Scott Pelley offers lessons from four decades in journalism at Vail event
Famed ‘60 Minutes’ correspondent shares stories from the field as part of Vail Symposium’s speaker series
How often do you hear a speaker where the time flies and you don’t want it to end? Then again, how often do you get to hear Scott Pelley speak off the cuff for 90 minutes at the the Vail Interfaith Chapel?
Yes, that Scott Pelley — the “60 Minutes” correspondent for two decades and counting, the former anchor and managing editor of the “CBS Evening News,” and the recipient of 41 national Emmy Awards, four duPont-Columbia Awards, and three Peabody Awards.
In front of a packed house at the chapel, Pelley — the most awarded correspondent in the 51-year history of “60 Minutes” — shared insights of his five-decade career in news as part of the Vail Symposium’s 50th anniversary winter speaker series.
Pelley’s book, “Truth Worth Telling, A Reporters Search for Meaning in the Stories of our Times,” outlines selected high-impact stories Pelley has covered. A theme of many of the stories, Pelley said, is “in these times, don’t ask the meaning of life. Life is asking the meaning of you.”
Ordinary people beginning an ordinary day were thrust into crisis that defined the meaning of life … and left them heroes. In answering one of the questions from the audience, Pelley said people in these stories became leaders when the world needed them.
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Pelley strode to the stage in the same casual and confident manner seen in his reporting on “60 Minutes.” He spoke off the cuff while mixing in reading from his book and showing ”60 Minutes“ clips and photos.
Pelley began with high praise for Vail, a place he and his family have visited for many years. He called Vail his second home. He also related that he embedded with members of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan.
Pelley exhibited a good sense of humor when recounting his first job at 15 years old as a copy boy with the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. He pondered why a paper in the middle of Texas had Avalanche in the name, before offering up that it was likely the avalanche of news delivered each day. He recounted lying about his age to get the job, before adding, “my entire career in search for the truth started with a lie.”
Pelley related a few stories from the book, including his experience on Sept. 11, 2001, a “pivot point” in his career. Pelley was there when the Twin Towers fell. He watched firemen run to danger and their deaths.
After 9/11, Pelley researched hundreds of radio transmissions, 911 calls and found one that struck him: a conversation between a woman on a top floor and a 911 dispatcher and related fire department call trying to reach her floor. He read a transcript of the call from the book, including her last words and the dispatcher trying to get her back on the line. Pelley was clearly still moved by the exchange and experience. He then showed a clip of a “60 Minutes” segment where sons and daughters of firefighters who lost their lives became firefighters.
He told about a young Yasidi woman in the Kurdistan region of Iraq who was enslaved by ISIS and ultimately escaped. A “60 Minutes” producer found her in a refugee camp and convinced her to be interviewed by Pelley. She was terrified and made the men in the crew stand behind curtains and the female producer hold her hand.
She started out very nervous but gained confidence. She settled in Germany where she became active in a Yazidi human rights organization. She spoke at a United Nations symposium on human trafficking and traveled the world demanding an end to rape and slavery as weapons of war. She wrote a memoir of her captivity. Pelley then learned she had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Pelley said, “that was a pretty good day for a reporter.”
The talk ended with a lively Q&A session. Pelley was asked about the current state of journalism. He expressed concern about the “business model” of media outlets catering to the left or right, just reinforcing what people want to hear. Adding to that concern, he said, is the proliferation of disinformation on the internet. He said that this situation does not help people talking to each other.
“There is no democracy without journalism,” Pelley said, also adding: “Democracy requires a well-informed citizenry that talks to one another.”
Finally, Pelley added “for the first time in history it’s up to you. You are deputized as an editor to sort through multiple sources and make your own decisions about what is right.”
Pelley commented on the importance of local journalism, acknowledged the challenges and offered hope for different business models that are emerging, including philanthropic support.
A journalist of the caliber of Scott Pelley is a beacon for journalists everywhere, including those of us at the Vail Daily.