearly two years into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, American support for the beleaguered country is on the wane. The share of Americans who say the U.S. is giving too much aid to Ukraine is growing, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, while fewer say that Russia’s invasion is a major threat to U.S. interests.
Sympathy for Ukraine’s cause may be flagging, but Scott Pelley’s reports from the country still often lead the broadcast of the top-rated “60 Minutes” newsmagazine on CBS. The former “CBS Evening News” anchor has returned to the region six times since war broke out in February 2022. “The audience is looking away from Ukraine, which makes it imperative that we do not,” he says. “This is the largest land war in Europe since World War II, and it’s one or two mistakes away from being a conflagration throughout the continent.”
Over coffee at the “60 Minutes” offices in Manhattan, Pelley says that, after 55 years on the air, the show still regularly ranks as the top nonsports prime-time program because it knows how to present not what the public thinks it wants but “what they should be paying attention to.” Though its audience, as for most of television, has slipped far from the heights of decades ago, he says the key to still drawing nearly nine million viewers on an average Sunday (and millions more in rebroadcasts on YouTube, TikTok, Spotify and elsewhere) is to combine hard news with compelling human drama. “People love a well-told story,” Pelley, 66, says in that stentorian anchorman voice of his, which still bears the faint twang of a childhood in Lubbock, Texas. As he sees it, recent stories about Ukrainian widows finding their strength while learning to climb in the Alps, or a Ukrainian wedding planner who took up arms against Russia, give viewers a way into an otherwise remote battle. “It’s not frivolous,” he says. “People tune in expecting to be educated.”
Growing up in a working-class family in northwest Texas, Pelley sensed that journalism could be “a ticket to the world.” His first job involved maintaining the newswire machines and running the copy to various desks at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal from 3 p.m. to midnight. The newsroom, with its grizzled reporters hunched over clattering typewriters in a fog of cigarette smoke, was the most exciting place he had ever seen. Although the opening was for 16-year-olds, Pelley fibbed his way in at 15: “My entire career in search of the truth began with a lie,” he says.
Pelley wanted to be a photographer but reconsidered when the executive editor, “a big barrel-chested guy, silver crew cut, kind of a Marine Corps bearing,” glowered over him one day and demanded whether Pelley aspired to be a reporter. “Do you or don’t you,” he barked. When an
unnerved Pelley assented, the editor sat him down in front of a typewriter. He learned the craft by studying his seasoned peers but soon discovered that not all of his new colleagues liked having a teenage cub reporter holding down wages and nipping at their heels. He believes an aggrieved veteran injected errors into an obituary published under Pelley’s name, which cost him his job at the only paper in town.
Pelley says he then “tormented” the news directors at the three local television stations until one hired him in 1975 at the age of 18. He worked while studying at Texas Tech University until his reporting got the attention of the NBC station in Dallas/Fort Worth, which offered him a job three years later. Rather than stick around for a journalism degree, he made the move and soon met his wife, an intern at the station. By the time they married in 1983, Pelley was covering major events and producing documentaries at the local ABC affiliate, but having grown up on Walter Cronkite’s evening news broadcast, he pined for CBS. “They desperately didn’t want to hire me,” he says, but he kept turning up at their New York headquarters with his résumé reel year after year. Finally, the broadcaster hired him in 1989.
Despite the literary flair evident in his 2019 memoir “Truth Worth Telling,” Pelley says he prefers televised news because “if you line up the right words with the right pictures, you have something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.” When he conducts and edits interviews, he tries to remember that the most powerful moments are often the silent ones. “When someone is overcome with emotion or the question stops them and makes them think, I say to myself, ‘Shut up, shut up, shut up, don’t interrupt this,’” he says. It’s helpful, he adds, for audiences to be able to watch journalists ask questions and search for answers: “Especially at a time when there’s a great deal of skepticism about journalism, the more we show of our process the better off we are.”
Pelley has reported from numerous war zones, was at ground zero on 9/11, in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 and in Newtown, Conn., after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2013. “In my 30s and early 40s I thought I could cover these things and not be affected by them,” he says. But he began struggling with PTSD after 9/11. “There’s always a young journalist who asks, ‘How do you go to these wars and come back unscathed?’ Well, you don’t,” he says. “Don’t be a writer if you don’t have empathy, but it’s a double-edged sword.”
When Pelley was anchor and managing editor of CBS’s evening news broadcast from 2011-2017, he earned praise for his journalistic instincts and on-air fact-checking, particularly in the early days of the Trump presidency. The show has long trailed evening newscasts at NBC and ABC, but Pelley grew the audience before he was dropped in 2017. “It was a troubled time at CBS News, and they weren’t able to tell me why I was leaving the broadcast,” he says. The silver lining was he could devote more time to reporting for “60 Minutes.”
Pelley admits that when he first joined the show in 2003, he assumed there was a formula for crafting smooth 12-minute segments. Twenty years on and despite his 51 Emmy Awards, he says he still finds the work humbling. “There’s no such thing as good writing, there’s only good rewriting,” he says. “I’ve been getting to work at 5 a.m. every day this week, sweating bullets over this latest story.”
Pelley allows that as audiences are “moving out in all these other platforms and directions,” the market for “robust, broad-shouldered,” fact-based journalism is under threat. He supports consumers having more sources of information but warns that viewers now need to fact-check their own news sources. “People need to be curious and skeptical, they need to compare stories to figure out what is really happening,” he says. “It’s a big responsibility, and I think a lot of people don’t realize they have it.”
Emily Bobrow is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal’s Review section, where she writes the weekly profile column Weekend Confidential. Previously, she worked as a staff editor and writer at The Economist, covering culture, politics and policy in New York, London and Washington, D.C. She has contributed features and reviews to the New York Times Magazine, NewYorker.com, The Economist’s 1843 and The Atlantic, among other publications.