Byron Pitts was diagnosed as functionally illiterate at age 12 and stuttered until he was 20. As a child, he faked his inability to read by utilizing his great memory, relying on what he could glean from photos and having his brother help him with his homework. During Pitts’ freshman year at Ohio Wesleyan University, Pitts recounts in his autobiography Step Out on Nothing, an English professor told him, “Mr. Pitts, you are wasting my time and the government’s money. You are not Ohio Wesleyan University material. I think you should leave.” Another English professor, who saw Pitts outside on a bench crying after he’d gone to pick up forms to withdraw from school, took him under her wing. She tutored him everyday.
With help from that professor, whom he refers to as an angel, and his mother, whose cutting words gave him a much-needed kick in the pants, Pitts graduated in four years with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in political science. Today, the award-winning journalist is the chief national correspondent for CBS Evening News With Katie Couric and a contributor to the network’s “60 Minutes” program. The 49-year-old Baltimore native spoke to Diverse about his career in journalism, his faith and his autobiography.
DI: Why become a broadcast journalist?
BP: I’m a child of television. The television was the only company I had at home during the summer growing up. Television, just like football, is a team sport. It takes a team of us to do a story. When I went to Haiti, it was nine of us. Technicians, engineers, drivers, photographers … everybody has a moment to shine. I like that. For a limited time with the school newspaper (in college) and an earlier time in print journalism, I felt alone. You are part of a team in broadcast.
DI: You recount in your book a time when a news director relayed a message from his boss to you that a “(n-word) would never anchor one of my broadcasts.” Does being Black add an additional challenge to being a journalist?
BP: I think it is certainly a challenge at times. It is also sort of an edge. As a person of color in this nation, minority journalists more than likely have experienced some hardship. It can give you a level of empathy. When you travel abroad, that is not a new dynamic and you’re used to being a minority. Most of the world is brown, so you may not share in the same language and same culture but you experience the same color.
DI: You have covered stories such as 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and Hurricane Katrina. But which story is the most fulfilling to you?
BP: I think the most significant story was 9/11. It fundamentally changed our nation and the seriousness I now take in my work. A significant story not in the book is the tsunami in Indonesia. We told a story about a young woman who died and the loved ones who stood around her at a hospital as she took her last breath. I felt like out of all the foreign stories that was the best story and making it matter to the people at home (in America). She just finished college and was becoming a school teacher. Like every family they are proud of a college graduate. Doctors let her go to a side room and let the family say goodbye to her. The family grows close. That is a human experience.
DI: What was the best part in writing the book?
BP: Being able to speak with my own voice. I’m very respectful of the editorial process. It was nice to be in a situation where I could write it the way I want to write it. I like the level of independence in writing a book. There are a lot of broadcast journalists who like to be seen on television, but I like to write and happen to be on television.
DI: Are there a few notes you would pass on to any young people looking to be journalists, especially in today’s rough job market in the news business?
BP: As long as children love to hear bedtime stories, there will always be a place for journalists. People still like to be told a story. One of the things still vital is a free press. It is exciting work. I know in this age of cable and blogging, you have to find the format to give your opinion. Who cares about your opinion? There is room for people who just want to tell the facts. Just give me the facts and let people decide for themselves. If you want to impact the lives of people, there are few professions that do that better than journalism.