At the National Association of Black Journalists Convention in Milwaukee, Rob Redding spoke to Byron Pitts. At the NABJ Convention, Mr. Pitts was awarded the associations Journalist of the Year Award for 2002. A veteran correspondent for CBS, Mr. Pitts spoke to Rob Redding about industry professionalism, excellence, and his views of black journalists throughout the media.
What does this award mean to you? You won an Emmy; and this award is to be fairly low on the totem pole, compared to an Emmy
Byron Pitts: I think, for me (at the very least), it makes my mother proud, my sister proud, my brother proud; and thats very important to me. Im so grateful for this honor, because it comes from an organization Ive been involved with for a number of years. From people who look like me; from people who have some appreciation for the issues that exist, in my professional life. So Im just grateful; whether its an Emmy or an NABJ award Im just grateful.
Now Ive seen one of the things youve reportedly said to The Baltimore Sun, I will go anywhere, anytime and never say no. Im a network fireman. What do you mean by that?
Byron Pitts: A couple of things you know, Im a big wrestling fan; much to my familys embarrassment. And Ric Flair, one of my all time favorite wrestlers
The Nature Boy!
Byron Pitts: Exactly (!), has a saying, In order to be the man, youve got to beat the man! And, Ive wanted to be successful at the network! And when you look at the people whove been most successful for instance, at CBS News, the Ed Bradleys, the Dan Rathers these are men who have worked incredibly hard; who went to every major story on their watch whether it was dangerous or not (Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement), and they did the best they could. So for me, if I want to be the best network correspondent that I could be, then I need to emulate those kinds of journalists. And that means, go anywhere at anytime. Dan Rather has a saying, Birds gotta fly; fish gotta swim; reporters gotta go! And thats been my philosophy. You hear about (and theres a host of reasons why) there are not more people of color at the network. Institutionally oftentimes, whats said about people of color (in particular, men of color) at the network: they dont work hard enough; theyre too arrogant; they dont write well enough. And I wanted it to be said (during my time at the network), that those three things couldnt be said about me. Thats why I was careful about the places I worked at in local television, thats why my philosophy was and still is, Ill go anywhere at anytime. I was clear about some of the obstacles that exist at the network - for men of color; and I wanted to make sure I could do all I can, to make sure I didnt fall into one of those traps.
Now, you mentioned Dan Rather and Ed Bradley are those youre mentors? Do you have other mentors, and why might Rather and Bradley be people you look up to?
Byron Pitts: They are definitely two men who I look up to I have a great deal of respect for both men. Both men, Dan Rather and Ed Bradley, have been very kind, and very to me; since Ive been at CBS News. Terrific supporters. I know, before I went to Afghanistan, I had a long conversation with Dan about safety issues he advised me that I should write a letter, an individual letter to my wife and my children because before you go to places like that, you run the risk of not coming back home. So I had a real practical conversation about the risk of covering a war. Uh, Ed Bradley a man who travels the globe weve talked about my career ambitions at the network. Hell suggest about the things I should be and shouldnt be about. These are men who have been very successful and who owe people like me nothing. But theyve always been so gracious with their time. And I admire them because they work incredibly hard; they have done remarkable work; they are both honorable men hardworking men. And Im also a huge Monica Kaufman fan. I know that she is the queen of television in Atlanta; and deservedly so.
Byron Pitts: I love Monica for a couple of reasons: one because when I worked at WSB, she was always kind, and treated me well. Monica makes the short list of on-air people Ive known in my twenty years of television, who Ive never seen make a mistake on television because she has that focus, that kind of discipline. You know, you mentioned TV personalities, and theres good and bad that comes with that. Monica symbolizes everything thats good about a TV personality. Shes involved in Atlanta. She goes places; she talks to people. She still shops at Payless Shoes. I mean, who you see on television is who she is; and this is a woman who is incredibly successful; makes a ton of money; could choose to be obnoxious, and arrogant, and mean spirited but shes not. She is a gracious, kind, spirit-filled, hardworking woman. I have tremendous admiration for her.
Now, you mentioned Dan Rather, of course, as one of the people you like. Theres a rumor always out there that hes a racist. Do you find that to be the case? What do know of that, and what are your thoughts?
Byron Pitts: Well, actually honestly, thats the first time Ive ever heard that!
Byron Pitts: Yeah! Well, let me say this, professionally: I dont like Dan Rather I love Dan Rather! He is, to my estimation, a good man. He is an honorable man. I know, for a fact, that he is a religious man; when you walk into his office, theres a Bible opened on his desk. He has been nothing but kind to me kind and gracious to people who I know have dealt with him. To my estimation, hes one of the good guys. One of the things I like about Dan, is he comes from Texas; I believe his dad was a laborer, and his mother was a waitress. So he is a man who comes from humble means. And he still appreciates where he comes from. And even though he makes millions of dollars, he has a working class mans mentality. I would go to war with Dan Rather anytime and anywhere.
One of the things Ive been saying over and over is that we need a black daily (newspaper); we need black-owned operations in the media; how important it is that we award people and pay attention to whats going on! And not complain and gripe but do something about it! Whats holding African Americans (I know youre immediate realm is TV) out of TV?
Byron Pitts: I think youre right on: at the end of the day, if you dont own you dont control it period. TV, like anything, is a business. Is television racist? Some days. Is television sexist? Some days. Does it discriminate against poor people? Often times. But every single day, it is a business. And until people of color control that, (youre right) then they shouldnt complain, because its not going to change! I think that there are reasons why there are so few people of color at the network. There are institutional problems and there are problems on the part of those that aspire to work at the network. The institution is not designed for people of color, for working class people, for poor people, for women (for that matter), to be successful; because thats not what its built to do. At the same time, Ive met so many
Wait a minute; what do you mean by that?
Byron Pitts: it is all networks that Im familiar with: they are institutions that find attractive, people from Ivy League schools; people who have a number of degrees behind their names; people who speak several languages and all of those are wonderful things to have. But for instance, if youre a kid who lives in College Park, or East Baltimore you may not have had those opportunities growing up. You may be just as intelligent, willing to work as hard, and be as creative but life dealt you a deck of cards that did not allow you to be exposed to those opportunities. And so, therefore, youre not looked at as someone who has network quality. On the other side of that, I find, that there are not enough (to my estimation) people of color willing to do the work. So I blame the institution, and I also blame a number of young, African American journalists who are not willing to make the sacrifices.
So they see the celebrity that comes with TV, and thats it.
Byron Pitts: Absolutely! And the same is true for young white reporters who I meet! But again, if the institution is not set-up for you to be successful, you cant afford to do anything but work extremely hard to be successful.
Now you said there were a couple of things that they say at the network (maybe every network), about black men what are those things; or about (both male and female) blacks coming in?
Byron Pitts: Sure its never spoken, its never written on paper but that you hear that circulates the building: [he/she] doesnt work hard enough; doesnt write well; is arrogant oftentimes youll see people who are non-blacks who are deemed as aggressive, assertive an African American journalist doing the same is often portrayed as arrogant. And ones a positive and ones a negative. And in some instances those things [said] may be true! I was raised to believe, [as I am sure a number of people were black, white, rich, or poor] Son, if want to be successful, you cant be as good; you have to be twice as good. and not to say that I am that; but I know I work very hard. The Ed Bradleys of network television work extremely hard; and until we own it, or until we have more people who are willing to work hard enough to make it happen, then its going to stay the way it is.
Having won an Emmy, and now winning the Journalist of the Year award, which you will receive tomorrow where do you go from here? Whats next? Did you even see yourself where youre at now?
Byron Pitts: Oh absolutely! I was raised in a Baptist church in East Baltimore. My pastor had a saying, which has stuck with me since childhood: Reach for the stars, and youll fall on the moon. When I was 18, I decided that I wanted to be a network correspondent by the time I was 35; nothing in my world said that was guaranteed, but that was my goal. My second goal was to be a 60 Minutes correspondent by age 45. Now, God could bring me home tomorrow and none of that may happen. But my prayer has always been, Lord, make me good enough to earn the opportunity do that kind of thing. I got a job at CBS News the day after I turned 36. Theyd been trying to reach me for two weeks, so I wouldve gotten the job by the time I was 35. Id like to cover the White House next; theres not been a Primary White House Correspondent at CBS News since Ed Bradley Im mindful of that history, and Id like to be the second if that were possible. And then, in the end, I want to work for 60 Minutes. I think one of the reasons that programs so successful is when people watch Morley Safer, Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, Lesley Stahl, Steve Kroft, and Dan Rather they know theyre watching people whove been there, and who have covered every major story in the past 20 or 30 years. I dont want anyone to give me anything I want to earn the right to be a 60 Minutes correspondent at CBS News. When people know that, when I covered a story, I earned the right to be there!
I thank you for spending an hour with us, and coming to the station, to talk to the folks listening to us in Atlanta. Any parting words, of what you want to impart on people that might be looking at you seeing you on TV all those nights: seeing you in Afghanistan, seeing you in Miami (covering the Elian Gonzalez case), and on the phone with Dan Rather covering the September 11th tragedy what words of wisdom can you give to those people in the industry?
Byron Pitts: I just want to thank those folks who prayed for me, because I felt those prayers in Afghanistan, and at Ground Zero [the remnants of the World Trade Center]. And to anyone interested in journalism or any other profession, it is the same philosophy by which my momma raised me: that if you work hard and pray hard, and treat people right, then good things will happen Im a witness.
Thank you, Mr. Pitts for taking out the time.