- - Tuesday, June 25, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

TRUTH WORTH TELLING: A REPORTER’S SEARCH FOR MEANING IN THE STORIES OF OUR TIMES

By Scott Pelley

Hanover Square Press, $26.99, 464 pages

Over the years, I’ve known a lot of combat correspondents. Their nationalities differed widely, but they shared certain things in common, tending to be skeptical, adventurous, wryly humorous and gutsy. They’d seen a lot and suffered a lot. But, for the most part, they still loved life and lived it to the hilt; they could recount their adventures with zest, but were never braggarts.

Totally dedicated to a profession they loved, they also made great drinking companions once they decided you were OK. In many ways, they mirrored some of the most admirable qualities of the fighting men and women they covered — and the best soldiers and best combat correspondents almost always got on well together.



While I have never met Scott Pelley, I came away from reading “Truth Worth Telling: A Reporter’s Search for Meaning in the Stories of Our Times” — his memoir of nearly half a century in broadcast journalism, quite a bit of it spent on battlefields — convinced that he is one media superstar who really measures up to the grueling standards of combat reporting. Scott Pelley is the kind of journalist that Brian Williams pretended to be and that Dan Rather tried to be but, ultimately, failed miserably in the attempt. He is, in short, a credit to his profession at a time when that profession needs all the positive role models it can get.

Mr. Pelley is also a rigorous investigative reporter and a savvy political observer who knows the difference between aggressively pursuing a story and aggressively pushing an agenda. It’s to his credit that he still seems to live by the values of honor, honesty and true grit that he was exposed to as a son of rural Texas. You may not always agree with the opinions he expresses in “Truth Worth Telling,” but you’ll never find yourself questioning his commitment or integrity.

“When America goes to war,” Mr. Pelley writes in his chapter on combat journalism, “all of America must go to war. Wartime is when we need our collective judgment. The way ‘we all’ go to war is through independent reporting. This chapter is titled ‘Duty’ because, in a democracy, war demands each of us to do his or her part. Reporters have the duty to go to war. The government and military have the duty to support them. The public has a duty to watch the reporting, understand the facts and debate the policy.”

Simple, sound principles these, but sadly ignored today by too many in government and journalism alike. Mr. Pelley takes the same approach to the political scene as he does to the battlefield. The truth really matters to him, and he does not suffer liars lightly. Thus, on page 338, he describes President Clinton’s 1998 response, under oath, to the question “Did you have an extramarital sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky?”

“In that millisecond after the question mark, President Clinton might have asked for a private discussion with his attorneys. He might have decided settling the [Paula] Jones case with no further questions would be best for himself, his family and the nation. Instead, Mr. Clinton did what always worked for him. He lied.”

On a more upbeat note, Mr. Pelley’s lucid, illuminating account of former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s successful but often lonely battle to bring America out of the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression, is a classic study of heroic leadership under fire, even though it occurred far from any battlefield

At a network not known for its defense — or even grasp — of the Founding Fathers’ constitutional vision, it’s edifying to read a mini-essay that Mr. Pelley wrote for delivery at the close of the 2016 election night coverage. It is all the more impressive in that, “At the time I wrote it, I didn’t know who would win. But the words worked either way:

“The American government is inefficient. These days we call it gridlock. But that is what the founders were striving for: a system that would slow down — even stop — when politics became too partisan, absurd and self-serving. The Constitution is a circuit breaker that prevents real damage.

“If you are among those who believe this was the election no one saw coming — you’re mistaken. The founders could not have imagined the horizons of our modern world, but the range of human nature is ever the same. From the second floor windows of a building in Philadelphia, they could see a distance of 229 years.”

“Truth Worth Telling” is by no means a perfect book. At times it reads more like an episodic paste-up job than a thematic narrative, and it contains at least one factual howler, referring to “John Foster Dulles, the original head of the CIA.” That particular Dulles was President Eisenhower’s secretary of State; it was his brother, the brilliant, slightly dotty Allen, who was the founding spook. But the Scott Pelley that emerges from his book is the epitome of an able, honest reporter who is also a good citizen, a good man and — last but not least — a good storyteller.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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