Now 50 and about to begin his fifth season at 60 Minutes, Pelley says he “did not even dare to dream” he would one day work at the venerable newsmagazine. But to hear him recount his rise from 15-year-old copyboy to Emmy-winning reporter, one gets the sense that he has always known exactly where he was headed. And despite perennial speculation that he is destined for the anchor chair, Pelley insists he is right where he belongs.
“This is just the greatest job conceivable for a guy like me,” he says. “I can't imagine doing anything else.”
LATEST IN LINE OF TEXAS NEWSMEN
Indeed, Pelley comes by the speculation honestly. Like former Evening News anchors Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer, he's a Texan—born in San Antonio and reared in Lubbock. (You wouldn't know it to hear him talk though, so successful was his mother in correcting his West Texas “gits” and “fers.”)
When he was 15, an early fascination with photography led him to a copy job at the local Avalanche-Journal newspaper. But Pelley quickly took to reporting, and by the time he went on to Lubbock's Texas Tech University, he had landed a job at WSEL Lubbock (now KMAC), where he ultimately produced the 10 p.m. news.
Upon graduating in 1978, he moved to Dallas, becoming a reporter/producer at KXAS. (His future wife, Jane, was an intern there.) He left to launch and host a short-lived business program for the PBS station, but funding dried up, and he was out of a job.
Pelley managed to land a part-time job at Belo's local-news powerhouse WFAA, which he soon parlayed into a full-time reporting gig. There he covered the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster and reported ambitious long-form stories on AIDS and oil prices.
“[Scott] had then—and has today—a very compelling on-air presence,” says Belo Chairman/CEO Robert Decherd. “But when you look beyond that, the depth and quality of his reporting stands out.”
In praising Pelley's boundless energy and his love for “the romance of journalism,” WFAA reporter Byron Harris recalls the time his former colleague maintained his on-air poise while being attacked by fire ants during a standup.
THE VIEW FROM DALLAS
Although Pelley's work attracted the attention of CBS early on, it took four years before the network hired him in 1989. After a stint in New York, he went to work in the Dallas bureau. But he soon shipped off to Saudi Arabia to cover the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and subsequently traveled with the XVIII Airborne Corps during the Gulf War.
Being in the Dallas bureau put Pelley in the catbird seat for some of the country's biggest stories, including the 1992 Clinton campaign, the Branch Davidian siege (his coverage earned him the first of three Emmys) and the Oklahoma City bombing. It was his courthouse reports for the Evening News during the McVeigh trial that persuaded then-Executive Producer Jeff Fager to move him to the White House.
Within months of Pelley's arrival at the West Wing in 1997, President Clinton was impeached. The challenge of negotiating a “White House under siege,” he says, has proved invaluable to his more recent coverage of the Bush administration. His interviews with President Bush (five so far) have become a calling card, from his first in December 2000 when he was a 60 Minutes II correspondent, through his January sit-down at Camp David as Sunday contributor.
“I am constantly at the White House working on interviews with the president,” Pelley says. “It's my hobby.”
“A PRODUCER'S DREAM COME TRUE”
That doggedness and his penchant for fearless globetrotting are part of what makes Pelley “a producer's dream come true,” says Fager, now executive producer of 60 Minutes. “I wish I could duplicate him.”
Last season, with holes left by the death of Ed Bradley and Rather's departure from the network, Pelley acted as if he had been, virtually doubling his output of segments. Although it's a relentless pace that keeps him away from his wife and children more than half the year, he has managed to take his son, 15-year-old Reece, and daughter, 12-year-old Blair, along with him on trips to Antarctica and India. And the exotic locales allow him to indulge his enduring passion for photography.
After a decade in Virginia, Pelley and his family will be moving to Connecticut in the next few weeks. Predictably, news of the move reignited speculation that the correspondent, once considered a likely successor to Rather, is being positioned for the Evening News—this time to rescue the newscast from its ratings woes under Katie Couric.
But Pelley maintains that 60 Minutes, with its audience and ability to “illuminate the darkest recesses of this world,” is where he ought to be.
“I do not aspire to be the anchor of the Evening News,” he says. While it is “a tremendously important job, especially in times of crisis,” he adds, “at the end of the day, it is largely an office job.
“Being a 60 Minutes correspondent is about roaming the world and doing what I have always loved most about journalism, and that is seeing things for myself. It's impossible to do that kind of work and be the anchorperson; it cannot happen. So you have to make a choice. And I've made my choice.”
To illustrate how long he has aspired to be a 60 Minutes correspondent, Scott Pelley likes to tell of how, at 16, he sent a fan letter to Don Hewitt, the former executive producer of the CBS program. “I wrote a silly letter that essentially said, 'Gee, Mr. Hewitt, how do you do it?'” says Pelley. He never heard back. “So now, when I run into him in the hallways, I say, 'Don! Where the hell's my letter?'”