September 14, 2009

CBS correspondent Byron Pitts‘ book, “Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life’s Challenges,” will hit the shelves on Tuesday.

Pitts’ new book tells the story of a childhood secret. Until he was 12, Pitts could not read. He faked his way through school, memorizing what he needed to know to get by. He also had a stuttering problem that robbed him of his self-esteem.

But Pitts overcame these challenges and grew up to be one of network TV’s shining stars. I am happy to say he is my friend and a frequent Poynter visiting faculty member. I asked him to share his story in this edited Q&A.

Al Tompkins: A big part of your story has to do with a secret from your early life. You didn’t start to read until you were 12 years old. How did that happen? How did it last so long?

Byron Pitts: The short answer is we really don’t know. Call it social promotions before it had a name. I was known as a quiet and polite kid from a hard-working family. Both of my parents were active in school. I learned to memorize when I could and fake it when I had to.
It was not until somebody tested you to see why you could not do math that it was discovered that you could not read the instructions. So it was almost a lucky mistake that somebody figured out what was going on.

Pitts: I wouldn’t call it luck, but certainly I was fortunate. My parents pushed to see why I was failing in math. As a result of their persistence, I was on the road to literacy.

Tell us about that conversation in which your mother heard the news about what was going on with you.

Pitts: It was the first time I ever saw my mother cry. The moment was devastating. In fact, it was that moment that forged my own commitment to learn to read. To this point, I was resigned to be “slow” and “stupid” as many classmates and a few adults often referred to me at that stage of my life. In the beginning, I simply wanted to read so my mother wouldn’t cry.


On top of the reading problems, you stuttered. Your self-confidence must have been shot.

Pitts: Absolutely! Shot dead. My mother is fond of saying “God doesn’t give us more than we can bear.” I was both ashamed and angry as a child, but fortunately because I was so skinny that anger never developed into bullying. I was bullied some, but fortunately I was blessed with some athletic ability. So for all that I lacked in the classroom, my self-worth had value on ball fields and playgrounds.
You have to wonder how many stories, just like yours, are out there —  bright kids who have the capacity to memorize enough to bluff their way through school but can’t read the most basic sentences. What’s your guess about how widespread this is?
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Pitts: According to the National Center for Family Literacy, more than 30 million adults in the United States cannot read or comprehend information at the most basic level. Let that number sink in a bit: Thirty million adults in the United States. When I think about that number, it reminds me how offended I am when some suggest that we in the news should “dumb it down.” How about we elevate our work so people can understand it, be inspired by it?
Really, think about it. A kid who couldn’t read, couldn’t talk and wanted to be a TV reporter. Isn’t that like a guy with no hands who wants to be a juggler? It is almost a joke waiting for a punch line. What possessed you to think you could become who you have become?

Pitts: I was raised to believe that “to whom much is given much is required.” And I was also raised to be forever optimistic. So as I see it, I’ve never had any stumbling blocks, only stepping stones. Like all of us, I’ve skinned my knee a time or two, but that’s not the rock’s fault.

So when I finally conquered my battle with literacy and speech, I saw it as a sign from God: Take these two fancy new gifts you’ve been given and do something with them. On good days and bad ones, I often pause and smile when I think where I’ve come from, and now I get paid to read and talk in public. What a country!
Those of us who know you know that your faith is key to who you are. But now you are taking that part of you public. Why? What does it have to do with your childhood secret?
Pitts: That, in many ways, was a more difficult choice than actually talking about my issues with literacy and speech. I’m certainly proud of my faith, but would never want to offend anyone else and their faith system. But in the end, I chose to talk about it, because if I am to tell the story of my journey, then my faith had to be a part of it.

Faith was at the core of all of it. My mother and grandmother, all my aunts and uncles — most of the people who’ve inspired me — it’s where their strength comes from. The words, “there but for the grace of God,” certainly apply to my life. And I guess it was important for me to say it wasn’t me who got me to where I am now. It was a host of people who, by most standards, were people you’d call ordinary folk.

It was the power of God’s grace that in those moments when nothing around me — nothing I could see, nothing I could touch — told me I would be OK. It was that grace I believe only comes from God that pushed me forward.
Let me ask you directly. When it comes to your faith, what do you believe? Do you think your faith shapes or shows up in your journalism? Should it?

Pitts: I believe that I am a child of God and that his son, Jesus Christ, died for my sins so that I might live. My faith certainly shapes my life and thus shapes my work. Just as my race, my sex, my level of education, my interests outside of work. Should it? Whether it should or shouldn’t, I think it does. But ultimately I’m mindful it is the truth that must direct my work.

For instance, as an African-American man I’ve done stories about the Klan. My life experience, of course, shaped my views going in, but my job as a journalist is to let the facts lead me. I don’t believe it’s my job to do stories that reinforce anything I may believe; my job is to find truth.

I know who I am and whose I am and I believe I know my chosen profession. For instance, I certainly would not discuss my own faith in a news story, wouldn’t cut anyone slack because they shared my belief. Just as my race, my gender and my life experience shape my work, so too does my faith. But it doesn’t get in the way. We all bring our life experience to the table.

I think you raise a point all journalists should consider: What do we believe? Does it get in the way of us doing our job? If so, it’s time to deal with that.

What does the title of the book, “
Step Out on Nothing,” mean?

Pitts: “Step Out on Nothing” was the name of a sermon at my home church in Montclair, N.J. The minister was encouraging the congregation, in times of trouble or pain, to step out on faith. To the outside world or to nonbelievers, it might appear that one is stepping out on nothing, but when we pray and believe, we are stepping into God’s hands.

I liked the title of the sermon, and I thought it spoke to the trajectory of my life. So how exactly does a kid from East Baltimore who couldn’t read, wind up in the chair on “60 Minutes”? For me, it was mostly grace, a measure of hard work and the good fortune to have been born in the United States of America.
I have long considered you to be one of the best writers in broadcast news today. I often use your work in my seminars as example of what good storytelling looks like. Now that you have hit the top — “60 Minutes,” for goodness’ sake — what does your story teach us all?
Pitts: Anything is possible! I think it also speaks to the value of having a plan or vision for your life and having the courage (or stubbornness) to stick with it. One of the great turning points in my professional life was my first visit to Poynter.

For me, it has always been a magical place. At Poynter, I learned that great TV doesn’t happen by accident. All the great journalists I’ve admired, while different, adhered to some very basic rules of good journalism. Poynter gave me the rules, showed me the vision. It was life changing.

I hope my story teaches or reinforces the value of optimism and hard work. I heard the actor Laurence Fishburne say not long ago, “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it that matters.” I like that. I’ve always worked to do the best I can. I’ve spent many hours obsessing about many things, but I don’t spend much energy trying to be like someone else. I figure God made me the way he wanted me. My job is to just be the very best Byron Pitts I can be.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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