Dan Rather on Scott Pelley: He ‘burns with the hot, blue flame to report news’

By Gail Shister Comment

One Texan to another, Dan Rather is downright bullish on Scott Pelley.

“I’m not going to deny that I’m proud of the fact he’s a Texan,” says Rather. “Texans, generally speaking, have a strong sense of place, a strong tie to the land. I admire his record of slugging his way up from bottom.”

Pelley, 53, a San Antonio native and 21-year CBS veteran, yesterday was named managing editor and anchor of “CBS Evening News,” effective June 6. He was the heavy favorite to replace Katie Couric, who’s stepping down at the end of her five-year contract June 4.

Rather had campaigned for Pelley, off and on, for years. (Not that Rather’s endorsement carried any weight at CBS.) Given their similar career paths – Texas local news, then CBS and the White House, foreign wars, “60 Minutes” and anchordom – Rather probably sees himself in the younger newsman.

Pelley “burns with the hot, blue flame to report news,” says Rather, 79, managing editor and anchor at HDNet. “He’s relentless on a story. He has news in his id, his DNA. He cares about it. He knows it’s important. I think that translates to viewers. They connect with people they believe really care about the news.”

Moreover, Pelley is “steeped in the CBS tradition and history. He’s a true believer in the CBS mission. He knows the organization top to bottom because he came up from the bottom to the top. He has newsroom cred. He’s very good about thanking people up and down the line.”

But can Pelley, who will continue to report for ’60,’ make a difference in what Rather himself describes as “a damaged franchise?” For that matter, can anyone?

Dan Rather after his final CBS Evening News broadcast, March 9, 2005.

“I’m not saying that Pelley, short term, will bring them from a distant third to first or even second place,” Rather explains. “He does have the potential to move the needle, some. He will have the complete, unadulterated support of the organization as a whole and of [CBS News chairman] Jeff Fager. I would expect them to stabilize the situation.”

Record low ratings, personnel cutbacks and “a sustained effort to change the culture” have certainly hurt the “Evening News” franchise, in Rather’s view, but the damage is “not necessarily irreparable.”

Rather’s was. His 24 year-tenure as anchor will forever be eclipsed by Memogate. He has not stepped foot inside CBS News since the day he left, after more than 44 years, in 2006.

His subsequent lawsuits against the company were unsuccessful.

Regardless, Rather says that, deep in his heart, he still thinks of CBS as “the citadel of quality journalism. It’s the mother church. I love the people there. Yes, I have had my difficulties on the corporate side. But for the people of CBS News, I’m always pulling for them. I still have a lot of good friends there.”

Couric is not one of them. Rather refuses to say anything about her other than “she gave it everything she had.” Once Rick Kaplan came on as executive producer, the broadcast improved, Rather concedes.

If there’s any vestige of CBS spirit left, Pelley “will respond to it,” says Rather. “He’ll work day and night, seven days a week, to live up to the responsibility he’ll feel with this job. … If he were not from Texas, if he were from Timbuktu, I’d say the same thing.”

As for the other Texan, he doesn’t hear as well as he used to, but he can hold his own in the saddle.

“If necessary, I still feel I could go at least four hard miles over brush and timber, uphill,” Rather says. “I’d be breathing hard, but I’d make it.”