CBS' Scott Pelley urges accuracy over speed in journalism
May 10, 2013 - The state of American journalism has been on the mind of CBS anchor Scott Pelley lately. And he has concluded, "Our house is on fire."
"Never before in history has more information been available to more people, but at the same time, never before has more bad information been available to more people," said Pelley, managing editor of the award-winning "CBS Evening News" and the recipient of the 20th annual Fred Friendly First Amendment Award, presented by the School of Communications May 10 at a luncheon in New York City.
Citing the Newtown shootings story, he said journalists are getting the big stories wrong, over and over again. "I reported that Nancy Lanza was a teacher at the school and that her son had attacked her classroom. It was a hell of a story, but it was dead wrong ... so I'll take the first arrow," he said.
Pelley told his assembled colleagues from CBS and several other networks that the industry is ailing when reporters rely on social media for facts. "Twitter and Facebook are not journalism, they are gossip," he said, adding, "Journalism was invented as an antidote to gossip."
Among those who attended the luncheon were Kimberly Dozier, Associated Press reporter and former CBS News correspondent; Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News; Michael Gargiulo, co-anchor, "Today in New York"; Elaine Quijano, CBS News correspondent; Charles Osgood, anchor of "CBS News Sunday Morning"; David Rhodes, president of CBS News; Richard Roth, senior U.N. correspondent for CNN; Eric Shawn, Fox News anchor; Patricia Shevlin, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News"; author Gay Talese; and David Ushery, anchor, WNBC News 4 New York.
Describing the late Fred Friendly as a founding father of broadcast journalism, Pelley said the award has remarkable resonance. "It reaches back to the bedrock principles that Fred and Edward R. Murrow established for our industry. Getting this award is a form of the highest praise, both for me and CBS," he said.
Friendly's widow, Ruth, introduced Pelley. She quoted colleague and former Fred Friendly Award recipient Tom Bettag as saying that, "Scott lives news and simply outworks everyone in the business." She also said Pelley is known for confirming sources and corroborating information.
"He's a man who takes his role seriously and does not infect his reporting with his own ego," said Talese. Roth of CNN commented, "He does not hype up news but cares about what is important to people and filters out the noise to present legitimate news."
Pointing to the Boston Marathon bombings story, Pelley said people needed accurate and timely information when the country was under attack, yet amateur journalists became digital vigilantes, posting pictures and names of innocent people all over Facebook and Twitter.
"And the fire spread to our established newsrooms as well-everybody was a publisher, but no one was an editor," he lamented.
Pelley noted that stories such as these showcase the media's apparent preference to get a story first before getting it right. He noted that President Obama and the FBI implored the media to report ethically and cautiously during the Boston story. "But aren't we supposed to be watching them?" he asked.
The anchor, who has covered everything from politics to wars and regularly contributes stories to "60 Minutes," recalled Friendly's admonishment about being first. "Fred once said, "If you are the first, no one will ever remember; if you are wrong, no one will ever forget."
Being first is more about vanity and self-conceit, Pelley said. "It's a game we play in our control rooms."
He suggested a touch of humility would serve both the media and the public better, as well as displaying the courage to be right instead of first.
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