By Kate Stephanus
Today marks the second anniversary of Scott Pelley's tenure as anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News. Since he's taken over, CBS Evening News ratings have improved significantly — viewership is up 6 percent in Los Angeles alone. It's the only network news program to add viewers ages 25-54, with a 7 percent increase since Pelley arrived. Long stuck in third place, CBS is now only a tenth of a point away from taking second place away from ABC.
In an exclusive interview with L.A. Weekly, Pelley explains what it's like to be an anchor today, the importance of the young adult audience, and why every journalist needs a backbone.
L.A. Weekly: What have been your biggest successes as anchor of CBS Evening News?
I think our biggest success has been bringing the broadcast back to hard news, covering the most important events of the day every day. We have made big strides in the writing of the broadcast, making sure that it is clear and concise and honest. And we have added some terrific correspondents, too, who have done amazing award-winning work over the past two years. So I would tell you that the quality of the Evening News has never been higher; I think that's one of the reasons the audience has been growing.
What has been the toughest story you've covered so far as managing editor?
Without a doubt, in the last two years, the toughest story was Newtown. The whole nation was shocked by the enormity of that. I certainly was — it hit me like a ton of bricks when my people told me how many people had been killed in the school. We rushed out the door, jumped in cars and drove up there, and anchored the Evening News from there for several days.
One of the things about Newtown that we have been engaged with at the Evening News are the continuing issues of gun violence and the issues of mental health care in this country, and where we fail in that area. We have been continuing reporting on all of that ever since that happened; we had one of our best stories [Tuesday] night, reported by Seth Doane, about a father and a mother who have a son who is mentally ill and prone to violence, and about all the obstacles that are thrown in their way — all the things that they have to cope with in order to try to get help for their son and protect their community. These are enduring issues that we're going to keep covering on the Evening News and on 60 Minutes.
What have you done to attract a larger audience?
When Jeff Fager [chairman of CBS News] asked me to do this job, he said, “Look, cover the news. Cover the news; cover it fairly and honestly and clearly. Make the Evening News more like 60 Minutes. If anybody wants to watch it, great, but that is what we are going to do.”
And now we have a million more viewers for the Evening News than we did two years ago. We're up to 7 million viewers a night. The audience has really responded to that [change], and I think the reason is that they appreciate the quality. They appreciate that the broadcast is not a waste of their time. Americans are interested in the news; they want to know what's going on. But they need a concise place to see the news and a brand name that they can trust, and I think that's why we've grown by a million viewers in a couple of years.
Turn the page for Pelley's thoughts on West Coast viewers.
Do you feel as though networks often neglect West Coast viewers, specifically in Los Angeles?
I think they are too often neglected. But we have a large bureau in L.A. and another bureau in San Francisco as well that we do a lot of stories out of, and we are doing West Coast update broadcasts quite frequently now, especially when news is changing on the West Coast — whether that's the Dorner case, or the fires that the region has suffered. California is having 90 percent more wildfires this year than in a normal year. We've been doing a lot of coverage of those kinds of events, updating the broadcast when there are big news stories.
A lot of our economic reporting, too, is coming from California: As California goes, so goes the nation. A lot of the work we have done on the recession, people suffering from the recession, and the recovery (particularly in the construction industry), have been stories done from the West Coast.
What about the younger demographic? CBS is the only news station to actually have an increase in their viewership. What do you think is attracting them?
The biggest single area of growth that we have at CBS Evening News, in that million viewers that I've been talking about, is young women ages 25-54 and 18-49. Now, why is that? It's a little bit of a mystery to me, other than the fact that I think all Americans care about the news. We're not trying to attract young women as opposed to older men, or what have you — we're just trying to tell the news of the day.
I think this just tells you that there's an enormous community of people in this country who are interested in the news and feel like they're not being served. So once word-of-mouth has passed that you can get the day's news from CBS News at 5:30 in the afternoon, I think a lot of people would flock to the broadcast. Why it's mostly young people, I don't know, but it's enormously gratifying.
You recently said about modern journalism: “If you're first, no one will ever remember. If you're wrong, no one will ever forget.” Do you think journalism is moving too fast in the 21st century?
I do. I think that in these large breaking news stories that we've seen recently — Newtown or the Boston bombing, for example — there's a lot of information that goes flying about on social media, and the older, more established media are trying to keep up with that. The problem is that information flying around on social media is so often wrong. I like to say that never in human history has there been more information available to more people, and never in human history has there been more bad information available to more people.
We shouldn't be part of a rush to the bottom, if you will, in terms of the quality of information. We have the greatest journalism schools in the country. And we have people working in all of our newsrooms who have been there 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years, and they have the experience and knowhow to cover the news, and we should rely on them, not be seduced into trying to be first.
Being first has no value to the audience. It's a game that we play in the business, in our control rooms, to see who got a piece of information 30 seconds before the other guy. Being first serves the audience in no way whatsoever, whereas quality serves the audience enormously. And in this age, when so much misinformation can give the audience the wrong impression, and can even be dangerous to the public's safety, I think those of us in the media need to reflect on whether we want to be first or whether we want to be right.
Earlier this year during the Newtown coverage, CBS incorrectly reported on Nancy Lanza and her son, and another CBS reporter was caught in the line of fire during the Dorner situation in Big Bear and put in harm's way. Do you think TV journalism can move too fast too? Or is it just the Internet?
The point that I want to make about social media is that the more established media are rushing headlong to keep up with that, which I think is a mistake. We did misreport and get wrong some of the facts of the Lanza case on the first day, and others did too, but I wanted to make a point that nobody has a monopoly on making errors here, and I wanted to include us in that number.
In terms of being in harm's way, that is our job. I've got reporters walking around on prosthetic legs from being in harm's way in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's always been our job. I was listening to a recording of Edward R. Murrow this morning in a Lancaster bomber over Berlin with flack exploding all around him. Two of the reporters who went out on that same mission with Murrow crashed and were killed. It's our responsibility to be in harm's way. There are a few professions where people take on that risk every day: police officers, firemen, certainly those serving in the military. But journalism is also one of those professions.
And every single day, I have people somewhere in the world risking their lives for the CBS Evening News, and I think that's a very important tradition that we need to maintain. You have to be courageous to be a reporter in this world.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story gave the incorrect age of the demographic that CBS Evening News has increased by 7 percent. It is viewers aged 25-54, not 17-25. The original version of the story also implied Pelley has been with 60 Minutes for just two years; he's been a correspondent for the newsmagazine show since 1994. We regret both errors.
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