CBS’s Scott Pelley: Wearing Two Hats Can Cause Headaches

The managing editor of the “CBS Evening News” needs to keep a sharper eye on the scripts broadcast by the anchor, Scott Pelley. But Pelley is the managing editor. Unfortunately, Pelley the anchor slips many faulty scripts past Pelley the editor and puts them on the air.

A newsman recently wrote, “Pelley says he personally edits every script in his broadcast.” And the newsman quoted Pelley as saying, “There is no part of the broadcast that doesn’t go through my hands.”

The interviewer was Tom Crabtree of WSPA-TV, a long-time newsman at the CBS affiliate in Spartanburg, South Carolina. His article is posted at the station’s website.

Let’s look at some scripts that Pelley–the two and only– broadcast:

“It’s not quite the fountain of youth, but researchers tell us tonight they have found new clues to the aging process.” (Nov. 3, 2011.) Tell us tonight? The previous day, Nov. 2, The New York Times published a long article about the mice. Neither Pelley nor the CBS medical correspondent credited the Mayo Clinic. The Times did. So did the article posted by at 10:42 a.m., Nov. 3, eight hours before Pelley said researchers “tell us tonight.”

Pelley had another problem on the “Evening News”: “In a practical sense, what is a doctor and a patient supposed to do with this information?” (Nov. 1, 2011.) Is? Should be are.

When not anchoring, Pelley is a correspondent on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” where he also had trouble with subject-verb agreement. “There’s almost a thousand agents representing N-F-L players….” (Oct. 9, 2011.) Correct: There are. Better: “Almost a thousand agents represent N-F-L players.”

Both Pelley the anchor and Pelley the managing editor slipped up again on the “Evening News”: “That begs the question: can the airport be fined under the passenger bill of rights?” (Oct. 31, 2011.) Begs the question doesn’t mean “raises the question.” A grammarian at The New York Times reminds us that it means “to use an argument that assumes as proved the very thing one is trying to prove.” Which is why editors beg their reporters not to misuse “beg the question.”

“The district attorney in Orange County, California, said today he will seek the death penalty in yesterday’s mass shooting at a beauty salon.” (Oct. 14, 2011.) But it wasn’t yesterday; it was two days before.

“Drama at the manslaughter trial against Michael Jackson’s doctor.” ( Oct. 31, 2011.) Trials aren’t held against anyone. It’s the trial of.

“There was news in Libya today.” (June 7, 2011.) Isn’t there news from Libya every day? Go ahead and report the news instead of eating up time announcing your newscast has news?

After a correspondent delivered a report from Libya, Pelley said delightedly, “Original reporting. Barry Petersen, thank you.” (Sept. 1, 2011.) Isn’t original reporting routine? Pelley had never mentioned original reporting before on the air, and he hasn’t mentioned it since. Does that mean Pelley’s “Evening News” never before carried original reporting?

When Pelley moved into the anchor chair in June, CBS advertised: “What if you can have the world class original reporting of ’60 Minutes’ every weeknight? Well, now you can.” CBS didn’t talk up original reporting again until August when it released a video that boasted that CBS invented original reporting. But David Shedden, library director of the Poynter Institute, quickly said, “No one person or network invented original reporting on TV.”

Pelley: “There’s news tonight on a story that Sharyl Attkisson broke on this broadcast.” (June 15, 2011.) News about a story? Besides, starting a story with “there is” or “there are” is usually not good. (There are exceptions.) Is and its various forms—are, were, was, has been, will be are linking verbs—so they don’t express any action.

Pelley again: “Good evening. Herman Cain, the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination, could not have been more clear about it. [Oh, no?] He said, quote, I have never sexually harassed anyone. Endquote.”

Pelley violated a no-no by saying “quote” and “endquote.” The first news director of CBS, Paul White, wrote in “News on the Air,” a book published in 1947, “Remember, that since the word ‘quote’ is foreign to the ear as far as ordinary conversation is concerned, it probably always is disturbing to the listener.” In the same year, Burton Hotaling wrote in “A Manual of Radio News Writing,” “Thoughtless use of such hackneyed terms as ‘quote’ and ‘endquote’ tend to interrupt the listener’s thought.” In 1948, Mitchell Charnley wrote in “News by Radio,” “Such phrases as “and I quote” and “end quote” are…shunned by skillful writers.” R. H. MacDonald said in his “Broadcast Manual of Style” (1994), the use of quote and unquote is “a holdover from the ancient days of sending news by telegraph when the sending operator wanted to be certain the receiving end knew the limits of the quoted material.” There are various ways to avoid quote and unquote: “as she put it,” “in her words,” “as he called it.” Robert Papper says in his “Broadcast News Writing Stylebook,” “Few statements are so strong that we need to quote them.” And the AP’s 1972 Broadcast News Style Book said using direct quotation in stories is “lazy writing.”

More Pelley: “It now looks like the United States will not default for the first time in its history.” (Aug. 1, 2011.) Whatever else that ambiguous sentence may say, it does say that for the first time, the U.S. will apparently avoid default.

“How some people are living in their homes for free, next.” (Pelley, June 29, 2011.) For free is a solecism. Free = at no cost. No need for for.

More misusage: “Casiano tried to convince the villagers to come to a meeting….” (Oct. 4, 2011.) Convince should be followed by that or of; persuade is followed by to.

“This story is amazing. A court case in southern India has led to an astounding discovery.” (July 5, 2011.) Journalism 101: Don’t characterize news as good or bad, amazing or astounding, shocking or disturbing; just tell the story.

On the same newscast, Pelley said, “News today of an astounding public school cheating scandal.” Astounding? Cheating scandals are abounding. But on June 12, he used astounding in two sentences in a row. In his “60 Minutes” story about “The King’s Speech,” Pelley said, “Wow, what an astounding thing. What an astounding thing.”

Gaining fast in frequency on the “Evening News” is incredible. After the medical correspondent delivered the report about mice and the aging process, Pelley said: “Jon, thank you very much. Incredible.” (Nov. 3, 2011.)

Major has also become a major word in Pelley’s newscast. He used major twice on Aug. 18, 2011, and three correspondents also used it. Even an interviewee used it. When everything is major, nothing is major.

Then there’s Pelley’s we-we problem. Apparently he doesn’t want to seem self-centered, so instead of saying I, he says we: “With the economy struggling, we were surprised today when we were booking flights for the holidays. Some of the prices we were getting seemed to have climbed so high so fast that we asked Anna Werner to find out what’s going on with the airlines.” (Oct. 12, 2011.) Four we’s. Whee! Mark Twain said, “Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we.'”

“The speech happened over the weekend.” (June 21, 2011.) Speeches don’t happen. Accidents happen. Speeches take place.

Someone (perhaps Pelley) let Pelley down twice in one short sentence: “He pled guilty to a minor misdemeanor.” (“60 Minutes,” August 21, 2011.) The past tense of plead is pleaded, not pled. Minor misdemeanor is redundant; a misdemeanor is a minor offense.

The m.e. of the “Evening News” let the anchor down another time:

“The economy is hitting young Americans especially hard, according to the Census Bureau today.” (“Evening News”), Sept. 22, 2011.

In broadcast newswriting, when attribution is needed, attribution precedes assertion. Good broadcast newswriters know that attribution is never tacked on the end of a sentence, which is print style. “Television News Writing”, a 1958 book by the staff of CBS News, said, “…always say who before you say what someone said or did…The viewer is entitled to know the authority for a statement or action first so that he can gauge what importance to attach to it as the newscaster relates it.”

Pelley also has a weakness for strained and stretched transitions between stories: “…the T-S-A says that starting this week, children under 12 won’t be subjected to patdowns as often as they have been, and they will no longer be required to remove their shoes.” Next, “We wondered whether the candidates were going to be throwing shoes at the Republican presidential debate last night.” (Sep. 13, 2011.)

As Yogi Berra never said, “You can hear a lot just by listening.”

© Mervin Block 2011