CBS News’ Scott Pelley: Affable but hard-nosed when it counts

CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley inside the station's Capitol Hill location as he and his team prepare for the evening news Sept. 25, 2014. A native Texan, Pelley is also a correspondent for 60 Minutes, having just reported on ISIS in Iraq.
CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley inside the station's Capitol Hill location as he and his team prepare for the evening news Sept. 25, 2014. A native Texan, Pelley is also a correspondent for 60 Minutes, having just reported on ISIS in Iraq. McClatchy

The fall TV season has just kicked off, and in the broadcast news divisions of the three networks there is a lot of drama.

ABC’s “World News Tonight,” with brand new anchor David Muir, is beating out longtime No. 1 ratings king “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams” in the group most coveted by advertisers, viewers 25-54.

But over at “CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley,” the third place newscast is hunkering down, now eyeing NBC as its target instead of ABC.

The man at the helm of the CBS program since June 2011, Pelley shrugged off that pesky third place ranking in a recent interview with McClatchy, preferring to talk about growing his audience of 6.6 million and getting out in the field to report.

The hard-charging Pelley, 57, is a native Texan who was born in San Antonio, grew up in Lubbock and now lives in New York City. More than anything, he loves being a reporter. He launched the nightly news season in late September in dramatic fashion with his reports from the front lines of Iraq on the atrocities and origins of the advancing Islamic State.

The anchor and managing editor of the nightly news, which means he has a central role in deciding the stories and story lineup each night, Pelley is also a correspondent on the network’s gold standard, “60 Minutes.” He is a prolific presence on the program and will now do short versions of a story for the evening news and a longer one for “60 Minutes,” as he did for the Islamic State report.

Despite his serious demeanor on air, Pelley is warm and affable in person as he greets a visitor during a trip he made to Washington in late September to interview FBI Director James Comey – a “get” in news parlance for a hard-to-get subject.

Pelley anchored the evening news program from the roof of the Jones Day law firm at the foot of Capitol Hill instead of his usual perch in a vast Manhattan newsroom. Only the walk up to the top floor, through the backstairs and, unexpectedly, outside, revealed not so much a penthouse, but what looked suspiciously like a trailer.

“I’m living in a double-wide,” Pelley said cheerfully from the D.C. set, which is actually in a trailer strategically placed on top of the law firm building to give viewers a splendid vista of the U.S. Capitol behind the anchor.

During a half-hour interview before his evening broadcast, a relaxed Pelley sat in the anchor’s chair and talked about his life in news.

“My life of uncovering the truth started with a lie,” he said.

When he was 15, Pelley got a job at his hometown paper, the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, by saying that he was 16 so he would be old enough to work in the newsroom. “My mother dropped me off two blocks away,” he said, so people wouldn’t realize he wasn’t old enough to drive – or work.

He worked the 3-to-midnight shift as a copyboy in the wire room, pulling stories from around the world as they clattered into Lubbock and delivering them, in pre-Internet days, to editors.

“When I walked into that wire room, that was the most exciting place I had ever been,” he said. Then, pausing for effect, “I’m still in the wire room.”

Pelley is a commanding but calm presence as he prepares to deliver the newscast and producers, assistants and technicians buzz around him. He does several promos of that night’s news to attract viewers in different markets.

At six foot, gray-haired and blue-eyed, Pelley is Boy Scout handsome (he was, in fact, a Boy Scout), and while his entourage includes hair and makeup people, he is focused on his product – the news. And he gives credit to all the people around him who are instrumental in that effort.

“This is a team sport,” he said, “which is why we always say ‘we’ on ‘60 Minutes.’” He didn’t even want his name in the title of the evening news program.

Hard news is very much Pelley’s brand, as well as how CBS News wants to distinguish itself from the other networks across all its news programs, from the morning show to the evening news.

“We’re doing less of the lighter news here,” said Pelley. “We’re trying to be the most responsible and, dare I say it, the most serious of the news broadcasts.”

It is, after all, Pelley who replaced Katie Couric, the bubbly NBC “Today” show star who stumbled in her move to prime time as the “CBS Evening News” anchor. Couric was reportedly the highest paid newscaster in the world, at $15 million a year from 2006 to 2011, when Pelley took over.

Media critic Howard Kurtz immediately dubbed the Texan “the anti-Katie Couric” for his sober tone and news selection.

“Scott is very serious and he’s one of the hardest workers that I think I’ve ever been around,” said Bob Schieffer, the Washington-based host of CBS’ Sunday talk show, “Face the Nation.” Schieffer, who is from Fort Worth, bonded with his fellow Texan when Pelley was the network’s White House correspondent in the late 1990s. “He just never stops. He can have three or four stories going at once.”

Asked what has been the highpoint of his time at the evening program in the last three years, Pelley paused to think for a minute, then said the Boston Marathon bombings. For 16 straight hours on April 15, 2013, he anchored live at the marathon finish line in the aftermath of the bombings that killed three people and injured hundreds.

Earlier this month, he and his evening news team won an Emmy for their coverage of the bombing. Pelley also won an Emmy for a program on “60 Minutes” about the “Africa Mercy,” a hospital ship that tours the African coast helping the poor who have no access to health care.

From his early start in news when he was in high school, Pelley went on to study journalism at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, and then began his broadcast career in the same West Texas city. He moved to stations in Fort Worth and Dallas for most of the 1980s. He joined CBS News in 1989 and began reporting first from New York and then returned to Dallas, where he covered a myriad of stories, including the 1992 presidential campaigns of independent Texas billionaire Ross Perot and Democratic candidate Bill Clinton.

“My favorite years reporting news were in Texas,” he said. “I’m a Metroplex guy.”

By the time Pelley got to the White House in 1997, Clinton was president and the Monica Lewinsky scandal had erupted. “Weird” was how he describes covering such personal material. But he also broke a lot of stories.

“That’s really where he earned his spurs,” Schieffer said.

Pelley moved to “60 Minutes II,” which is no longer on the air, and then to “60 Minutes” in 2004.

At the evening news program, he is focused on quietly bringing up CBS from its third place spot even as NBC and ABC fight each other.

While he doesn’t want to dwell on the evening news rankings, the clearly competitive newsman points out that “60 Minutes,” hugely successful in its 47th year on the air, is frequently No. 1 among all television programs.

The evening news outlook is tougher.

“We’re not as deeply in third place as we were before,” said Pelley. “CBS Evening News” has grown, especially in the coveted demographic of viewers ages 25-54. The Nielsen Media Research results affect advertising rates, as well as bragging rights and anchors’ jobs.

“Being up 1.8 million viewers in three years is a pretty big deal,” he said. “It’s the largest sustained growth in 21 years.”

According to this month’s Nielsen ratings, “CBS Evening News” increased viewership 5 percent, or 320,000 viewers, in the just-ended 2013-2014 television season.

And to draw those viewers, Pelley has a new executive producer, Steve Capus, who was president of NBC News for eight years until 2013, when he left after a ratings tumble at the “Today” show. Earlier, he had worked on the NBC evening news program. Capus, now also executive editor of CBS News, is promoting original reporting that goes beyond the story of the day.

“I think we’ve got a harder edge to what we’re doing right now than what the other broadcasts are doing,” Capus said in an interview.

He advocated having hard news stories done for “60 Minutes,” like the Comey interview, play on the evening news as well as the morning show.

Pelley has won many awards in his career, and in 2013 he was named an outstanding alumnus of Texas Tech, where he is on the advisory board of the university’s College of Media and Communication.

According to the website, Pelley earns $7 million a year, a raise this year from his earlier reported $5 million yearly salary, but still less than NBC’s Williams’ reported $13 million salary.

Pelley lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his college sweetheart, Jane. Married 31 years, the couple has two children, Reece, 22, and Blair, 19.

Pelley stays fit and loves tennis, but he’s such a workaholic that he had a gym installed in his CBS office in New York.

“For a kid from Lubbock, Texas, who used to ride his bike to the library, this is the world’s greatest continuing education program,” he said.