CBS's Scott Pelley at Quinnipiac Luncheon: 'We Are Getting Big Stories Wrong, Over and Over Again'

Scott Pelley deserves grudging credit for recognizing something obvious at a Friday luncheon in New York. Readers tempted to go beyond that point would be advised to visit the archive of Pelley-related posts at NewsBusters on his brand of so-called journalism, a few of which will be identified later in this post.

At said luncheon, Pelley received the 20th annual Fred Friendly First Amendment Award from the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University. In his acceptance speech (full YouTube; excerpt here; HT Weekly Standard), Pelley spoke of journalistic failures during the past few months. He wants to believe that the past few months have been extraordinarily bad to a supposedly unprecedented extent.


When you grasp what Pelley said and what it implies, it become clear that he is really upset that the establishment press has lost a great deal of control over news priorities and newsrooom narratives. Too bad, so sad, pal.

What follows is Pelley's speech after his introductories and reminiscences of meeting Fred Friendly and his wife many years ago:

Our house is on fire.

We didn't build this house. It was built by Fred Friendly and A.O Sulzberger and Harrison Sulzberry and Ida Tarbell who came before us, who built this magnificent mansion we call American journalism,

But today, right now, as we occupy this house that was built for us, our house is on fire.

These have been a bad few months for journalism. We're getting the big stories wrong, over and over again.

Let me take the first arrow: During our coverage of Newtown, I sat on my set and I reported that Nancy Lanza was a teacher at the school. And that her son had attacked her classroom. It's a hell of a story, but it was dead wrong. Now, I was the managing editor, I made the decision to go ahead with that and I did, and that's what I said, and I was absolutely wrong. So let me just take the first arrow here in what I'd like to talk you about today.

Let me explain why this is happening more often right now that perhaps it has in the past.

Never before in human history has more information been available to more people. But at the same time, never before in human history has more bad information been available to more people.

Boston was a low point for many people. Our nation was attacked by terrorists. I cannot think of a time when the public that we served needs accurate, timely information more than in those moments when our country is under attack.

So we were attacked by terrorists on that day and amateur journalists became digital vigilantes. Innocent people were marked as suspects. Their pictures and their names ricocheted all over Twitter and Facebook and Reddit. That fire that started on the Internet spread to our more established newsrooms as well.

In a world where everyone is a publisher, no one is an editor. And that is the danger that we face today.

We have entered a time when a writer's first idea is his best idea, when the first thing a reporter hears is the first thing that she reports. We live in a time now when we have seen major television networks take video off of YouTube and broadcast it to millions of Americans without verifying whether the video had been fabricated or not.

Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit. That's not journalism. That's gossip. Journalism was invented as an antidote to gossip.

In Boston, the FBI issued a press release begging us to confirm our information before we put it on the air. The FBI!

Here's what the President said in Boston: "In this age of instant reporting, tweets and blogs, there's a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes jump to conclusions. But when a tragedy like this happenes, with public safety at risk, and the stakes so high, it's important that we do this right.

The President of the United States and the FBI were telling us what our bedrock principles should be? Aren't we supposed to be watching them?

In my own words, let me tell you what Friendly would have thought about being first. If you're first, no one will ever remember. If you're wrong, no one will ever forget.

How does it serve the public to be first in this frantic effort that we so often see that we all succumb to? How does it serve the public if we're first?

No one's sitting at home watching five television monitors going, "Oh, they were first!" That's a game that we play in our control rooms. Nobody does that. Maybe a touch of humility would serve us better, and serve the public better as well.

You know what first is all about? It's vanity. It's self-conceit. We do it to make ourselves feel better.

You know, we speak today of Fred Friendly's courage in defense of the First Amendment. So what does that mean exactly, courage in defense of the First Amendment? It's the courage of a high school journalism teacher, or the courage of a university journalism professor, to teach young Americans the bedrock principles of what we do. It is the courage of a small town editor who holds his young reporters to those standards that they learned in our great journalism schools, and it is the courage that all of us need to show to be right when others would rather be first.

Democracies succeed or fail based on their journalism. America is strong because its journalism is strong. That's how democracies work. They're only as good as the quality of the information that the public possesses. And that is where we come in.

America has the best journalism in the world. And why is that? Well it's partly because of our tradition of journalism, and it's largely because of the great journalism schools in this country. People come from around the world to attend J-school in the United States because we produce the best journalism in the world.

This is true because men and women of character, the Fred Friendlys of the world have set these standards for us all. And that's why this luncheon is so important, because it gives us all a chance to stop, take a breath, and remember those things that we have always been taught.

You know, the methods of distribution are changing all around us. "Disruptive technologies," we call them. But our principles and standards haven't changed. Our principles are not disrupted. The principles by which we gather the news and write the news haven't changed in a thousand years, no matter if your tablet is made of stone or glass, it is the words that matter. Are they right? Are they fair? Are they honest? Are they true?

You know, when I think about Fred, I think that he speaks to us every day if we will only listen. And I for one would do very well to listen more closely every day.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am so pleased and honored to accept this award, not for myself, but to accept the award on behalf of the people who really earned it. There are hundreds of men and women at CBS News, all around this world, who have actually done the work, who have actually shown the courage that this award signifies. And on behalf of that wonderful staff of people, I thank you very, very much for this great honor. Thank you.

Here are just a few Newsbusters posts from the past year on Pelley's performance:

  • Dec. 20, 2012 -- "CBS’s Pelley Labels Bork ‘Arch Conservative,’ Provides Innocuous Definition of ‘To Bork’"
  • Nov. 1, 2012 -- "As Big Three Nets' Evening News Shows Ignore Benghazi, Their Audience Decline Continues"
  • Sept. 21, 2012 -- "ABC, CBS, NBC Hype Romney Hidden Camera Tape, Bury Obama's 'Redistribution' Clip"
  • Sept. 6, 2012 -- "Pelley and Williams Zinged Mrs. Romney from Left, But Avoid Contentious Politics with Mrs. Obama"
  • Aug. 27, 2012 -- CBS’s Pelley Presses Mitt Romney: ‘I Wonder How You Would Explain this Republican Party to Your Father?’

Two years ago, the Media Research Center produced a "Profiles in Bias" report on Pelley which puts his claims to be about what's fair, honest, and truthful -- i.e., "the best journalism in the world" -- in proper perspective.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.