On Friday, September 6, at the annual Excellence in Journalism conference, RTDNA presented CBS News’ Scott Pelley its highest honor, the Paul White Award. Accepting the honor in his hometown of San Antonio, alongside John F. Hogan Award winner and fellow San Antonian John Quiñones, the atmosphere in the packed hall felt like what it must have been like that night in Chicago more than 60 years ago when Edward R. Murrow gave his “wires and lights” in a box speech.
CBS News’ tribute video to Pelley:
Pelley’s remarks, as delivered:
Well that was a beautiful film! I had not seen that before, and I’m so humbled by it and so humbled by this award. When I received the email announcing this award from the RTDNA I could not believe it. I literally thought to myself, “why me?” And I’m so, so grateful for this honor and so grateful to be in this community of friends and colleagues in this room.
I have many people to thank, but it is my wife Jane who is with us tonight, who has been through too many days as a single mother. Too many nights as a worried spouse. Jane who has been too generous, too forgiving, and more supportive than I could ask. CBS gave me a career, but you gave me a life.
I get far too much credit for the work of others. Nothing that you saw in that film happened without photographers, sound engineers, associate producers, producers, editors, researchers, writers, senior producers, executive producers – many of whom took exactly the same risks that I took, but remain unsung heroes.
It is to the men and women of CBS News that I owe this honor, and in particular Warren Lustig, a very gifted producer and editor at “60 Minutes” who produced that film for us. I’m forever in his debt.
Much of what you saw in that film was thanks to Bill Owens, my friend and the Executive Producer of “60 Minutes.” Bill was producer in those days in the White House. He was my producer in combat in Iraq.
He risked his life once to save mine.
This is the kind of person who is leading “60 Minutes” today. And Bill has restored the direction and the focus of that broadcast as no one else could have. Bill, thank you.
He used to work for me, now I work for him. Remember what they said about being nice to people on your way up, because you’re going to need them on the way down? Well there you are!
Since our last RTDNA convention in September of 2018, CBS News has been through one of its most important turning points.
A work environment that was hostile to many of our employees has been eradicated under the leadership of Susan Zirinsky.
I can tell you right now this evening that our house is in order.
Also since the last RTDNA convention, in fact two days after the last gavel of convention was…echoed, Jamal Kashoggi was murdered and butchered in a cowardly attack on freedom that elicited barely a shrug from the United States government.
A few months after that, I myself got a warning from the FBI. A man who was mailing letter bombs had my home address on his computer and a file in his computer that identified me as one of the “enemies of the American people.”
Early in the Trump Administration, I was concerned about what the president would say about journalists, “enemy of the American people” in particular.
And so I spoke with the president privately about that and I said, Mr. President I’m terribly concerned that this rhetoric will cause some poor deranged individual to bust into a news room and shoot the receptionist because he’s the “enemy of the American people.”
The president paused, and then said – and this is a direct quote – President Trump said, “I don’t worry about that.”
Of course, I was wrong. It was the hostile immigration rhetoric that caused a deranged individual to murder 22 people and wound 24 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, last month.
Let me tell you what I think is going on in this country today and how we can all be part of the solution. We are witnessing what I believe is ignorance posing as enlightenment. Ignorance of immigration, ignorance of guns, ignorance of race, ignorance of each other. Ignorance posing as enlightenment.
We are witnessing what I believe is ignorance posing as enlightenment.
Ignorance tells us that it understands these issues uniquely when of course there is no understanding at all.
Is this the fault of the politicians? Not really.
They’re just taking advantage of the fact that the American people are generally not well educated in these complex issues that face them. Now as we saw here in Texas last month, ignorance posing as enlightenment is costing lives.
It always does.
This is where we come in.
Great work is done by every one of you in this room.
You go to the Murrow Awards and you can see work all day long that you wish you had done because it’s such a great public service.
But we can do that.
I saw a newscast the other day, led with the surveillance video of a convenience store robbery. And I thought to myself, what would the viewers in this town think of that?
That was the most important thing that happened in that community that day?
You know I imagine this viewer might have thought, I wonder if there are lead pipes delivering water in my home?
I wonder why I’m having so much trouble scheduling my appointment at the V.A. hospital? I wonder if the firefighters’ pension fund is actually funded?
I wonder if the teachers in my school are digging into their own pockets to pay for school supplies?
When journalism stops caring about public service, the public stops caring about journalism.
And that is why the president of the United States can call us the “enemy of the American people” and 30 percent of the American people believe him.
There have been worse times in journalism.
The Sedition Act of 1798 made it a felony to criticize any member of Congress or the president of the United States.
Can you imagine? This was signed into law by John Adams. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were horrified. In 1800, Madison wrote a critique of the Sedition Act and in that critique, he described freedom of the press as the right that guarantees all the others.
He knew if we could read what we wanted to read, say what we wanted to say, write what we wanted to write, then all of the rights he put in the Bill of Rights would be protected.
But freedom of the press is the right that guarantees all the others only to the extent that we use it for that. When you get back to the newsroom on Monday, assign a reporter to look at whether the water in your town is being the delivered to homes in lead pipes.
Freedom of the press is the right that guarantees all the others only to the extent that we use it for that.
Assign another reporter to use the Freedom of Information Act to check on the waiting list for the V.A. hospital. Assign another to look at what happened to all that bond money that the voters approved five years ago.
Check on the firefighter and police department pension funds. And then don’t ask them to come back with an answer for the 5 o’clock news.
Sure, you have to send this reporter out to the three alarm fire for the six o’clock news. Let this public service be their long-term project that they work on constantly in the background.
Imagine leading your broadcast with “Here’s what we found out about lead in your drinking water,” and watch your competitors try to catch up.
This is public service that the public desperately wants us to rise to.
With every newscast, with every refresh of your website, ask yourself, “Am I a light in this gathering void of ignorance?”
If we commit ourselves to public service, no one will ever get away with calling us the “enemy of the American people” again.
For everyone out there, freedom of the press is a right.
But not for us. Not for us.
Freedom of the press is work and toil and risk and endless days and nights of hard labor.
And we do that so that everyone else can enjoy this guarantee of freedom.
I’m enormously grateful to you all. I accept this award on behalf of Susan Zirinsky and Bill Owens and all the women at CBS News who actually earned it. Thank you.