NEW YORK -- The appointment five years ago of Katie Couric as evening news anchor represented a bold step, certainly something new for CBS News. Her likely successor, Scott Pelley, hearkens back to a day when CBS was the gold standard in television news.
Pelley, the 60 Minutes correspondent who has worked at CBS for 21 years, is expected to be named next week as anchor of the third-rated evening newscast, to compete nightly with Brian Williams of NBC and Diane Sawyer of ABC. Many at CBS News see no other candidate.
The expected new anchor is a courtly, 53-year-old Texan, born in San Antonio. Pelley worked in local TV news in Dallas and Lubbock, then at CBS as a Texas-based national correspondent. He was a CBS News White House correspondent during the end of the Clinton years, became a correspondent for the short-lived 60 Minutes II spinoff, and joined 60 Minutes in 2003.
At CBS he has won awards for reporting on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and for stories on American waste that winds up in toxic dumps overseas instead of being recycled. This season he has reported extensively on the human repercussions of the recession.
"He's relentless as a reporter and he is relentless in his drive to do good journalism," said Dan Rather, a fellow Texan and former CBS Evening News anchor. "He's a rock-solid believer in the tradition, history, legends, and myths of CBS News."
The CBS News tradition that goes back half a century to Edward R. Murrow is looked on with pride by many at the network, a reflection of an era where excellence in reporting and seriousness of purpose ruled. The new CBS News chairman, Jeff Fager, is a CBS veteran seen as trying to bring back those values. To many, though, it's a time gone by.
The evening anchor has long been seen as the face of a news division. Dwindling viewers, the importance of morning shows as profit centers, and the ability of people to get news quickly on the Internet or cable news networks has reduced the influence of ABC's World News, NBC's Nightly News, and the CBS newscast over the years. Still, the three newscasts collectively averaged 22 million viewers last week, the Nielsen Co. said.
Pelley is a meticulous journalist who does the little things to make a broadcast better, said Beth Knobel, a former Moscow bureau chief for CBS News and now a professor at Fordham University. When Pelley recently filled in as news anchor, he called correspondents ahead of time to craft their own questions for him to ask them on the air, which made them noticeably more informative than if he had read questions written by others, she said.
"He has the best qualities of the people who made CBS News America's premier news organization," she said. "He has the moral compass of Edward R. Murrow, the intensity of Mike Wallace, and the compassion of Ed Bradley."
She suggested that in Pelley's hands, CBS' evening newscast would be more hard-news oriented, with fewer human interest features.
Andrew Tyndall, a consultant whose Tyndall Report monitors the content of network evening newscasts, said the CBS Evening News under Couric and Executive Producer Rick Kaplan is already "harder" than its counterparts at ABC and NBC. He judges this by the amount of international news it includes, and that its features are more public-policy oriented.
Couric has solid news credentials, but many people look at her and remember Halloween costumes, makeovers, and happy talk at NBC's Today, he said.
"The transition from Couric to Pelley is going to be more about having a face on the newscast whose persona does not undercut the content, rather than allowing them to change content," Tyndall said.
Couric, who is said to be weighing overtures from ABC, CBS, and NBC centered on a syndicated talk show, expressed frustration at the limitations of the anchor job shortly after confirming this week she was leaving the CBS post.
"While it was a privilege to sit in that chair that was occupied by Walter Cronkite, you know it's a pretty confining venue," she said in an interview with PBS' Tavis Smiley that aired Wednesday evening. "I'm looking forward to doing what I think is what I do best, which is interacting with people, interviewing people, having more of an extended conversation."
Pelley can seem stiff and formal on the air -- the same criticism that current ratings leader Williams faced when he took over for Tom Brokaw at NBC.
That's not necessarily bad, Tyndall said. Williams grew into his job and Pelley has the potential to do the same. "It allows you to work into the job rather than have the job change to fit you," he said.