Byron Pitts recalls meeting with fellow “60 Minutes” correspondent and broadcasting legend Dan Rather before Pitts was to go to Afghanistan. “Who are the people you love?” Rather asked Pitts. After thinking about it and responding, Pitts said Rather continued, “Write them a letter and tell them you love them. Because when you go to a place like Afghanistan, you might not come back.”
Pitts discussed Rather, “60 Minutes” and other television matters recently in an Atlanta Press Club speech (10/13/09). And his tone was markedly different from the attack mentality that often prevails on “60 Minutes.” For instance, Pitts was open about his Baptist faith, and he told of being diagnosed as functionally illiterate in his youth. So he is appreciative of his position and the obstacles he has had to overcome.
His parents separated when Pitts was 12 in Baltimore, and he was left in the care of his mother, Clarice. It was a hard world, where he was bullied, where he had a stuttering problem and where a therapist once diagnosed him as “retarted.” … “Whenever I see a young person run afoul (of the law), I think there but for the grace of God go I.”
But he eventually attended Ohio Wesleyan. His television background includes a stint at WSB in Atlanta. “I don’t believe in the boostraps theory,” Pitts said. He was told as a youth that if you want to make it in a “white world,” you have got to get along with the people.
“If there’s something you want in life, claim it,” Pitts said. “I said I wanted to be a correspondent on ’60 Minutes’ by the time I was 45. I made it when I was 48, so I was a bit (ticked),” he joked.
That has given him an insider’s view of a long-running program and some of the well-known journalists who have made happen. He described Diane Sawyer (now with ABC) as “elegant … unlike Mike Wallace, she never undresses anyone in an interview.” Pitts described Sam Donaldson as “abusive and mean” and the late Ed Bradley as “a black man when there were not many blacks on TV.” Yes, it’s a hard-nosed environment. “If you are going to be on “60 Minutes,” you’ve got to be comfortable with profanity,” he noted.
Rather, whose career was derailed by the controversial and inaccurate report on former President Bush’s National Guard service, was described as a good friend, honorable and a hard worker. “Perhaps management allowed him to be too out front,” Pitts said. “If you are going to take down the king, you have got to be sure that every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ is crossed, and that wasn’t done.”
Pitts said he likes to pursue “physical stories” for “60 Minutes.” “I like to go places where it’s hard to get to, and I like people with small stories.” He said searching for truth is not enough, that he also tries to add “context and perspective.”