Scott Pelley, the longtime correspondent for the CBS “60 Minutes,” who often reported on the Middle East, visited Atlanta last week and warned about of the possibility of a new Cold War. Not like the one that divided East and West after World War II, but the Cold War he sees developing in this country.
He told the Atlanta Press Club that he fears “Americans are withdrawing into digital citadels where they are just consuming news which confirms what they are already thinking. It gives a very warm feeling, but it is not a way to run a democracy.”
Pelley went on to say that “if we continue to pull ourselves apart in these digital citadels then we face another Cold War, but this time a Cold Civil War.”
He spells out his fears even more clearly in the concluding chapter of his new book published May 21.
In “Truth Worth Telling – A Reporter’s Search for Meaning in the Stories of Our Times,” Pelley writes that “the fastest way to destroy a democracy is to poison the information.
“The dividing line that matters now,” he writes, “is the one between journalism and junk. The 2016 presidential campaign was the first in history in which citizens were awash in false stories masquerading as news.”
He then went on to describe an exercise that he created in a “60 Minutes” documentary about just how easy it is, with a small budget and with a little computer skill, to quickly spread the most outrageous lies masquerading as news. Pelley outlined how he and a “60 Minutes” producer worked with a Nevada computer consultant to quickly set up a number of fictitious Twitter accounts to populate the internet with the false stories they had written.
It was something that was replicated in well-funded campaigns on social media in 2016 with millions of phony accounts peddling lies designed to inflame and divide American voters.
In the book he accuses the masters of the new information age, Facebook and Google, of making “billions of dollars without taking adequate responsibility for what they distribute.”
Responsibility, he noted, is having reporters, editors and fact-checkers to back up news. “People who care deeply about seeking truth for democracy are called journalists.”
In his talk to the Atlanta press he pointed out that the journalist he most admired was his American Jewish colleague at CBS, Bob Simon, who grew up in the Bronx, but who lived and worked for many years in Israel covering just about every conflict in the Middle East.
“I learned more from Bob Simon than just about anybody,” Pelley told the press club.
He described an incident in 1991, when both were covering the Iraq war, he as a novice foreign correspondent, Simon as the longtime pro. When the air raid siren went off in their Baghdad hotel, he was surprised not to see Simon taking cover in the air raid shelter, as he had done. Instead he found him on the roof of their hotel broadcasting live to viewers in America, while bombs exploded around him.
That was, as Pelley pointed out in his book, just one example of the hard work, the personal danger, and the respect for truth that social media companies do little to encourage or support.
When America goes to war, or for that matter becomes a part of any important event that tests American democracy, it depends on independent, unbiased reporting, not computer bots and invented stories and lies, he said.
“As James Madison pointed out in the early years of the Republic,” Pelley told his media audience, “the right to a free press is the right upon which all other rights stand.”