Byron Pitts is an award-winning journalist who overcame illiteracy and a debilitating stutter to travel the globe as a CBS news correspondent. His journalism credits include stints in Afghanistan and Iraq as an embedded reporter, achievements made more impressive by the fact that Pitts was functionally illiterate at the age of twelve. In an interview with Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post, he recalled how he felt when school officials told his mother. "It was humiliating. It was awful," Pitts said, noting that it was the first time he ever saw his mother cry. "You sort of live your life in disguise…. When you live in the 'hood, you have to wear a mask."
Pitts was born in 1960 and grew up on the east side of Baltimore in a single-parent household. His mother, Clarise, worked in a factory that produced raincoats. In his early elementary school years, Pitts was a quiet child who had a stutter and consistently stayed out of trouble—unlike some of his more unruly classmates. At home, he asked his older siblings to help him memorize passages that he needed to know for reading aloud in class, and would volunteer to read at the right time. On multiple-choice tests, he would make patterns coloring in the dots and score a few correct ones by chance. "The trajectory of my life was prison or an early grave," he asserted in a speech to a Florida literacy group quoted in the Palm Beach Post.
When Pitts's inability to read was discovered, some education professionals informed his mother that he was probably a borderline mental-retardation case and suggested institutionalizing him. Instead, his mother found an experimental literacy program and enrolled him, and within a year he was able to read aloud a letter from his tutor to his mother that he had brought home. "It still gives me goosebumps," he told the Palm Beach audience about that moment.
Despite the progress, Pitts still had many more obstacles to face. When he entered high school, he was reading at the fifth-grade level, and at Archbishop Curley High School—a private Roman Catholic school—he had to take remedial courses. He went on to Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, and chose journalism and speech communication as his major, to the surprise of many. Again, he struggled to complete his schoolwork, and wound up on academic probation. When he failed an introductory English course for the second time, the professor told him, "your presence at Ohio Wesleyan University is a waste of my time and the government's money. I think you should leave," Pitts recalled in a speech at Cazenovia College in 2008. Defeated, he picked up the necessary forms and was filling them out in tears when a woman approached and asked him if he was all right. He recounted to her what had happened, and she instructed him to hold off on filing the forms and to come to her office tomorrow. The woman turned out to be a professor in the English department, and gave Pitts extra assistance to help him pass his courses. His dormitory roommate, meanwhile, helped Pitts overcome his stutter by working with him on a word-a-day plan, in which Pitts chose a word out of the dictionary to learn and repeat until he spoke it clearly.
Pitts graduated from Ohio Wesleyan in 1982 and was hired by a Greenville, North Carolina, television station as a reporter and weekend sports anchor. In 1984 he moved on to WAVY-TV, the NBC affiliate in the Norfolk, Virginia, area, where he reported on military news. He spent two years there before working in two separate Florida markets. In 1989 he was hired by WCBV-TV in Boston, Massachusetts, as a special assignment reporter. Five years later he relocated to Atlanta to work at WSB-TV. His coverage of the 1996 Summer Olympics in the city—along with a pair of bomb explosions in Olympic Park that left one dead and 111 wounded—caught the attention of executives at CBS News, who hired him as a correspondent for Newspath, the twenty-four-hour news service for CBS affiliate stations. In May of 1998 Pitts became a regular correspondent for CBS News, reporting first from Miami, then Atlanta, and finally in 2001 from the network headquarters in New York City.
During his first year in New York, Pitts was in the office early on the morning of September 11, when initial reports came in about a plane striking one of the World Trade Center towers. "I thought, gee how awful, a novice pilot accidentally flew into the World Trade Center," he recalled in the Cazenovia College speech. He rushed downtown to cover the breaking news, and later that morning, after the second tower had also been hit and was in flames, "I was standing with two New York City cops when we looked up and saw what we thought was a giant piece of paper floating to the ground," he told the Cazenovia audience. "We thought it was a message from someone stranded above us.… Perhaps it was a giant sheet saying, ‘Send help.’ But soon we realized that the floating piece of paper was a person falling to their death."
When the first tower began to crumble, Pitts ran into a nearby school to escape the debris. He remained shaken by the experience even as the first anniversary of the disaster loomed, telling Michele Greppi in Electronic Media that it was still difficult to think about the traumas he witnessed. "Who am I to feel sorry for myself because I happened to be there? I got to go home to my family," he said. "I got to write about it with some personal distance." It had been an eventful year for Pitts: in addition to the 9/11 attack he also covered the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan for CBS. In recognition of his work the National Association of Black Journalists named him Journalist of the Year in 2002. He subsequently covered such events as the fall of Baghdad in the Iraq War in 2003, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He became a national correspondent for CBS News in 2006.
At a Glance …
Born on October 21, 1960, in Baltimore, MD; son of Clarise (a factory worker); married Lyne Pitts (a news producer and network vice president); five children. Education: OhioWesleyan University, BA, 1982.
Career: WNCT-TV, Greenville, NC, reporter and weekend sports anchor, 1983-84; WAVY-TV, Virginia, military reporter, 1984-86; WESH-TV, Orlando, FL, reporter, 1986-88; WFLA-TV, Tampa, FL, reporter and substitute anchor, 1988-89; WCBV-TV, Boston, MA, special assignment reporter, 1989-94; WSB-TV, Atlanta, GA, general assignment reporter, 1994-96; CBS News, Newspath correspondent, 1997-98; CBS News correspondent from Miami, 1998-99, from Atlanta, 1999-2001, and from New York, 2001—; became national correspondent, 2006.
Memberships: National Association of Black Journalists.
Awards: Journalist of the Year, National Association of Black Journalists, 2002.
Addresses: Home—Upper Montclair, NJ. Office—CBS News, 524 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
Pitts is the father of five and is married to Lyne Pitts, an executive producer and vice president at NBC News. In 2002 his eldest son graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University, also with a journalism degree, and is a reporter with WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina. Pitts continues to devote himself to eradicating literacy, working with organizations such as the National Center for Family Literacy. "I want to be a witness for people that if I can do okay in my life then anyone can," he told a Pittsburgh audience in 2006, according to a report by television station KDKA. "I'm not ashamed of where I come from, I'm not ashamed of the struggles I had."
Boys' Life, March 2008, p. 28.
Columbus Dispatch, May 12, 2006.
Electronic Media, September 16, 2002, p. 3.
Palm Beach Post, March 29, 2008, p. C6.
Washington Post, May 7, 2007, p. C1.
Pitts, Byron, "Keynote Address," Cazenovia College, 2008, http://www.cazenovia.edu/Default.aspx?tabid=1168 (accessed August 11, 2008).
"Pitts Overcame Obstacles, Willed Way to Success," KDKA.com, October 18, 2006, http://kdka.com/local/Byron.Pitts.CBS.2.385480.html?detectflash=false (accessed August 18, 2008).
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