Scott Pelley offers lessons from four decades of journalism at Vail event

Scott Pelley – the most awarded correspondent in ’60 Minutes’ 51-year history – shared insight into his five-decade career in the news as part of the Symposium’s 50th Anniversary Winter Speaker Series from Vail Wednesday night in Vail.
Courtesy of Vail Symposium

How many times do you hear a speaker where time flies and you don’t want it to end? Again, how often do you hear Scott Pelley speaking in a low voice for 90 minutes at the Vail Interfaith Chapel?

Yes, that Scott Pelley — the “60 Minutes” correspondent for two decades and more, the former anchor and editor of the “CBS Evening News,” and the recipient of 41 national Emmy Awards, four duPont-Columbia Awards, and three Peabody Awards.

Before a packed house at the chapel, Pelley – the most awarded correspondent in the 51-year history of “60 Minutes” – shared insight into his five-decade career in the news as part of the speaker series. winter of the 50th anniversary of the Vail Symposium.

Pelley’s book, “Truth Worth Telling, A Reporters Search for Meaning in the Stories of our Times,” describes selected high-impact stories that Pelley has covered. A theme of many stories, says Pelley, is “in these times, don’t ask for the meaning of life. Life asks you what you mean.

Ordinary people starting an ordinary day were thrust into a crisis that defined the meaning of life…and made them heroes. Answering one of the questions from the audience, Pelley said that the characters in these stories become leaders when the world needs them.

Pelley took to the stage in the same laid-back, confident manner as in his “60 Minutes” report. He spoke spontaneously, mixing reading his book and showing clips and photos from “60 Minutes.”

Pelley began by praising Vail, a place he and his family have visited for many years. He called Vail his second home. He also said he had integrated members of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan.

Pelley displayed a good sense of humor as he recounted his first job at age 15 as a copyist at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. He wondered why a Central Texas newspaper had Avalanche in its name, before saying it was probably the flurry of news coming out every day. He said he lied about his age to get the job, before adding: “My whole career in the search for the truth started with a lie”.

Scott Pelley signed copies of his book Wednesday night at a Vail Symposium event at the Vail Interfaith Chapel.
Courtesy picture

Pelley related a few stories from the book, including her experience on September 11, 2001, a “pivoting point” in her career. Pelley was there when the Twin Towers fell. He saw firefighters running towards danger and their death.

After 9/11, Pelley searched for hundreds of radio transmissions, 911 calls, and found one that hit him: a conversation between a woman on the top floor and a 911 dispatcher and a call from firefighters trying to reach his floor. He read a transcript of the call from the book, including his last words and the dispatcher trying to get it back online. Pelley was clearly still moved by the exchange and the experience. He then showed a clip from a “60 Minutes” segment where sons and daughters of firefighters who lost their lives became firefighters.

He spoke of a young Yasidi woman in the Kurdistan region of Iraq who was enslaved by ISIS and eventually 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 on the crew stand behind curtains and the producer held 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 that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Pelley said, “It was a very good day for a reporter.”

The conference ended with a lively question-and-answer session. Pelley was asked about the current state of journalism. He said he was concerned about the “business model” of the media catering to the left or the right, simply reinforcing what people want to hear. Added to this concern, he said, is the proliferation of misinformation on the internet. He said that this situation does not help people to talk to each other.

“There is no democracy without journalism,” Pelley said, also adding, “Democracy requires well-informed citizens talking to each other.”

Finally, Pelley added “for the first time in history, it’s up to you. You are supplemented as an editor to sift through multiple sources and make your own decisions about what is fair.

Pelley commented on the importance of local journalism, acknowledged the challenges and offered hope for the different business models that are emerging, including philanthropic support.

A journalist of Scott Pelley’s caliber is a beacon for journalists around the world, including those of us at the Vail Daily.

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