Five years after taking the reins of the CBS Evening News, Scott Pelley is still the first person to tell you he’s “the least important player on the team.” And he says that becomes increasingly so during big news events like this week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland and next week’s gathering of Democrats in Philadelphia.
We caught up with Pelley Monday afternoon in the spartan CBS workspace across from the convention floor just as some delegates tried, and failed, to force a floor vote meant to derail Donald Trump‘s nomination.
TVNewser: I just ran into one of your predecessors upstairs, Dan Rather…
Pelley: Predecessor and friend, yes. And fellow Texan. I hope to run into him as well.
TVNewser: But it got me thinking that in 1968 he was removed from the convention floor by police during some chaotic moments at the DNC.
Pelley: The ’68 convention in Chicago was just chaos and part of the problem was that these really were smoke-filled backrooms where people made deals secretly to come up with a nominee. And both parties decided that wasn’t going to happen anymore. So in 1972 we got this new primary system where voter’s votes really meant something. Some Republicans this year are regretting that because the people have voted for someone that some Republicans doubt can be a successful nominee. This event is all about trying to redefine Donald Trump in a way that makes him more attractive to more Americans.
TVNewser: And this is where the media come in because he was able to use the media quite effectively to his advantage.
Pelley: He’s a very media-saavy person. He made a living with his own prime time TV show. He speaks in headlines and phrases and soundbites and he knows that the more outrageous some of the things that he says the more often they’re going to be seen on TV. It remains to be seen how successful that strategy is going to be in the general election.
TVNewser: You just celebrated five years on the CBS Evening News, and before that you hadn’t anchored any show anywhere, which I still find fascinating.
Pelley: I still find it fascinating as well (laughs).
TVNewser: Is it everything you expected?
Pelley: It’s everything I expected and more. There’s a lot to this anchoring thing. It’s not as easy as it looks as it turns out. At least it’s not as easy for me as it turns out. Working on daily deadlines, working on that daily broadcast, bringing everybody at CBS News together around the world in all these time zones and getting a nice concise, accurate, newscast on the air is a Herculean effort and I didn’t fully appreciate that when I started how much the team pulled together every night.
TVNewser: And when you started you made a point to refer to the show as the CBS Evening news with All Of Us.
Pelley: The name of the program didn’t change on the air, it was always the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley, but I asked that all the signage in the building change to the CBS Evening News with All of Us, because it became very apparent very quickly that I was the least important player on the team. I’m the most visible player on the team, but every day somebody is risking his or life. Every day people are working 10, 12, 15, hours to get the stories together for the Evening News.
TVNewser: Three years ago when you were honored with the Fred Friendly award you gave an impassioned speech about the mistakes that TV journalists, your broadcast included, have been making. Have things gotten better?
Pelley: I’m not sure things have gotten better. I know there has been a lot of discussion about this very important topic. You have some players on the internet for whom it is more important to be first than to be right. And what’s important for broadcasters like CBS, mainstream media like major papers, and their websites: it’s more important to be right than to be first. That’s what the audience cares about.
(Photo credit: Michele Crowe/CBS)