After seven days of reporting in Haiti amid unthinkable misery, Byron Pitts, chief national correspondent for CBS News, boarded a chopper last week, homeward bound via the Dominican Republic. Looking down at the landscape, he saw some of the toughest creatures on the planet and noted in an e-mail, “Just passed a few crocodiles.”
“What a blessing to be a journalist,” Pitts continued. “Having worked with people who trusted me with their truth, their country. I trusted them with my life and they trusted me. They felt like family. Most likely I will never see them again.”
Pitts arrived at the Haitian border at 5 p.m. the day after the earthquake and filed a report for the CBS Evening News 90 minutes later.
What Pitts and all the other journalists did in Haiti took guts — something Hemingway called “grace under pressure.”
Like Pitts, journalists have to be tough on the outside to endure, absorb and overcome some incredibly challenging odds. Tragedy on the scale of the Haitian earthquake evokes the indomitable tenacity of the human spirit — by those in the stories as well as the authentic storytellers, better known as reporters.
I asked Pitts what he learned about people when he was in Haiti. He responded, “We are tough and delicate creatures.”
Here’s an edited version of our e-mail exchange about his reporting experience.
Kenny Irby: How did you make your way into Haiti after the earthquake and how did you prepare yourself?
Byron Pitts: NYC to Santa Domingo, five-hour drive to border of Haiti. Myself, producer, cameraman, engineer and two Spanish-speaking drivers. No one in our team spoke Creole. So we felt our way around Port-au-Prince. It should have been a 90-minute drive from the border, but it took us three hours. Got some great fried chicken, though.
I keep a “go bag” at home and one in the office. It allows me to go anywhere in the world and survive on my own for three days. The first 72 hours are often the most difficult. In my “go bag” I keep a cot, sleeping bag, pair of boots, one set of clean clothes to wear home, one pair of pants, shirt, shorts, four pair of socks, baby powder, flip flops, a pair of gym shorts and a T-shirt, 10 cans of sardines and smoked mussels, a bottle of hot sauce, a Leatherman, a role of toilet paper and a bivy sack.
What were your living conditions while on the ground in Haiti?
Pitts: Slept outside one night. In a hotel without power or running water for a few nights. Showered once in seven days.
In the face of such chaos and devastation, what were your guiding reporting principles?
Pitts: Be a human being. Look for human moments.
You have seen some the worst misery and trauma over the past 10 years: 9/11, the Iraq war, the South Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and now the Haitian earthquake. In comparison, was this assignment different? And if so, how?
Pitts: More people were likely killed in the tsunami, but in Indonesia the killing was widespread. Many of the victims were washed out to sea. In Indonesia there was an absence of life. In Haiti one is surrounded by death. It’s concentrated. For days there were places on the street where bodies were stacked like wood.
What mattered most for you as you pursued this coverage?
Pitts: Treating people with respect. Telling their truth. I work from the assumption that the average American may not care about people who live miles away and speak a different language. Part of my job is to make them care.
In this “60 Minutes” report, when you realized that the bulldozer was dumping human bodies into the dump truck, what went through your mind?
Pitts: Be quiet. Listen. Absorb the moment. On the inside I was screaming, “Oh my God.” Only if I was quiet could I hear and feel what the doctor was doing and the people around me.
How did you maintain such a cool composure when all around you was complete chaos?
Pitts: I continually remind myself it’s not about me. I was raised to believe that to those whom much is given, much is required. I am blessed to be a correspondent at CBS News. I am a seasoned professional, so I’m supposed to act that way. I often feel a sense of responsibility for my colleagues. As a boy, my mother told me, “People are always watching you; stand up straight.” I hear her words today.
What insights can you offer about your role as a reporter, an authentic witness, during times of great tragedy?
Pitts: It’s not about us. It’s about the people and the moments we’re blessed to see.
Some people have suggested that American media outlets are more willing to broadcast and publish the grief of people of color on foreign shores than we are when the tragedy strikes our homeland. What’s your response?
Pitts: Much of America still has a problem with race and class. We are making progress, but the journey continues.
What advice would you offer other journalists covering natural disasters with great loss of life — particularly those to are just arriving to cover the ongoing hardship?
Pitts: On big stories the facts scream out, so whisper. Get small. Go narrow and deep. Find the voiceless and give them voice. As a friend of mine told me once, “Do the archeology.” Go deep. Find the nuggets.