Although he would eventually embark on an enviable career on TV as a well-respected news journalist, Pitts had to overcome illiteracy and a host of other seemingly-insurmountable childhood challenges en route to turning himself into a great success story. That admirable endeavor was intimately recounted in his revealing memoir Step Out on Nothing, a best seller which earned the #2 spot on my annual Top Ten Black Books list.
Earlier this year, he became the heir apparent to Ed Bradley’s coveted spot on “60 Minutes” when CBS named him a contributing correspondent to the long-running, television newsmagazine. Byron lives in New Jersey with his wife, Lyne, and their six children. He recently sat down to speak with me about his new job, his autobiography, his faith and his family.
Kam Williams: Hi Byron, thanks for the time.
Byron Pitts: Absolutely! My pleasure.
KW: I’m going to start of with a question from children’s book author Irene Smalls. She says in many ways yours is a true rags-to-riches story. What guidance can you offer young people today?
BP: I think there’s real value in remaining optimistic and in having a plan for your life. I was raised to believe that strength only comes through struggle, and in seeing obstacles as stepping-stones, as teachable moments. By asking, what can I learn to improve myself from this experience? That’s a sphere of optimism I got from my mother.
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman notes that you had some learning disabilities as a child. She was wondering, whether your path to success would have been easier if you’d been ready to read before the first grade? She also asks if you support efforts to invest in early care and education, especially in areas such as East New York, Harlem and Baltimore where there are high concentrations of young African American males?
BP: Definitely, that would make all the difference in the world for a number of young people. Yeah, it would make a tremendous difference, because the earlier we can teach children to read, the more productive citizens they’ll be, and the fuller lives they’ll live. Would it have made my life easier? I don’t know. Could I have achieved more? I’d like to believe that.
KW: Reverend Florine Thompson asks how has your faith shaped your life?
BP: It’s the foundation. Every good choice I’ve made in my life has come as a result of prayer and faith, and every poor choice has come when I’ve deviated from that. It certainly sustained me as a child, and sustains me today.
KW: Reverend Thompson also asks, what is your favorite and most profound quote from scripture?
BP: Isaiah 40:31, which is also my grandmother’s favorite inscription, which reads, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; so that you can run and not be weary; and walk and not faint,” which speaks to that same Step Out on Nothing spirit.
KW: Who has been the most influential person in your life?
BP: My mother.
KW: Also from the good Reverend: How did you overcome the obstacle of illiteracy? What did you do to rebuild your self-esteem?
BP: A remedial reading program in East Baltimore that broke things down for me so I could grasp them in small bites. I think that reinforces the need for the kinds of resources you mentioned in your earlier question which should be made available to young people at an early age. In terms of rebuilding my self-esteem, my mother and immediate family deserve a great deal of credit for that. They were always supportive and kind, and knew the power of laughter as a real ointment to heal what hurts you.
KW: Reverend Thompson observes that it's been said that we are a part of something much greater than ourselves. If this is true, when did you discover this truth and what has it meant to your success?
BP: That’s a great question. I’m sure that I became fully aware of that by my 40s. That’s something that became clear to me as I was working on the book. It took so many people investing in me for me to do the things I’ve been able to achieve. And I’m very mindful of the few gifts that I’ve been given and of the value in sharing them with others. When I think about my journey, learning to read was certainly huge. Learning not to stutter was incredibly important, as was coming to understand the power of prayer and having a family which was incredibly supportive. If you take away any one of those things or one of about 50 others, would I be where I am now? I tend to doubt it.
KW: What interested you in being a war correspondent earlier in your career, and how did your wife handle your being in so many dangerous places?
BP: My wife is a journalist with close to 30 years in the industry. She knows the business as well as I do, so she’s aware of the risks. But she is also a woman of great faith, and she appreciates the value and importance of journalism.
KW: Did you ever find yourself addicted to being in war zones?
BP: No, but I’ve certainly always been willing to go to war zones and to cover disasters when necessary. I cover struggle because I remember what it meant as a child to feel voiceless. Now, as a journalist, it’s my job to go give voice to the voiceless. And I take that mission very seriously. I’ve also covered the last few presidential campaigns. I just want to cover the news.
KW: College student Laz Lyles says, shows like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” illustrate a convergence and permeability of news, entertainment, politics and marketing called "discursive integration." She wants to know, if you think this confluence will have more of a positive or negative impact on news in the future?
BP: Great question! It concerns me because there is a generation of people growing up who think that shows like “The Colbert Report” are news programs. While what they do is entertaining, I wouldn’t consider it covering the news. There’s certainly a place for what they do in our great society, but there should also be a place for people to find the sober truth about what happened today.
KW: Laz goes on to inquire, how can we achieve greater integrity in journalism today?
BP: I think accountability is important, that news organizations should be held accountable by their readers, listeners and viewers. And I believe it speaks to the value of having more diverse voices, of people bringing different life experiences to news organizations.
KW: Aspiring actor Tommy Russell asks, as a Black man who is also a very public figure, do you think Black male celebrities, entertainers, sports figures and politicians get treated more harshly for their transgressions and mistakes than others?
BP: I was raised to believe that much is required of those to whom much has been given. I think anyone in a position of importance has a responsibility to carry themselves in a certain way.
KW: Tommy continues with, since the election of Barack Obama, do you think America has entered a post-racial period in our history?
BP: No. I think race still matters in our country, although perhaps not as much as it used to. I think race, class and ethnicity are things that still matter.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
BP: No, but my all-time favorite question is, what’s the one thing in life you know for sure?
KW: Okay, what’s the one thing in life you know for sure?
BP: That God is good.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
BP: Not anymore. I used to be, quite often. I have moments when I’m frightened, but not afraid.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
BP: Hmm… another great question. That’s not something I spend much time thinking about. I have joy in my life, but I think there’s a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness, I find, often depends on the circumstances, while joy is something that can sustain you in the slow moments and keep you smiling in the happy moments.
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
BP: This morning, with my wife.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
BP: What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell. I met him a couple of weeks ago. A very bright man.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What are you listening to on your iPod?
BP: Mostly Gospel. I have no rhythm, no taste in music. My wife, siblings and children have far more sophisticated tastes when it comes to music than I do. But I grew in the church, sang in the choir, and still love church music. What’s on my iPod is mostly religious music.
KW: The Laz Alonso question: How can your fans help you?
BP: That’s a nice question. Certainly by supporting the book and, if they believe what it says, spreading the word by encouraging other people, especially schoolchildren, to read it. That would really warm my heart.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
BP: What stands out in my mind is my mom helping me into a little suit with short pants and a jacket when I was about five because she was obsessed with dressing me like John-John Kennedy. I remember feeling very protected.
KW: The Mike Pittman question: Who was your best friend as a child?
BP: My best friend in the neighborhood, after my parents split up, was a guy named Bud who lived a couple doors up the street. He came to my book signing in Baltimore the other day. And my best friend in high school was a guy named Joe Strombowsky.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
BP: The power of grace.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
BP: I like to grill out. I’d have to say barbecued chicken.
KW: The Flex Alexander question: How do you get through the tough times?
BP: By remembering the previous tough times and what got me through those difficult moments.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
BP: Go further. My mother raised her kids with a basic philosophy: if you work hard, pray hard, and treat people right, good things will happen. That certainly worked for me.
KW: What made you decide to go public with your life story?
BP: Because I believe we’re all connected in some way. It relates back to Reverend Thompson’s earlier question about being a part of something much greater than ourselves. I saw it as an opportunity to encourage other people on a large scale.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Byron, and best of luck with the book and with “60 Minutes.”
BP: Thank you, all the best.