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CBS News’ Scott Pelley: Affable but hard-nosed when it counts

WASHINGTON – The fall TV season has just kicked off, and in the broadcast news divisions of the three networks there is a lot of drama.

ABC’s “World News Tonight,” with brand new anchor David Muir, is beating out longtime No. 1 ratings king “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams” in the group most coveted by advertisers, viewers 25-54.

But over at “CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley,” the third place newscast is hunkering down, now eyeing NBC as its target instead of ABC.

The man at the helm of the CBS program since June 2011, Pelley shrugged off that pesky third-place ranking in a recent interview with McClatchy, preferring to talk about growing his audience of 6.6 million and getting out in the field to report.

The hard-charging Pelley, 57, is a native Texan who was born in San Antonio, grew up in Lubbock and now lives in New York City. More than anything, he loves being a reporter. He launched the nightly news season in late September in dramatic fashion with his reports from the front lines of Iraq on the atrocities and origins of the advancing Islamic State.

The anchor and managing editor of the nightly news, which means he has a central role in deciding the stories and story lineup each night, Pelley is also a correspondent on the network’s gold standard, “60 Minutes.” He is a prolific presence on the program and will now do short versions of a story for the evening news and a longer one for “60 Minutes,” as he did for the Islamic State report.

Despite his serious demeanor on air, Pelley is warm and affable in person as he greets a visitor during a trip he made to Washington in late September to interview FBI Director James Comey – a “get” in news parlance for a hard-to-get subject.

“My life of uncovering the truth started with a lie,” he said.

When he was 15, Pelley got a job at his hometown paper, the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, by saying that he was 16 so he would be old enough to work in the newsroom. “My mother dropped me off two blocks away,” he said, so people wouldn’t realize he wasn’t old enough to drive – or work.

He worked the 3-to-midnight shift as a copyboy in the wire room, pulling stories from around the world as they clattered into Lubbock and delivering them, in pre-Internet days, to editors.

“When I walked into that wire room, that was the most exciting place I had ever been,” he said. Then, pausing for effect, “I’m still in the wire room.”

Pelley is a commanding but calm presence as he prepares to deliver the newscast and producers, assistants and technicians buzz around him. He does several promos of that night’s news to attract viewers in different markets.

At 6 foot, gray-haired and blue-eyed, Pelley is Boy Scout handsome (he was, in fact, a Boy Scout), and while his entourage includes hair and makeup people, he is focused on his product – the news. And he gives credit to all the people around him who are instrumental in that effort.

“This is a team sport,” he said, “which is why we always say ‘we’ on ‘60 Minutes.’ ” He didn’t even want his name in the title of the evening news program.

Asked what has been the highpoint of his time at the evening program in the last three years, Pelley paused to think for a minute, then said the Boston Marathon bombings. For 16 straight hours on April 15, 2013, he anchored live at the marathon finish line in the aftermath of the bombings that killed three people and injured hundreds.

Earlier this month, he and his evening news team won an Emmy for their coverage of the bombing. Pelley also won an Emmy for a program on “60 Minutes” about the “Africa Mercy,” a hospital ship that tours the African coast helping the poor who have no access to health care.

From his early start in news when he was in high school, Pelley went on to study journalism at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, and then began his broadcast career in the same West Texas city. He moved to stations in Fort Worth and Dallas for most of the 1980s. He joined CBS News in 1989 and began reporting first from New York and then returned to Dallas, where he covered a myriad of stories, including the 1992 presidential campaigns of independent Texas billionaire Ross Perot and Democratic candidate Bill Clinton.

“My favorite years reporting news were in Texas,” he said. “I’m a Metroplex guy.”

By the time Pelley got to the White House in 1997, Clinton was president and the Monica Lewinsky scandal had erupted. “Weird” was how he describes covering such personal material. But he also broke a lot of stories.

“That’s really where he earned his spurs,” Schieffer said.

And to draw those viewers, Pelley has a new executive producer, Steve Capus, who was president of NBC News for eight years until 2013, when he left after a ratings tumble at the “Today” show. Earlier, he had worked on the NBC evening news program. Capus, now also executive editor of CBS News, is promoting original reporting that goes beyond the story of the day.

“I think we’ve got a harder edge to what we’re doing right now than what the other broadcasts are doing,” Capus said in an interview.