Never Missing a Beat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Byron Pitts grew up in East Baltimore as a latchkey kid with a severe stutter. He didn't start to read until he was 9 years old. Pitts almost withdrew from college after a professor said he wasn't up to the challenge.

All in all, not the person you expect in a job requiring fluid writing and speaking skills under pressure. But Pitts, now 41, has flourished as a television reporter. He is an Emmy-winning correspondent for the CBS Evening News, helping to provide authoritative coverage of the terrorist attacks in New York last September, the war in Afghanistan and other hot spots around the country and around the world.

Earlier this month, the National Association of Black Journalists named him journalist of the year. He will receive the award in Milwaukee at the group's annual convention in August.

"One of my rules was that I would go anywhere, any time, and never say no," Pitts says now. "I am a network fireman."

Now, he says, he is on a mission: Pitts says he wants to be a White House reporter and ultimately to join 60 Minutes, the most distinguished news magazine on television.

"I've never met someone who was as clear about what his goals are as Byron," says Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage at CBS.

His drive was fueled by his childhood in East Baltimore, Pitts says. Clarice Pitts became pregnant with Byron when she was finishing up high school, in her late 20s. Unlike his siblings, Byron was sent to Roman Catholic schools - not so much for the quality of the education, but for the reliable discipline absent in public schools, according to his mother. He attended New Shiloh Baptist Church, finding incisive commentaries on current events in the sermons of the Rev. Harold Carter.

"One of the things in growing up poor is a sense of powerlessness," Pitts says. "You don't have control of your life very often."

Pitts talks about his life as one blessed by his religious faith. But he has played an active role in steering his own fortunes. An eager student, Pitts started to receive poor marks in third grade. "I came to find out that he was picture reading all this time," Clarice Pitts says in an telephone interview from her home in Apex, N.C.

Byron, stewing as he sat in his family's modest Parkside row house, took down the name of a company that sold a machine that promised in television ads to teach balky readers. His parents called the firm, and a representative came out that weekend, testing Byron's abilities. He got every answer wrong, and he disintegrated, hollering repeatedly at his parents: "I am a moron!"

For several months, the youth insisted that they spend more than the allotted daily hour working with him to grasp the sounds that make up words. His grades quickly rose. His older brother, William, volunteered to work a second job, even as he attended Dunbar High School, so Byron could focus on his studies.

As his mother took classes at Morgan State College at night toward a bachelor's degree, she instructed Byron to record his thoughts in a composition book. On the first page of the first journal, he inscribed a quote from Reverend Carter: "Reach for the stars, and you'll fall on the moon."

Clarice Pitts figured her son would become a minister, or perhaps an accountant. She had subscribed to three newspapers: the Afro-American, the News-American and the Evening Sun. He sought to be a television reporter, as he confided to his journal as a young teen. In hindsight, he said, he was impressed by the power of the media to temper the willingness of Baltimore police officers to use force on civil rights protestors in the late '60s and early '70s.

"I was always struck, as a child, how the police would respond to participants if the media were around," Pitts says. "If they weren't around, [police] would react much more aggressively."

He graduated from Archbishop Curley High School, just a few blocks' walk from his home, in 1978, a strong student and capable athlete in three sports. But during his freshman year at Ohio Wesleyan University, one professor berated Pitts, saying he "wasn't Ohio Wesleyan material."

An English professor, Ulle Lewes, encountered Pitts sitting on the steps to her department's building, near tears, as he attempted to fill out withdrawal papers. She persuaded Pitts to stay on campus, tutoring him in language skills. She also encouraged him to pursue his desired goal - landing a job in television news. He subsequently enrolled in speech pathology courses to address his stammer, which recurs infrequently.

After a brief stint in advertising, Pitts took jobs at local stations in Greenville, N.C., Hampton Roads, Va., Tampa, Fla., Orlando, Fla., Atlanta and Boston before joining CBS News in 1997. At each stage, he consciously worked to improve his standing in the profession. He owned three televisions and VCRs, so he could tape news programs from all three network affiliates to analyze what worked and what didn't. He chose Boston, he says, because it was a city known for good writing at its television stations, but also because it was known as a city hostile to blacks.

Racial stereotypes only drove him to work harder, Pitts says. "They were called too arrogant. They 'didn't work hard enough.' They 'don't write well,'" Pitts recounts of the labels he heard applied to black network correspondents. "I was determined that those things wouldn't be said of me."

They aren't.

When he's not traveling, Pitts shows up for work routinely between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m., adopting the work ethic of CBS anchor Dan Rather - among the reasons he was dispatched to cover the attacks on the World Trade Center that September morning. He was assigned to cover the execution of Timothy McVeigh, and he served as a media witness, describing for others what he saw. In Nicaragua, Pitts employed a personalized style, inspired partly by Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes, to evoke the devastation visited on survivors of floods last year. He also did a 10-minute profile of Harry Belafonte that ran on Charles Osgood's CBS News Sunday Morning.

"The reason he's doing so well, and his range is so tremendous, is that he's both a good journalist and a wonderful storyteller," says Jim Murphy, executive producer of the CBS Evening News.

His skills and his drive run hand in hand.

When Pitts headed to Afghanistan, his wife, Lyne Pitts, offered him these words: "I know why you want to go, but you have to understand, you are being incredibly selfish, because you have a wife and kids." That said, Lyne Pitts - until recently the executive producer of CBS' Early Show - sent him on his way.

He explains his actions simply, based on the same impulse that has taken him from East Baltimore to the nation's media capital: "I want to be a player at CBS News."

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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