Open VISIONS Forum: Byron Pitts

Submitted by Mike Moritz '11 on February 25, 2011

Illiterate. Mentally retarded. Stutterer. These are the last words you would use to describe an Emmy award-winning journalist and chief national correspondent for The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. The guest lecturer at Fairfield’s OPEN Visions Forum in the Quick Center on the evening of February 23rd was quite the opposite of what doctors pronounced him at an early age. Byron Pitts is a successful, eloquent, and inspiring journalist, whose journey to the news world is moving and real.

Pitts, author of Step on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped me Conquer Life’s Challenges, grew up in east Baltimore and was proclaimed illiterate at the age of 12.  Often ridiculed by teachers, he found himself one day at Ohio Wesleyan University being confronted by a professor who urged him to drop out as he wasn’t fit for the university. The next day he went to the registrar to do as he was told when an English professor saw that he was disheveled, comforted him, and invited him the next day to her office. He described this one act of kindness as “saving my life.”

From there, Pitts became best friends with his freshman roommate, Pete. One day Pete asked him why he spoke like a little kid and didn’t use bigger words. Pitts explained that he had only read one book for enjoyment in his entire life before going to college and that he had a poor vocabulary. After hearing this, Pete challenged Pitts to learn a new word – provided by Pete – every day by looking up the definition and using it in a sentence. Pete and Pitts conducted this little exercise daily until they both graduated.

At Ohio Wesleyan University, Pitts majored in journalism and speech communication, and after graduation worked at various television stations on the east coast. More recently, as CBS’ lead correspondent at ground zero immediately following the September 11th attacks, Pitts won an Emmy for his coverage. He shared with the Fairfield audience a most memorable experience during this horrific time. According to Pitts, firefighters were trained to use a chirping noise in case they were buried under the rubble. One day Pitts was on site near a young marine, who happened to be vacationing in New York City at the time tragedy struck and volunteered to help find survivors. That day someone yelled that a bomb was going to go off and everybody panicked. The marine was told to get out of the area because his life was at risk, to which Pitts could hear the marine reply, “No. I think I hear chirping and if someone’s there, they won’t die alone.”

After Pitts told the audience about his own experiences and beliefs, a student panel asked questions. One of the more interesting ones dealt with the Internet and its role in journalism today. Pitts alluded to the dangers of news reporting from “crowdsourcing,” explaining that readers have no way of gauging whether information is accurate. The value of seasoned journalists, he explained, is that they have trusted sources. Pitts believes that the core values of journalism, such as the fundamentals of finding sources and conducting research, will stay the same even if the medium changes.

It was encouraging to hear that Pitts believes America is still the best country in the world, as he has visited over 36 counties himself. His experiences in Afghanistan captivated the audience. He remembered when he volunteered to cover the war at an editorial meeting, and when the meeting was over Dan Rather asked him to come into his office. Rather encouraged Pitts to pick 20 of his closest friends and family members and then write them about how much they were loved because there was a chance Pitts wouldn’t return. Pitts accepted the gamble and did his job exceptionally well.

As an aspiring writer and current intern for The Stag Spotlight, I learned a lot from Pitts and his hard work. I especially appreciated his emphasis on keeping journalism politically neutral. When the media chooses to angle a story towards a certain side, people lose the ability to see things from their own perspective, so it was encouraging to hear Pitts talk about the importance of neutrality.

I also appreciated that nothing ever came easy for Pitts. He is the type of person that looks a challenge in the eye and has the desire to conquer it, yet is able to retain his humility. He often told the Fairfield audience how we have an obligation to society to be the best people we can be. “Be ashamed to die before you’ve won some victory for humanity,” he said. His call beckons us all to do something meaningful with our lives, despite the obstacles.

For more on Byron Pitts visit his Facebook page.

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