When Scott Pelley was a 13-year-old Lubbock boy, his uncle, a Dallas-based professional photographer, gave him a 35mm camera. Pelley fell in love with the gift, and began to dream about being a photographer for National Geographic.
“I wanted to be a still photographer, and I wanted to be a great one,” says Pelley, who marks his second anniversary as anchor and managing editor of The CBS Evening News on June 6. “My heroes were Alfred Stieglitz and Henri Cartier-Bresson and all of those guys.”
In a way, Pelley has been able to realize that ambition -- as a CBS News and 60 Minutes correspondent, he has traveled all over the world, covering the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the Persian Gulf War, and presidential tours of South America, Africa, China and Europe. He’s gone to a lot of danger zones, but he says he still has to pinch himself sometimes because of all the dreams he’s realized.
“When I’m in the 60 Minutes studio, and I read the words, ‘Those stories tonight on 60 Minutes,’ or I close the program with ‘We’ll be back next week for another edition of 60 Minutes,’ every time I do that -- and I’ve been doing that for 15 years -- I think, ‘I can’t believe I just said that. I can’t believe I have the opportunity, the privilege, of saying those words.’ ”
Pelley, 55, was born in San Antonio, and grew up in Lubbock, where he lied about his age to get a job as a copy boy at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in the ’70s. He was 15, and the minimum age to work at the paper was 16. In other interviews, he has said he had his mom drop him off down the block so that his colleagues couldn’t see that he needed a ride to work.
“I started working in the wire room, and my hope was that I could turn that into a job in the darkroom and become a photographer at the paper,” Pelley says during a recent phone interview. “One day about a year into that copy-boy job, the executive editor, Dave Knapp, walked in in the middle of the night while I was working on my high-school homework. And he looked down at me and said ... ‘Do you want to be a reporter?’ ”
Pelley, surprised by the question from the barrel-chested, crew-cut editor with a Marine Corps bearing, said he never gave it any thought. Pressed for a decision, Pelley said, “Sure, I guess.” Thus ended his photography career and his reporting career began. Pelley, who says he didn’t even know how to use a typewriter at the time, began reporting, mostly doing obituaries.
“And then one of the other reporters at the paper got a job at one of the local TV stations, and I thought, ‘A-ha! There’s the photography piece and the journalism piece, all wrapped together.’ ”
Pelley pursued the TV route, working at KSEL in Lubbock while he attended journalism school at Texas Tech. After college, he worked in DFW for KXAS/Channel 5 from 1978 to 1981, then for WFAA/Channel 8 for the rest of the ’80s till he was hired by CBS in 1989.
“When I was a reporter at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, [the paper still use] hot type,” Pelley says, referring to the molten-lead form of typesetting that has long been replaced by computerized methods. “It was such a remarkable experience for me as a 16-year-old starting out in reporting, seeing all these old men operate these enormous machines with blast-furnace heat and the smell of molten lead.”
Now, like many of us, Pelley lives in a world of nonstop information, via news websites, smartphone and tablet apps, blogs and social media. And it concerns him. In a recent speech at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, he urged accuracy over speed in reporting, especially after several news outlets made errors in reporting during breaking news about the Boston Marathon bombings and the Newtown shootings (Pelley’s own error -- “I reported that Nancy Lanza was a teacher at the school and that her son had attacked her classroom,” he said in the speech. “It was a hell of a story, but it was dead wrong.”)
“As I said in that speech, never in human history has more information been available to more people, and never in human history has more bad information been available to more people,” Pelley says. “I have a theory that folks are frustrated by hearing all sorts of things all around them on the Internet and other sources that turn out to be wrong. They’re hearing things from news organizations they’ve never heard of before.”
The increased availability of news makes it difficult for traditional news organizations to be fresh, especially in such a traditional format as a half-hour newscast that airs at 5:30 Central/6:30 Eastern. But viewership is up at The CBS Evening News during the Pelley era; CBS says that the newscast was up 7 percent among adults 25 to 54 during the 2012-’13 season, and that in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, it’s up 23 percent year-to-year.
Pelley says that although there’s a 24-hour news cycle, he believes there’s a reason that a good chunk of TV news viewers watch the half-hour evening newscasts on ABC, NBC and CBS (which is in third with an average of 7 million viewers nationwide, but is closing in on second-place ABC).
“My theory is that here we are, at 6:30 on the East Coast, we have a 30-minute broadcast that tells you the 12 or so most important things that happened in the day -- and you have the brand of CBS News,” Pelley says. “In a world where people are pressed for time, I think we’ve seen so much growth in the Evening News because people want to sit down and say, ‘I’ve got 30 minutes, I trust CBS, tell me what I need to know.’ ”
Recent stories such as the fertilizer-plant explosion in West and the Oklahoma tornadoes have struck Pelley a little harder because of his Texas background.
“My family goes back many generations in West Texas and Oklahoma, essentially the footprints of the Dust Bowl,” Pelley says. “An those people who live in Lubbock, live in Dalhart, live in that region, are the people who stayed through the worst environmental disaster in history and stuck through it.
“I admire those people so much. And when we go to Oklahoma, as we did when that first EF5 tornado went through, the people I met, walking through that debris, are the people I grew up with. It’s the same stock, the same people who are going to build their house right back where it was and raise their family right there in the country that they love.”