In late November, CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley was honored by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism for his more than 40 years of excellence in news. Hundreds of ASU staff, alumni, and students, media industry leaders, as well as Mesa Community College (MCC) representatives, attended the luncheon at the downtown Sheraton Grand Phoenix hotel. The Texas native was presented the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism after the audience watched a video where Pelley’s CBS colleagues and friends praised his years of reporting. The visibly moved Pelley went on to deliver an eloquent speech about the state of our country and the position journalism has in it.
At the epicenter of his speech was the idea that “The quality of our democracy is bound tightly to our journalism.” He called journalism the life’s blood of freedom. Adding that people need unbiased, quality and clear information so they can make decisions. Pelley went on to talk about threats to the quality of our information, saying “Never before in history has so much bad information been available to more people.” The veteran journalist called out the news aggregators because he said they report other people’s reporting and publish information without any fact checking. He also mentioned charlatans, as he called them, people who write and publish outright lies just for the sake of likes and clicks.
One such fake news story he mentioned was about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump before the election. The story, which was completely fabricated, ended up on Facebook, generating more than one million views. “The quickest, most direct way to ruin a democracy is to poison the information,” said the network news anchor. He called the end of American greatness when media outlets and publishers only focus on how many clicks a story gets, rather than the accuracy. Pelley says the values of journalism are immutable whether you are writing on a stone tablet or a glass tablet. Pelley then talked about media tribalism, a theory first described by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s that describe how people tend to share information with like-minded people.
“We are becoming a nation of information tribes. We are in our digital citadels, unchallenged by ideas.” Pelley said the vital bridge between these tribes is journalism. American greatness isn’t in being united, it’s that we are all divided and willing to look past the things that divide us and that we all agree on the bigger idea of a democratic republic.He then spoke of how the job of a journalist is to help and protect humanity. Journalists should not be bothered with likes and popularity, only the accuracy and fairness of their reporting. The award-winning journalist ended his speech highlighting the work of Hadi Al-Abdallah, an unfamiliar journalist, and resident of Aleppo, Syria. Pelley detailed how Al-Abdallah felt the need to document the destruction of his city on YouTube for the world to see.
Al-Abdallah survived an assassination attempt that took the life of his cameraman and the use of his legs. After enduring 12 surgeries in Turkey, Al-Abdallah returned to Aleppo to continue his work from a wheelchair. Pelley said Al-Abdallah is “The purest form of a journalist. A human being striving to help humanity, who asks is it right, is it fair, is it honest.” To Pelley, those values are what has made American journalism the best in the world. Pelley is the 35th recipient of the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism, which began in 1984. Pelley is a graduate from Texas Tech University. He began his career at a local Lubbock television station in 1975. He then moved to New York and went on to works at CBS News where he covered major news events including the Branch Davidian siege, presidential campaigns and the 2003 World Trade Center bombing.