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05.03.11

Scott Pelley Is the Anti-Katie Couric

Scott Pelley is the new anchor of CBS News. Not that he wants you to focus on that. Howard Kurtz talks to the network's reluctant frontman about a "news is the star" approach in today's celebrified age.

Scott Pelley asked that his name not be put in the title of the CBS Evening News.

“I lost that fight,” he says.

He’s also asked management not to launch a publicity campaign when he makes his debut as the network’s new anchor on June 6. And why is that?

“Because it’s not about me…The anchor is the least important part of it, if you ask me.”

Wait, there’s more: “I sometimes think the cult of personality surrounding anchor people at all the networks goes too far.”

You may be getting the impression by now that Scott Pelley is no Katie Couric. He is a dogged correspondent with a serious demeanor, as self-effacing a person as you might find at the network level. “TV anchors get far too much credit for the work of others,” he says.

The 53-year-old San Antonio native is the first to admit he’s not flashy. “I’m not much for being a personality…If you need flashy, you’ve got to go elsewhere,” he says. “I am going to speak to the audience as one of them. I hope people watch me on the broadcast and see themselves. Someone who cares deeply about the country.”

Pelley quickly emerged as a frontrunner when one of his biggest fans, 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager, was elevated to chairman of the news division in February. Pelley, he says, embodies the “ensemble” approach of the Sunday newsmagazine.

“I want it to be a reporter who has credibility,” Fager tells me. “The story is the star. The viewer first and foremost is looking for credibility. This guy’s covered more stories than just about anybody who ever took the job. That’s why he’s so the right pick.”

If Pelley lacks a certain degree of showmanship, that may be because he’s never been an anchor before, at any level. But he has decades of reporting experience, topped by his seven-year stint at 60 Minutes, where Pelley and his team have won 14 Emmys and five Edward R. Murrow Awards, among other prizes.

Pelley’s goal is to showcase the correspondents. “There are people around the world who risk their lives for the broadcast every day,” he says.

A White House correspondent during the Clinton years, he reported from Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War, from Lower Manhattan on 9/11, and repeatedly from Afghanistan and Iraq. Pelley also has covered the tsunami in Japan, the shootings in Tucson, and the BP oil spill.

As a CBS correspondent for 22 years, Pelley doesn’t face the same adjustment as Couric, who came from the NBC culture when she joined the network in 2006. He’s not accustomed to the freewheeling atmosphere of a morning show, as Couric was at Today. Nor does he enjoy her global celebrity, although that didn’t help her lift the newscast out of third place. He is the solid, steady, and safe choice for a network that took a bold and costly gamble the last time around.

Pelley is a protégé of fellow Texan Dan Rather, without the folksy sayings. Rather sent him a handwritten note within an hour of Tuesday’s announcement. He will be the least well known of the network anchors, with first-place Brian Williams benefitting from his comedy sideline ( New York magazine recently swooned over his late-night appearances) and second-place Diane Sawyer having achieved superstar status well before she left Good Morning America for the anchor chair.

Couric, who is exploring a syndicated talk show with both CBS and ABC that would also include a news role, praised her successor in a statement: “Scott is a great reporter and a real gentleman, who cares deeply about the news. I know he’ll put his own unique imprimatur on the broadcast and will do a great job carrying on the rich tradition of the CBS Evening News.” Pelley says he hasn’t talked to Couric but that she has been “so sweet and welcoming” when he has auctioned off tours of CBS at charity fundraisers.

Pelley says he wants to bring the network’s “DNA” to the newscast, stressing “original reporting, unique insight, and fairness.” He says he obviously won’t have time for the kind of storytelling pioneered by 60 Minutes but wants viewers to feel they have learned something each night.

His main job, says Pelley, will be as managing editor, leading the way on story selection, editing, and rewriting. His goal is to showcase the correspondents. “There are people around the world who risk their lives for the broadcast every day,” Pelley says.

He plans to do plenty of field reporting. As if to underscore the point, he is just back from Iraq and was coughing from what he called “Baghdad crud.”

Pelley’s first job was at 15—he lied about his age—when the Lubbock Avalanche Journal hired him as a copy boy. “I was smitten with this business,” Pelley says. He wrote a fan letter at 16 to the late 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt. Being the CBS anchor, he says, “is not anything I ever thought was possible.”

Fager’s “news is the star” approach runs counter to today’s celebrified age, when television journalists routinely promote themselves by blogging, tweeting, and working the circuit (which is why Williams pops up on 30 Rock). And changes in viewing habits can be glacial: NBC Nightly News has been No. 1 since Williams succeeded Tom Brokaw in 2004, although ABC’s World News was more competitive last week, drawing 8.3 million viewers to NBC’s 8.9 million (CBS clocked in at 5.7 million). Pelley’s old-school approach may produce good journalism without lifting his network out of the ratings basement. And no one at CBS wants to raise expectations, especially after the first-woman hullabaloo that surrounded Couric’s launch.

“I’m not worried, I’m excited,” Fager says of Pelley’s ascension. “Does that take us out of third place right away? I don’t think so. But we’re going to be proud of it.”

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast and Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, and writes the Spin Cycle blog. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.