Reading Between the Lines

UPDATED: May 7, 2010
PUBLISHED: May 7, 2010

Sitting alone in the iconic anchor chair where journalism greats such as Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace once delivered hardhitting investigative news, Byron Pitts was somewhere else.

“‘In five, four, three, two…’ This wasn’t the first time a floor director had ever counted me down, but it was the first time I ever choked back tears,” Pitts says about his first “studio open” for 60 Minutes. He remembered vividly the panic of being a stuttering 9-year-old schoolboy in Baltimore, being asked to read a book passage in front of a classroom of unkind elementary school kids.

“In school, I couldn’t read, yet few seemed to notice. I could read my name and a few simple words that I saw every day,” Pitts says, “and for the time being, that and a good helping of well-polished manners my momma taught me was enough.”

With a speech impediment and labeled illiterate as a child, Pitts credits an unyielding work ethic and the faith of his strong-minded mother for overcoming his affliction with words and becoming the successful writer and broadcast journalist he is today. In fifth grade in Baltimore, counselors cast off Pitts as special needs and relegated him to a classroom in the school basement for such students. “Smart kids were taught aboveground, but boys like me were sent to remedial classes underground,” Pitts says. “I spent my time as a basement boy.”

“In my regular class, my friends talked and dreamed of becoming teachers, doctors and lawyers. In my new class, the answer to such questions was almost always ‘I don’t know,’ ” Pitts writes in his 2009 book, Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life’s Challenges, where he describes the vivid memory of looking out the basement’s small windows to see only the feet of people passing by. “I don’t know. It’s the slogan for those without dreams or a path to follow.”

But the basement wasn’t where Pitts belonged. His mother, Clarice Pitts, wouldn’t let her son’s illiteracy be his life’s narrative. “She’d tell me, ‘Keep your head up, no matter what,’ ” he says.

At the kitchen table every night, Pitts would study until he was nearly in tears from frustration. His mother would tell him if two hours of homework didn’t help improve his reading skills, then they’d try four. They intently studied the alphabet every night, Pitts learning at age 11 what he should have learned at age 4.

The harder you push, the further you realize you can go.

From this, Pitts learned that you can’t always outsmart others, but you can outwork them. So he read more, studied harder and practiced longer. By the time he was in high school, he could read—far below grade level, but reading, nonetheless. He took an interest in writing and joined the school newspaper as a sports reporter. “I loved sports, and I was beginning to love words,” he says. “There was something so rewarding about watching people read an article I had written. It would make me think back to the days when people thought I was stupid. Now people were reading my words in the paper.”

His interest in journalism broadened and deepened as a student at Ohio Wesleyan, where he wrote for the college newspaper, was news director for the school’s cable television news show, co-hosted a nighttime radio show, and worked as a freelance reporter for the local area radio station. Indeed, he outworked others to perfect his craft.

From his office on West 57th Street in New York, Pitts, now 48, admits he’s in awe at times of the iconic news institution he clocks in for every morning. “You can almost smell the cigar smoke from decades past,” he says of Studio 33, where 60 Minutes is taped.

Working his way from a cub reporter in Greenville, N.C., to chief national correspondent for CBS News and then his dream job at 60 Minutes, Pitts advanced through the ranks based on his ability to report the more touching “micro” stories rather than the obvious “macro” perspective of history-making world events. Only an hour and a half after landing in earthquake- ravaged Haiti, Pitts filed a report for the CBS Evening News. While the obvious story would have been the widespread damage to buildings and homes, Pitts sought out the perspective of a young Army private on her fi rst deployment.

When Pitts reports, he says he looks for human moments to “help tell people’s truths.” He won an Emmy for his effective and moving coverage of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. In his book, he describes the awful images he witnessed that day and how New York City—never silent—was “graveyard quiet.”

“As journalists, we should be voices for the voiceless,” Pitts says. “I truly know what it feels like to be voiceless—as a stutterer, not able to get out my words.” That’s why, too, he’s a clever writer. He values words and chooses them carefully. He even keeps a journal with him as he reads the 12 newspapers he consumes daily so he can remember words and phrases he especially values.

The quintessential journalist, Pitts keeps a “Go Kit” at home and in his desk at all times. With clothing, food, water and provisions to work and survive for 72 hours, he’s ready to leave at a moment’s notice to cover any news event in any difficult location. He has covered wars, earthquakes, hurricanes, and everything in between. Dan Rather once told him, “Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim and reporters gotta go.”

“Success is measured by effort,” Pitts says when describing the hard work and determination it took to become successful in the competitive world of broadcast journalism. He says there’s almost a renewable fuel you get from working hard: “The harder you push, the further you realize you can go.” Pitts has gone from the ends of the earth and back to become the journalist he is today and proven what his mother once told him: “It’s not how you start, but how you finish.”

Journalist, podcaster and southpaw Shelby Skrhak is the former director of digital content and social media for Before joining SUCCESSmagazine, Shelby launched the weekly suburban newspaper Plano Insider, and covered topics ranging from cops and courts to transportation and fashion. Her handwriting should be a font.