Hanging with CBS' Scott Pelley as he covers first national convention as an anchorman
TAMPA -- Outside, talking heads are chattering about Hurricane Isaac hitting the Louisiana coast and the next lineup of speakers scheduled yards away at the Republican National Convention.
But on Wednesday afternoon, three hours before he’ll lead the CBS Evening News, Scott Pelley is hunched over a laptop in a makeshift newsroom deep in the bowels of the Tampa Convention Center, typing out abrief story on the anonymous, retired Navy SEAL who has written a book about helping kill Osama bin Laden.
While everyone else here talks politics and weather, Pelley is focused on how to introduce a sliver of an interview with that author – a talk planned as a major exclusive for 60 Minutes next month that the anchor will reveal a bit of tonight, in part because the Associated Press has broken a story on the book’s content.
The only thing he can say with certainty about the story at this point, is that he won't be revealing the author's real name on air, despite the fact others have already done so. “It is the height of journalistic irresponsibility to reveal his name," said Pelley, who will call the author by the pseudonym "Mark Owen" in his piece. "There really is no reason the public needs to know his identity...He’s now a marked man for the rest of his life – like Osama bin Laden, ironically."
The night before, media outlets mixed coverage of Isaac with dissecting the RNC’s speeches -- a balancing act which has continued throughout the week. (at left, an image from Pelley's interview Tuesday with former Alabama congressman and Obama critic Artur Davis.)
“The thing I’m learning about this managing editor job, is you have to get used to juggling multiple stories at once,” said Pelley, taking a bite out a salad before rushing off to record promotional spots for Tampa CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10 and his own network before planning coverage for the 6:30 p.m. broadcast. "We probably won't decide what goes into the show for sure until 30 minutes before the broadcast."
Viewers likely didn’t notice while watching CBS’ primetime coverage of the RNC Tuesday, but that night marked Pelley’s first time covering a political convention as a news anchor.
Pelley, 55, hadn’t ever worked as a news anchor when he took over the top job at CBS, replacing Katie Couric as lead anchor and managing editor of the program. That means every regular event for news anchors -- start of a legislative season, start of presidential campaigns, and presidential elections -- is a first for Pelley, until he gets through all the regularly-occurring news stories anchors are expected to tackle.
On Tuesday, he led a tight broadcast, with little time for analysis alongside co-anchor/wingman Bob Schieffer, as headliner speakers Ann Romney and Chris Christie filled most of the 10 p.m. hour with their speeches, coordinated with the kind of onstage precision most rock bands would envy.
“What struck me was how little time we had to do the things we aspired to do,” Pelley said a day later. “We had been working for weeks, (taping) interviews with people who lost their homes, interviews with people who lost their jobs…to take the audience outside the convention and listen to the voices of average Americans. But Mrs. Romney and Mr. Christie filled up all the time".
Some journalism experts have said that was exactly the point; to stage-manage the primetime speeches so tightly, that TV newscasts journalists have little time to interpret or analyze one message before the next one comes along.
“That is clever on their part, but it doesn’t change the basic focus of our jobs; to tell the folks at home what happened,” said the anchor, who has brought a sharper hard news focus to CBS' news broadcasts. "People are tuning into the convention because they want to know what happened at the convention.”
But for the broadcast TV networks this week, so much of that coverage happened in another venue: online.
Like their rivals, CBS is only broadcasting three hours of RNC coverage in prime time – one hour each night. But Pelley and his crew actually begin their coverage at 8:30 p.m., streaming the footage of CBS.com before and after the prime time window. (on Tuesday, they finished up just after 11:30 p.m.)
For viewers of a certain age, Tuesday's broadcasts looked like the convention coverage of years earlier, with Pelley juggling reports from the Tampa Bay Times Forum floor and interviews inside the news division's impossibly cramped broadcast booth high above the action. But most of that material unfolded online, which Pelley insists doesn't bother him at all.
“You can just have hours of great material and the heartbreaking thing about journalism are the things you have leave out,” he said. “The thing about the Internet is that a lot of that great content, which would have been shipped off that would have been shipped off the a warehouse in new Jersey, is now actually getting out in public…We take all the great stuff that we can’t get on television and we put it out there.”