60 Minutes With Scott Pelley: On CBS Evening News, 'Truth Worth Telling' And More
With Meghna Chakrabarti
Scott Pelley is with us to talk about his time at CBS Evening News, his memoir “Truth Worth Telling” and more.
Scott Pelley, CBS “60 Minutes” correspondent. He anchored the CBS Evening News from 2011 to 2017. Author of “ Truth Worth Telling: A Reporter’s Search for Meaning in the Stories of Our Times.” ( @ScottPelley)
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Excerpt from “Truth Worth Telling” by Scott Pelley
Presidents have one priority in their first term: a second term. So, in early years, most of their travel remains within arm’s reach of the voters. But in year five, presidents begin to explore the range of Air Force One. On June 25, 1998, President Clinton embarked on a ten-day state tour of China. Producer Bill Owens and I were along on an itinerary that included Xi’an, Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin and Hong Kong. For Mr. Clinton, the trip had the added benefit of being almost precisely on the opposite side of the world from the grand jury in Washington.
In terms of foreign policy, the journey was meant to be a new beginning. Mr. Clinton would be the first American president to visit China since the Tiananmen Square massacre. Nine years before, hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by the People’s Liberation Army in the square that lies before the Great Hall of the People. To get an idea of what a cataclysmic event this was, imagine hundreds of unarmed citizens being gunned down by the US Army on the lawn in front of the US Capitol. Unimaginable, of course, but that’s the horror that befell Beijing. Before the president’s trip, the Chinese Communist Party had been highly successful in covering up the killings. Because the party controls all media, the vast majority of Chinese never knew Tiananmen happened. Mr. Clinton had a secret plan to bring it up in a news conference that was to be televised live throughout China. Mr. Clinton planned to say, “The use of force and tragic loss of life was wrong.” He would be standing alongside Jiang Zemin, the general secretary of the Communist Party and Chinese president who had been installed twenty days after the Tiananmen murders. (It is telling that Chinese heads of state place their party title ahead of “president.”)
There was one political dissident who the Communist Party was determined to muzzle during President Clinton’s visit. In 1989, as fifty-thousand protesters swept into Tiananmen Square, Bao Tong was watching from his office. He was political secretary to the Politburo’s Standing Committee and a member of the party’s Central Committee. Most important, he was a close advisor and personal secretary to the politically progressive general secretary of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang. Communist Party hardliners saw the democracy demonstration as a threat. Protests spread to four hundred towns and cities. Among leaders in the Central Committee, a debate raged between those who wanted to crush dissent and those, like Bao and Zhao, who saw opportunity for political and economic freedom. Bao could not accept ordering Chinese troops to murder Chinese citizens. On May 28, 1989, Bao discovered the side of the angels was the wrong side of history. He was called to a meeting and arrested. One week later, over his objections and the objections of President Zhao, the order for the massacre was given. The night of June 4, troops swarmed the square, killing hundreds, perhaps more than one thousand unarmed fellow citizens. For his opposition, Bao was sentenced to seven years in prison, most of which was solitary confinement. When I arrived in Beijing in 1998, Bao had been out of prison a little over a year, but he was under constant surveillance.
No one could speak to the Tiananmen tragedy like Bao. An interview with him, when the world was watching President Clinton’s visit, would demand courage on his part and ingenuity on ours. Our Beijing producer, Natalie Liu, contacted Bao. He was willing to risk his freedom to speak for freedom. Our challenge was how to pull it off. Chinese police stood twenty-four-hour guard at his home. They would never allow us to visit. Bill Owens designed a plan that would unfold in Purple Bamboo Park, a 115-acre oasis of lakes and lawns in northwest Beijing, an affluent part of the capital where universities are clustered. When we arrived in the park, summer was blossoming. The sky was gauzed by high cirrus. Families in canopied boats drifted through groves of lotus, propelled by gondoliers sculling red oars in a lazy rhythm. One boy, pleased with his cleverness, plucked a broad lotus flower and raised it against the sun like a parasol. Along the edges of the park’s concrete trails, bamboo pickets were set to keep visitors off the carefully tended greens. The gardens that later became Purple Bamboo Park were originally ordered in the year 1577 by Wan-li, the 13th emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
On June 27, 1998, Bao Tong ambled down one of the pathways in the park and settled onto a green wooden bench. Across the path, directly opposite Bao, our cameraman, Rollie Malicsi, sat with a camera hidden in a shoulder bag. I came from the opposite direction and sat with Bao. A nearly invisible wireless microphone, pinned inside my shirt, transmitted our conversation across the path to Rollie’s recorder. There was no telling what would happen next as this soft-spoken man risked everything to test his people’s right to be heard. Bao was fifty-nine when he went to prison for “revealing state secrets and counterrevolutionary propagandizing.” That’s the same ambiguous charge China uses to jail journalists today. Despite prison, Bao looked younger than his sixty-six years. He was as slender as the reeds nodding in the lake. He wore a teal polo shirt, untucked, hanging loosely over black trousers. His smooth face was dominated by outsized silver wire-rimmed glasses. I had noticed Bao tended to walk holding his arms behind his back as if handcuffed. He surprised me with a complete lack of bitterness about his years in solitary. He said isolation had liberated his mind from Communist Party dogma. Bao began,
“According to our constitution I have the freedom of speech. However, whether I do indeed have the freedom of speech, I do not know. I think CBS can conduct a test. Let’s see whether I get into trouble after your interview with me. If so, it will demonstrate that our government does not respect our own constitution.”
“What should Americans understand about the struggle in China?” I asked.
“If people can check and balance the power of the government, then the government can become a force that safeguards world peace. Otherwise, it is a dangerous force.”
Bao told me China could not progress politically until the party publicly admitted the Tiananmen massacre was wrong. “I feel sad, ashamed and proud at the same time,” he told me. “Proud of those students, the citizens of Beijing, the people.”
After a few minutes, we parted. Bao ambled away. I walked in the opposite direction. That’s when I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, another cameraman with a shoulder bag. From the zippered opening protruded an absurdly large lens. He was a member of a Chinese secret police surveillance team. Bill, Natalie and I quickened our pace slightly but deliberately. A moment later, I saw a furious man sprinting toward us. He was red with rage and closing fast. We began an undignified trot, but the man kept accelerating and screaming, now waving a fist. I began wondering about Chinese jails as we broke into a full run. The man matched our pace. Natalie and I were falling short of breath when I shouted, “What’s he saying? Huff, huff, what’s he saying!”
“He’s saying, ‘Keep’…huff, huff…
Apparently, the Chinese secret police had nothing on a manic gardener charged with keeping ten million Beijingers off the tender shoots of Purple Bamboo Park. We escaped the gardener and put Bao’s first television interview on that night’s CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. The highest-ranking Communist Party official to be jailed for opposing the massacre had his say the day the American president landed in China.
Reprinted from TRUTH WORTH TELLING by Scott Pelley with permission of Hanover Square Press. Copyright © 2019, Scott Pelley.
Associated Press: “ Pelley says complaints to execs led to evening news ouster” — “Former ‘CBS Evening News’ anchor Scott Pelley says he lost that job because he wouldn’t stop complaining to management about the hostile work environment for men and women.
“Pelley was forced out of the position in 2017 after six years on the job.
“The ’60 Minutes’ correspondent told CNN’s Reliable Sources Sunday, however, that things have changed after 18 months of dramatic management changes amid a slew of scandals and misconduct claims at CBS.
“Executives who have departed include Jeff Fager of ’60 Minutes,’ network news president David Rhodes, anchor Charlie Rose and CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves, who left in September after multiple women alleged sexual misconduct.
“When asked to elaborate, Pelley said that four or five years ago he went to the president of the news division, who was then Rhodes, and described the hostile environment.”
Anna Bauman produced this hour for broadcast.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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