“For all of us at CBS News, it’s particularly meaningful to accept this award on the 100th anniversary of Walter Cronkite‘s birth,” said Cronkite’s successor at the CBS Evening News, Scott Pelley. “Walter is alive and well at CBS News, and we live his values and his principles every day.”
Pelley, notably absent from Pres.-elect Trump’s meeting Monday with representatives of several TV news organizations, was instead on a previously-scheduled trip to Phoenix, where he was honored as the 33rd recipient of the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism.
Pelley told the more than 1,000 attendees that the rough election season saw “both sides cheapen the electoral process” and left him “feeling a bit down about all of that.” But his meetings with enthusiastic journalism students at Arizona State’s Cronkite School made him “feel so much better.”
TVNewser caught up with Pelley in Phoenix as he prepared to field anchor the CBS Evening News from the ASU campus.
TVNewser: While there have been other Cronkite Award recipients in years past [including Tom Brokaw, Robert MacNeil, Robin Roberts, and Diane Sawyer], you knew Walter well, and you succeeded him as CBS Evening News anchor. It was clear today that you found great meaning in this honor – can you tell us more about that?
Pelley: One of the beautiful things about receiving the Cronkite Award at this point in time…is that for these young people, who never had a chance to meet Walter, I can be a living connection–from having known Walter, Walter being a friend of mine, and to impart his values, his views, that I learned at CBS, to these young people are who coming up.
I’ve been trying to impress on them how important journalism is to the functioning of our society and the quality of our lives in the United States. There’s no democracy without journalism. And the quality of the democracy is tied up in the quality of the journalism. The stakes are enormous.
TVNewser: Tonight you’re broadcasting from Phoenix, and Tuesday you’ll anchor from the CBS bureau in Los Angeles. It’s always good to get in the field and out of the studio. The media is facing criticism for not getting “out there” enough in the run-up to the election. How do you think that the CBS Evening News did in this regard?
Pelley: What we’ve learned, and we knew this going in, is that it’s more important to talk to the voters than to listen to the polls. And we made a number of trips–the Evening News and for 60 Minutes–to Ohio, because that really is a great microcosm of the country at large.
And I’m proud to say that we picked up some real clues that things were not going the way that most people thought. For example, I was in a steelworkers’ union hall. And there’s only one picture of a president on the wall, and it’s FDR. And there’s a sign on the union hall that says, ‘Steelworkers for Hillary.’ And we got a bunch of the steelworkers together and I said, “How many of you are voting for Donald Trump?” And most of the hands went up.
Well, that’s the first Republican union hall I have ever been to! And things like that were telling us, this isn’t a sure thing. Now, we also paid a great deal of attention to the polls, like everybody. But we were picking up real signs, in the month before Election Day, that things were not necessarily going the way everybody expected.
TVNewser: There’s a lot of mistrust of the media these days – surveys show it. And we hear a lot about media bias. What can the press do to rebuild trust or address these concerns?
Pelley: We’ll always be criticized, because bias is in the eye of the beholder. Every time I do an interview of any president, half the mail is, “You dreadful Republican!” And the other half is “You dreadful Democrat!” And that’s when you know you’ve got it down the middle.
But what we have to do is: Every day, with every story we do, ask ourselves, ‘Is it right, is it fair, is it honest?’ We need to be seen being even-handed and insightful about the news. And I think if you do that every day, in everything that you do, people learn to trust you.
CBS News has been a trusted journalism brand in this country for many decades now. And I know that that is going to continue in the future because those are the values that we all have in the news division.
TVNewser: In June, you celebrated your 5th anniversary anchoring the CBS Evening News. Ratings are the highest they’ve been in ten years, but the broadcast still is in third place among the network evening news programs. Is there pressure on you in this regard, and how often do [CBS News President] David Rhodes and [CBS Corp. Chairman and CEO] Les Moonves bring up ratings with you?
Pelley: Never. Literally never. No one ever discusses the ratings with me. We never discuss them in our editorial meetings. No one ever says, ‘Hey, this story is really going to be attractive to women between the ages of 18 to 49!’ It never happens – some people may find that hard to believe.[60 Minutes executive producer] Jeff Fager once said, “Every human being loves a good story well-told.” And that’s our philosophy, that everyone will gravitate toward a good story well-told. And it’s a foolish thing to do, to chase a demographic or a gender. That’s not who we are.
TVNewser: You’re still doing two jobs these days, at the Evening News and at 60 Minutes as well. Do you want to keep that up?
Pelley: I do. It is very hard on my family, it’s hard on me physically. But the synergy is tremendous. Everything I do on 60 Minutes appears on the Evening News. Everything I do on the Evening News informs what I do at 60 Minutes.
And when I am being managing editor of the Evening News every day, typically in New York, I’m editing and helping shape the content of the broadcast. But when I’m working at 60 Minutes, I’m out there getting my fingernails dirty and wearing out the leather on my shoes. That’s what gives me the fire in the belly to do this job, is being out in the field, talking to people, and hearing what they have to say about their lives all around the world. And so I can’t give that up!
TVNewser: In 2015, you marked 40 years in television news. Is there any story that you haven’t covered that you’d still like to – or any interview you haven’t done that you still dream of?
Pelley: You know, I used to say that I wanted to interview the Pope. That was my stock answer to that question. But I interviewed him in Vatican Square a few months ago, so I can’t say that anymore!
Because of CBS, and because of the enormous blessing that I’ve received from CBS and my colleagues, I’ve been to the Arctic, and the Antarctic, and everywhere in between. It’s the most amazing thing for a kid who grew up in Lubbock, Texas, who no one had their eye on as being anything special. I am the luckiest man in the world.
I really can’t think of another story that I want to do, other than whatever the next big one might be.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
(Photos: Alissa Krinsky)