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Scott Pelley on Why CBS News Reports From Iraq, Syria and Around the World

When the “CBS Evening News” broadcasts Wednesday evening, viewers won’t find Scott Pelley in the anchor chair. Instead, he will be seen in a segment reporting from Amman, Jordan.

Pelley visited that country’s border with Syria while refugees crossed. He is expected to report this evening on how thousands of Syrians are continuing to flee into Jordan even as war in Iraq is adding to the massive numbers of people seeking sanctuary in Jordan.

The journalist and his crew journeyed to a place on Jordan’s border to capture for viewers scenes from what he calls “the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today.” Refugees, Pelley said in an interview from a car that was taking him to a place in Jordan where he could file his report, are “just surging over the border, literally into the arms” of Jordanian border officials. “It was heartbreaking.” In some cases, Pelley added, children who have been crossing the desert are picked up by Jordan officials because they simply cannot take another step.

Pelley’s desire to cover the story overseas illustrates CBS News’ effort to turn foreign reportage into a point of differentiation in the never-ending TV-news wars. The network has in recent months moved quickly to get correspondents quickly into foreign hot spots like Syria and Ukraine, an attempt to amplify its brand as a place for more serious journalism on TV.

As the situation in Iraq has grown more dire, CBS’ Clarissa Ward flew to Baghdad, arriving last week. The network’s Elizabeth Palmer is the only U.S. network correspondent in Syria – where, Pelley said, a mortar round exploded just a few hundred yards from where she was situated. Holly Williams is stationed in northern Iraq.

“It is really challenging and stressful and exhausting and often kind of scary to work here, but it’s too big a story, too important a story,” said Ward, telephoning from Iraq. Insurgencies in both Syria and Iraq “really threaten to rewrite the order of this entire region.”

Ward has logged many miles covering the Middle East, first as a producer and correspondent for Fox News Channel, then for ABC News. “It’s really sad to be in Iraq under these circumstances, and to see the country sort of tearing itself apart.”

Many of CBS’ bigger scoops of the recent past have come from foreign shores. In September, “CBS This Morning” anchor Charlie Rose scored a coup by securing an interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Palmer, meanwhile, was stationed in Damascus. (It’s worth noting that rivals have also had their share of wins, with NBC News’ Brian Williams recently obtaining a face-to-face interview in Russia with Edward Snowden.)

Overseas reports cost a lot, and network resources are more scattered at a time when the rise of digital access to video has splintered viewership. Pelley believes, however, that the importance of overseas coverage is growing. “I can answer with one number: 9/11,” he said, referring to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “There are teenagers in America today who weren’t born when 9/11 happened . That is the lesson of how the world will impact America with a vengeance if America does not lead in the world.”

Pelley said “CBS Evening News” will continue to put a spotlight on stories taking place around the world. “Americans care about foreign news. I don’t buy that argument that Americans don’t care about anything beyond their own shores,” he said. “That’s ridiculous.”

Pelley is expected to resume his anchoring duties on “CBS Evening News” next week.

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