Fifth Estater: Byron Pitts
In a career of telling major stories, CBS News' Byron Pitts finds his dream job
By Joel Topcik -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/2/2009 2:00:00 AM
It's no surprise that Byron Pitts favors sports metaphors when he talks about his 25 years in television news. After all, the CBS News correspondent played defensive back for Ohio Wesleyan University in the 1980s.
But for Pitts, 48, his new gig as a contributor to 60 Minutes is like reaching the big leagues. “Television is a team sport,” he says. “And 60 Minutes is the best team in television. It's like playing for the New York Yankees in the World Series every Sunday night.”
Joining that team was something Pitts had in mind from the start, and it marks the fulfillment of a long-held desire to tell stories of personal struggle that resonate with his own difficult childhood. Born and raised in East Baltimore, Pitts did not learn to read until he was 12 and stuttered until he was 20. But he credits his mother and his family's Baptist faith—“where there are no stumbling blocks, only stepping stones”—with instilling in him a passion for literacy and ultimately the belief that becoming a journalist was “part of God's plan for me.”
That attention to words and storytelling is what first struck longtime WTVD anchor Larry Stogner about Pitts when he interned at the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., station in 1980. After tagging along on assignments with Stogner, then a political correspondent, Pitts would try his hand at recapping the day as a news story for Stogner to critique.
“Eventually, there came a time when there was little I could criticize,” Stogner says. “I think Byron is, if not the best, then one of the best writers at CBS.”
Pitts pursued his career as if following a carefully scripted plan. From the time he landed his first TV job at CBS affiliate WNCT Greenville, N.C., he set his sights on reaching the network by age 35 and 60 Minutes by 45.
He approached his stint as a military reporter for WAVY Norfolk, Va., as preparation for the kind of war reporting he would eventually do in Iraq and Afghanistan. Describing his time at WCVB Boston, Pitts says that being an African-American reporter in a city with a history of troubled race relations taught him “what it felt like to [report from] a neighborhood where I wasn't welcome”—like Kabul, for instance.
After joining CBS News as a correspondent for affiliate news service CBS Newspath (in 1997, only slightly behind his original schedule), Pitts became a network correspondent based in the South, covering major national stories including the Florida recount. He delivered the chilling news that “Timothy James McVeigh died with his eyes open” after serving as a media witness to the Oklahoma City bomber's execution.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Pitts, who had relocated to New York, was in the office early when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, and he provided Emmy-winning coverage from Ground Zero as the towers collapsed. He went on to cover the war in Afghanistan and memorably reported as a Marine embed from Baghdad while his unit was locked in a fierce gun battle. (His wife, Lyne, then a producer at CBS, was in the control room at that moment.)
After landing his first story on 60 Minutes, a 2006 report on post-Katrina New Orleans, Pitts met with Ed Bradley for one of their standing lunch dates. “Ed sat me down, said, 'Nice job,' then proceeded to tear the piece apart for 90 minutes,” Pitts recalls with a laugh.
The talk helped Pitts hone his skills further in preparation for his dream job. 60 Minutes Executive Producer Jeff Fager calls him “a gentleman and a great storyteller” who has “a uniquely all-American story himself.”
Pitts plans to tell that story in a memoir about “literacy and faith” due out this fall from St. Martin's Press. And as he watches his son Dan Bowens, the oldest of his six children, embark on a reporting career at WRAL Raleigh-Durham, Pitts is hopeful that the beleaguered business of journalism will continue to value good storytelling—particularly at a time of widespread economic hardship.
“There's a lot of folks struggling,” he says. “I want to tell their story.”
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