With the words “credibility questioned” prominent on the screen, Scott Pelley once again is doing what network evening-news anchors generally don’t do: abandoning careful neutrality in favor of pointed truth-telling.
He is talking Thursday night about President Trump. And here are some of the words he is using: “his boasting and tendency to believe conspiracy theories.”
It’s nothing new. Pelley, of CBS Evening News, has set himself apart — especially in recent weeks — with a spate of such assessments, night after night.
Perhaps the most notable one, on Feb. 7, went like this:
“It has been a busy day for presidential statements divorced from reality. Mr. Trump said this morning that any polls that show disapproval of his immigration ban are fake. He singled out a federal judge for ridicule after the judge suspended his ban, and Mr. Trump said that the ruling now means that anyone can enter the country. The president’s fictitious claims, whether imaginary or fabricated, are now worrying even his backers, particularly after he insisted that millions of people voted illegally, giving Hillary Clinton her popular-vote victory.”
And then Pelley added a reality-check kicker: “There is not one state election official, Democrat or Republican, who supports that claim.”
There are plenty of other examples: One evening last month, he described Trump aide Kellyanne Conway as “a fearless fabulist.” Another night, he referred to the president as having had “another Twitter tantrum.”
Far more than his competitors — Lester Holt on NBC and David Muir on ABC — Pelley is using words and approaches that pull no punches.
It’s not that the others don’t provide fact-checks or report on criticism; they do. But Pelley, 59, despite his calm delivery, is dogged, night after night — and far blunter.
“He is not biased or grinding an ax, but certainly some of those lines have bite in them,” said Tom Bettag, a former executive producer at four networks, including the CBS Evening News; he was the longtime executive producer of ABC’s “Nightline” in the Ted Koppel years.
Bettag’s University of Maryland journalism students have been struck by Pelley’s approach, he told me.
“Some of them think it’s snarky,” he said. “There’s the sense of ‘You can’t say that, can you?’ ” Others in the class like Pelley’s directness: “It splits about 50/50.”
Bettag’s students aren’t alone in noticing.
The Associated Press’s David Bauder did a recent roundup of some of Pelley’s zingers. Bauder quoted this criticism of Tim Graham of the conservative Media Research Center: “We’re going to remember, this is not the way you were with other presidents.”
But Bauder also included the positive assessment of media consultant Andrew Tyndall: “To me, it’s not commentary. It’s actual reporting.”
Bettag says that makes perfect sense to him since Pelley’s background is as “a great reporter,” one who has been a war correspondent, who broke major stories in the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, and who has done award-winning work for the network’s flagship news show, “Sixty Minutes.” Pelley took over as the evening news anchor in 2011 and also holds the title of managing editor.
“Scott sees himself in the Murrow and Cronkite tradition,” Bettag said, referring to the legendary, and sometimes outspoken, CBS journalists Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
Pelley, and others at CBS, declined to comment for this column, saying the work speaks for itself. There is clearly every wish to avoid setting up CBS as anti-Trump or as partisan.
But, accepting Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite Award last November, Pelley tipped his hand: “The quickest, most direct way to ruin a democracy is to poison the information.”
Does something as old-school as the nightly news still carry weight in these days of 24/7 cable and self-reinforcing information sources? Undoubtedly, yes.
Together they reach 24 million viewers on a typical weeknight (with CBS the lowest-rated of the three).
The viewers, because they skew older, are probably more likely to be voters; and because they are watching the nightly news, rather than a pick-your-poison cable network, may be less likely to have their minds made up.
The broadcasts’ influence — though surely not what it was 40 years ago — remains important. And so does analytical reporting that consistently goes beyond mere stenography.
So does the context: How do you report on a president who often veers from reality, without appearing to be biased, and without turning off fair-minded citizens who are trying to stay informed?
We’re seeing examples from all over, as news organizations get outside their comfort zones.
We saw it last week when Time Magazine did a full interview with the president on the question of his own credibility, producing a magazine whose cover asks, “Is Truth Dead?”
We saw it on the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page, which criticized the president for insisting that his predecessor had had him wiretapped, using this startling metaphor: Trump is “clinging to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle.”
And we’re seeing it on the CBS Evening News, where Scott Pelley, quietly and backed by reporting, may say, as he did last month:
“The president’s real troubles again today were not with the media but with the facts.”
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan