It's difficult to relaunch a somber, hard-hitting news program when a sexting congressman is the top story of the day, a fact Scott Pelley discovered Monday night during his debut as the anchor of the CBS Evening News.
While NBC led with the story of Rep. Anthony Weiner's tearful 27-minute press conference admitting he sent out inappropriate messages and images online, CBS buried the New York Democrat's story more than nine minutes into the telecast, behind segments on Afghanistan, the troop killings in Iraq, and recent advances in lung cancer research. When Pelley finally got around to Weiner in the third segment, "it was with more than a hint of distaste," writes New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley. Stanley notes that while ABC News "showcased an exclusive interview with Meagan Broussard, one of the women who engaged in suggestive online chats with Mr. Weiner, illustrated with some of the images that were exchanged and which the network 'licensed' (i.e., paid a fee for)," Pelley brought in CBS congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes and asked her to explain why Weiner matters "in a prim tone that suggested he didn’t really think Mr. Weiner does." (Stanley also didn't care for the broadcast as a whole, likening it to "frozen dinner.")
The absence of Weiner coverage didn't bother Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever. He found it "old, yesteryear, outmoded"—but in a good way. "Weiner was everywhere... but Pelley took the high road," he explains. "The sound you hear is the sound of Edward R. Murrow remaining, for once, completely still in his grave." (He also liked the new, Walter Cronkite-inspired set.)
That may be true, admits Variety critic Brian Lowry, who thought Pelley's debut was a win "for all of us who would like to see an environment where hard news can survive clicks-and-ratings pressure without being drowned out by TMZ." But the decision to ignore Weinergate on the biggest day of Weinergate makes him pessimistic about Pelley's chances of leading CBS out of the ratings cellar. What Pelley discussed with "hold-your-nose restraint," other outlets covered with glee. "The poor bastard doesn't have a chance," sighs Lowry.