CBS' Scott Pelley on Fake News, Trump's War on the Press and His Favorite Movie of the Year

Sonja Flemming/CBS
Scott Pelley

"The dividing line in media today is the difference between journalism and junk," the 'Evening News' anchor tells THR, one day after receiving the Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism.

The CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley broadcast from Los Angeles for the first time since 2014 on Tuesday evening — part of a West Coast visit that allowed Pelley to accept the 2016 Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University on Monday.

The award, which was first presented to CBS founder William Paley by Walter Cronkite himself in 1984, has since been bestowed to many of the giants of American journalism, including Bill Moyers (1995), Bob Woodward (2001), Tom Brokaw (2006) and Bob Schieffer (2013).

Pelley, 59, who began at CBS in 1989, succeeded Katie Couric as anchor of CBS Evening News on June 6, 2011 — an appointment that the Columbia Journalism Review lauded as "the most well-qualified and proven television journalist ever to ascend to the anchor job." Perhaps proving their point, the ratings are currently at a 10-year high. 

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Pelley following his L.A. newscast to talk about everything from the scourge of fake news on sites like Facebook and Google to Donald Trump's declared war on the press to the movies he's enjoyed lately. 

Congratulations on receiving your Cronkite Award. It comes at a moment where journalism appears to be at a crucial and treacherous crossroads, would you agree? 

The dividing line in journalism or in media today is the difference between journalism and junk. We now live in a time where more information is available to more people than in any time in human history. But we also live in a time when more bad information is available, and that’s exactly where journalism comes in. We’ve seen it in the campaign with these fake news posts which were designed to fool people shared millions of times on Facebook and Google. We have to as journalists push back against that and utilize those values that Walter Cronkite and many others lived, and that is to look at a story and ask yourself: Is it right, is it fair, is it honest? We talk a lot in this country about the threat of terrorism, of jobs and recession; but I guarantee you the fastest way to undermine this democracy is to poison the information. And so that’s the crossroads that I see in media today, which is the difference between real journalism and junk.

And yet we have another, much larger problem on our hands, that being a new president who says that all good journalism is junk.

(Laughs) Well, that’s true. All we can do with that is do our jobs every day, come to work, working to be fair and accurate and honest about what we report. Republicans in particular have always campaigned against the media. Donald Trump took several Republican positions and turned up the heat on those to be heard above the fray of other candidates. One of them was Republican opposition to mainstream media. So I think we have to have thick skins about that. We don’t care about the criticism. All we care about is are we living our values, are we doing our work in the best possible way? And if we do that, I think journalism is going to be just fine. It has to be, because there is no democracy without journalism.

Does it concern you at all that millions and millions of Trump followers, who believe his messages regarding the corruption and bias of mainstream media, comprise a significant portion of your viewership? Does that erode the bonds of trust between an institution like CBS News and the public?

I hope they’re my audience. I’ll take every one I can get. Anyone who doubts the credibility of the media or has decided that the media does not have credibility, I want them to watch my broadcast and show them how we are capable of getting the story right and fair. I am proud to hold up the CBS Evening News every day.

You mentioned in tonight’s broadcast that Trump has already shown signs of reneging on three major campaign promises. He does appear to be skilled at this sort-of shell-game talk, he’s a verbal moving target. Does that present new challenges to journalists assigned to covering politics?

It does. We are used to politicians breaking some of their promises. That’s not very surprising. But a lot of that seems to be going on at a very high speed right now at the very beginning of the transition, which seems surprising to me. We had reversals on three major transitions just today. Usually those things get dribbled up over time. All we can do is what we always do: Report what the president says, compare it with the facts and let the audience decide what they think of that.

I know some of your colleagues like John Dickerson attended the big “off the record” media cabal at Trump Tower on Monday. Did you talk to any of them about what went down in that meeting? What would you have done if you were there?

I have not talked to my colleagues about it. What I read about that meeting is that Trump dressed down several members of the media for getting the election wrong, for expecting Hillary Clinton to win, for believing in the polls and not seeing what was happening in terms of the real voters across the country. If he had said that to me, I would have told him he was wrong. Because at CBS we did a lot of reporting, listening to voters in various states. One of the things we saw was steelworkers in Ohio that I interviewed in a union hall. The only portrait on the wall was FDR. There’s a sign on the door that says “Steelworkers for Hillary.” I had a group of them in there and I asked, “How many Trump voters in here?” And about 80 percent of them raised their hands. This was the first Republican union hall I’d ever seen. We reported that on 60 Minutes and the Evening News. The point being, things were happening that we weren’t used to seeing. If Trump suggested we were one-sided in our reporting of the election, I would tell him he was dead-wrong and that he should watch CBS more often.

What about his constant demands for apologies from people like the cast of Hamilton? Or this need to be treated “nicely?” He tweeted The New York Times is “not nice!” What’s your gut reaction to this kind of behavior from a U.S. leader?

I’m not sure if he really wants an apology or whether he uses that as a device to whip up his supporters. Maybe that is a tool that he uses so that when the other person doesn’t apologize, his supporters get whipped up with outrage even more. I don’t know which it is. We’re going to learn a great deal about Donald Trump in these next several years. We’re going to learn whether he really is against the media, or if he rather likes to be in the media. I suspect it’s the latter and he just used the media as a whipping post to get through the election.

There’s a soothing effect to your CBS Nightly News presence. You read the news soberly but with this sort of uplift and dignity, as if "everything is going to be OK — this is business as usual, America." But on Twitter and on the street, and to some extent cable news, you get a different sense — a despair, a nervousness, that things are spiraling out of control.

I think the Founders saw this election coming. More than 200 years ago, 1787, when they were writing up the Constitution, I think this is exactly what they had in mind when they created the separation of powers and the three equal but separate branches of government. We call it gridlock today and we wring our hands over it, but the Founders wanted an inefficient, clunky system that would slow down and even stop when the disagreements became so sharp. They didn’t want anyone or one faction to be able to run away with the ball in American government. I don’t think the system is dysfunctional. I think we’re seeing it function in exactly the way it was intended. Our politics in the last several years has become hyper-partisan, poisonous, and so the wheels of government have begun to slow down. The Constitution is a circuit-breaker, so that there’s no real damage to the Republic when politics goes haywire.

What is Facebook’s responsibility in disseminating news?

I asked that question rhetorically in my speech at the Cronkite School. I don’t know what it is. Is Facebook just a conduit? A utility like the electric company? Or does it have a responsibility to police its content with human beings? Not just algorithms, but people trained in journalism, who say, “This story about the Pope endorsing Trump is not true and let’s not pass it around to 1 million people," which is what that story traveled to on Facebook. Or is it completely the audience’s responsibility to look out for themselves? Caveat emptor? That’s not what we’ve asked the audience to do before. We’ve asked the audience to be trusting. So I don’t have the answer to that question, but I know that people younger and smarter than me need to have a serious debate about that because it had an impact at some level, and by it I mean fake news.

Let me ask one Hollywood question. Have you seen any movies lately you’ve liked?

I saw Arrival. It’s very provocative and interesting. And cerebral. When was the last movie you saw about aliens coming to Earth and most of the Earth was not destroyed in the process? None of that happened. A very interesting film. Oh, oh and I saw Moonlight. Wow. I didn’t know anything about it except my wife told me The New York Times thought it was great. And so I sat down in the theater in the way I like to, with no idea of what I was about to see, and was absolutely amazed by the story. It just pulls you in. You’re living this life, with this young man, in all the phases of his life. It was so raw and honest and factual. I wish everybody could see it. This is not a date movie, but it is raw and honest.