Who are you? And what is the meaning of life?
These are questions Scott Pelley has pondered over and over during his 50 years in journalism, including 19 years as a CBS “60 Minutes” correspondent. For his work, Pelley has won dozens of awards, including 42 Emmys, eight Edward R. Murrow awards and three George Foster Peabody awards.
Speaking at the REALTORS® Legislative Meetings in Washington, D.C., last week, Pelley asked the audience to consider those questions as he shared remarkable tales from his career and his memoir, Truth Worth Telling: A Reporter's Search for Meaning in the Stories of Our Times (Hanover Square Press, 2019).
In 2014, for example, Pelley interviewed 19-year-old Nadia Murad, an Iraqi Yazidi who was living in a refugee camp after escaping from her Islamic Jihadi captors. Before she agreed to go on camera, Pelley said, Murad asked that the men in the “60 Minutes” crew stand behind curtains and that Pelley’s associate producer, Rachael Morehouse, sit next to her and hold her hand. She was scared but determined to tell her story, he said. The segment helped her find her voice: Murad went on to speak internationally and to write about the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. In 2018, she received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Among the other stories Pelley told were that of Michael Williams, an electronics technician who in 2010 jumped from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig after it exploded and was rescued from the burning water by a local fisherman. Pelley also spoke of entrepreneur Greg Carr, one of the early pioneers of voicemail. Carr has put his time and much of his personal fortune into philanthropic projects, including the restoration of Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park after a 15-year civil war that left the park ravaged.
Pelley’s most pivotal moment as a journalist, he said, was the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Pelley had covered the 1993 bombing of the towers, so when he heard about a fire there, he ran toward the buildings—against the crowd. As he watched the South Tower collapse, he recalled, he dropped to his knees and called out loud, ”God, take them all with no pain.” Twenty years later, for an anniversary show on the horrific event, Pelley interviewed some of the 60 men and women working for the Fire Department of New York whose fathers were firefighters killed on 9/11.
Last April, two months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Pelley traveled to Kyiv to interview Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. A former comedian—“the Stephen Colbert of Ukraine,” Pelley said—Zelenskyy had no political experience. But he came to the job armed with “the most important gift, the ability to communicate. He took out the most powerful weapon in all of Ukraine at the time, his phone, looked at [the camera] and said, ‘I’m still here. Your government is still here. The Army is still here, and we are going to fight.’ It galvanized the country.”
Pelley told the audience his life work has taught him that a more important question than “what’s the meaning of life?” is “what is life calling on you to do?” In each of these stories, he said, people had “discovered the meaning of their lives in the historic moments of our times.”
After the speech, NAR Vice President of Association Affairs Jennifer Wauhob asked how Pelley deals with the emotional toll of his work. You do what you have to do, he said, and “later, it all comes crashing down on you. Counseling is a tremendous thing. It has been enormously helpful, and I couldn't recommend [it] more highly.”
It's empathy, he said, that makes a good journalist—to which Wauhob replied that the same is true of a good real estate professional.