CBS anchor Scott Pelley: Journalism is ‘lifeblood’ of freedom

“There is no democracy without journalism,” Scott Pelley, CBS Evening News anchor, said. Pelley is the 33rd recipient of the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism. (Photo by Keerthi Vedantam/Cronkite News)

Scott Pelley, CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor, spoke about journalism’s crucial role in a democracy to more than 1,000 people who attended the Cronkite Award Luncheon in downtown Phoenix. (Photo by Keerthi Vedantam/Cronkite News)

Scott Pelley, CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor, tells Cronkite News students their commitment to accuracy, fairness and honesty is the core of journalism. (Photo by Keerthi Vedantam/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley urged journalists Monday to fight for quality journalism as the core of democracy in an age where information is readily accessible but too often inaccurate – sometimes deliberately.

“Is terrorism the greatest threat to our country? Or a recession? I suggest…the best way to ruin democracy is to poison the information,” said Pelley, anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley, when accepting the 2016 Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism. He accepted the award at a luncheon at the Sheraton Grand Phoenix and stressed journalism’s crucial role in tumultuous times.

“There is no democracy without journalism,” Pelley said. “And the quality of our democracy is bound tightly to the quality of our journalism.”

Pelley urged reporters across the country to strive toward fairness while gathering news, even as information circulating the web and social media may shun journalism’s standards in an attempt to garner larger online audiences.

Quality journalism is “the lifeblood of freedom,” Pelley told about 1,000 journalists, students, educators and business leaders at the downtown Phoenix luncheon. “We have come to take it for granted. Like all other freedoms it must be fought for. It must be refreshed by every generation.”

He said quality information is under assault by aggregators, partisan opinion makers and “charlatans” who deliberately spread false information. He said a Facebook post that wrongly said Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump was shared one million times.

Never before in our time, he said, has so much information been available, and never before has so much bad information been spread by people across the political and social spectrum.

Noelle Lilley, a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said she appreciated his warnings about sharing misinformation on social media.

“A lot of the time, the biggest problem in society is everyone surrounds themselves in an echo chamber,” Lilley said. “They’re constantly hearing and sharing and that cuts off the possibility for open-mindedness.”

Journalists also need to practice humility, refusing to be lured by popularity, clicks or shares. Instead, journalists need to ask themselves: “Is it right? Is it fair? Is it honest?”

Pelley, who also is a correspondent for the highly rated news show 60 Minutes, is the 33rd recipient of the award. It is named after the school’s namesake, Walter Cronkite, the award-winning and iconic CBS Evening News anchor who died in 2009. The 2016 award comes the same year Cronkite would have turned 100 years old.

“We believe there is no more appropriate and deserving recipient,” said Christopher Callahan, Cronkite School dean and chief executive of Arizona PBS.

Pelley said he was humbled and honored to receive an award named after Cronkite, who epitomized journalistic principles still in place at CBS, Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and elsewhere in U.S. media.

Since arriving at CBS from a Texas news station, Pelley reported on the Gulf war in 1990, interviewed presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and covered the 9/11 attacks, according to the CBS News website. Earlier this year, he won a Alfred I. duPont Award for his investigation on the 2013 gas attacks in Damascus suburbs.

“He’s such a great journalist and he’s such an inspiration,” said Veronica Acosta, an anchor and reporter for Cronkite News at Arizona PBS who introduced Pelley to the crowd.

Past Cronkite excellence award recipients include ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer; the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, who broke the Watergate political scandal in the 1970s, and CNN’s chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour.