Two years ago as he was about to take over a ratings-battered and beleaguered newscast from Katie Couric, Scott Pelley told me he thought great journalism in the traditional sense of that term could still be good business despite the epic change rocking TV news.
Today, on his second anniversary in the anchor seat once held by Walter Cronkite, Pelley and the folks at CBS News can point to a record of solid growth at a time when most in the legacy media business are just hoping to stem the rate of decline.
During the last TV season that ended in May, "CBS Evening News" gained 490,000 viewers. That's the largest gain for any network's evening newscast in more than a decade. During the two seasons since Pelley took over as anchor and managing editor, the gain is 720,000 viewers.
"Two years ago, Jeff Fager [chairman of CBS News] said, 'Look, make the Evening News like '60 Minutes,'" Pelley said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "'Tell hard news, tell us what happened in the world today. Tell it clearly, concisely and honestly, and the audience will come.' I desperately wanted to believe that was true. And since Jeff put me in this job, he was clearly putting all of our money on that prospect."
Of course, being as low down as CBS News was when Pelley took over, it is easier to show growth. Two years ago, some were predicting that the CBS Evening News might soon suffer the indignity of finding itself with a smaller nightly audience than a cable news program like the one hosted by Bill O'Reilly on Fox News.
But growth is growth, and the Pelley-led CBS Evening News has earned those new viewers the right way, offering them a source of news and information that is not hopelessly tainted by politics. CBS has instead regularly presented a nightly lineup of stories that speaks to its audience as citizens rather than dumbed-down and numbed-out viewers looking to be distracted from the realities of the world in which they live by amusing, sensational or artificially hyped narratives.
"I think what that tells you is the American people are looking for a place where they can get the top news stories of the day in 30 minutes told in as honest and complete a way as we possibly can tell them," Pelley says.
While I'm not sure anyone in Mantattan or Washington knows what the "American people are looking for," Pelley and his bosses at CBS News do seem like one of the few media outfits that stands for something and isn't running scared in these tumultuous times.
In fact, in recent months, Pelley has gone beyond doing his job well as managing editor and anchor to telling others in the media how they should do theirs. Earlier this year, he criticized Fox News for naming the Navy SEAL who wrote a book on the killing of Osama bin Laden, and last month, in receiving an award named for legendary CBS news producer Fred Friendly, he ripped the news community for getting facts and identities wrong in coverage of a school shooting in Newtown and the Boston Marathon explosions.
"How are we serving the public by being first?" he said Wednesday. "We're not. That's a game that we play in our control rooms about who beat who. It provides zero value to the viewers. It's so much more important to get the story right -- and to not put misinformation out there.
"One of the things I said in the speech was that never before in history had there been more information available to more people. And never in history has there been more bad information available to more people. I think that's why we've grown [in audience for the 'Evening News'] ... I think people are looking for brands they can trust."
At first, I thought Pelley went overboard in taking on the role of media critic with his remarks. But after thinking about it for a few days, I came to believe the fault lies with media critics -- not him. If there were more of us doing our job in condemning the reckless spread of misinformation on the Internet, in social media, and on radio and TV, he wouldn't have to.
Pelley is the perfect disciple for the Fager Philosophy of making the "'Evening News' like '60 Minutes.'"
It's far less painful for the network and its anchorman to be third in evening news when you also have the highest-rated and most successful news program in the history of the medium in "60 Minutes." And, best of all, your anchorman is also a star correspondent on the newsmagazine. How much money do you think CBS is making off that little efficiency?
"As luck would have it, in this last season that we just finished, I did more '60 Minutes' pieces than I've ever done," Pelley said. "I did 23 pieces for '60 Minutes' last season. Now, how is that possible? It shouldn't be possible. But it is possible ... because I've got great people working with me at the 'Evening News' and '60 Minutes' as well."
Like Dan Rather, another Texan who once sat in Cronkite's chair, the 55-year-old Pelley is a workhorse.
"They're long days, and I shoot a lot of '60 Minutes' stories on the weekend," he says. "And I'm not sure my wife is all that happy about my output at '60 Minutes,' because it does steal a lot of time away. But we have found a way to get all that done."
And he thinks the synergy makes him and his evening newscast better.
"Never in the 45 year history of '60 Minutes' has there been any co-operation really between '60 Minutes' and the 'Evening News,'" he says. "Now under Jeff Fager, everything we do at '60 Minutes' ends up on the 'Evening News' in one form or another -- and a lot of the material and people working on the 'Evening News' end up working on '60 Minutes' pieces. There is a complete, high-speed, two-way street now between the two broadcasts.
"'60 Minuites' is stronger for it. The 'Evening News' is stronger for it. And we all just sit around and shake our heads, like, 'Why didn't we figure this out 40 years ago?'"