CBS correspondent Byron Pitts visited Elon University on Sept. 20 with stories of triumph & tragedy from around the world.
By his own count, Byron Pitts has witnessed 49 deaths, “and I’ve seen people die in most its forms.” Soldiers killed in Afghanistan, people shot or strangled or stoned to death in faraway lands, men and women left to perish in their wheelchairs on the highway shoulders of New Orleans – even the lethal injection of domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh for his role in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
As a longtime journalist now serving as a correspondent for the CBS television news program “60 Minutes,” Pitts has made peace with his experiences. “I’m OK with it because it’s the choice I made professionally,” he said Thursday in a public lecture at Elon University. “What I’m not OK with is indifference.”
Indifference, he told his McCrary Theatre audience, was when good people sit back and do nothing to help solve problems or bring aid to other human beings. “I believe that indifference is a deadly weapon,” he added. “If you take nothing else from our conversation this evening, I want you to think about that.”
Pitts, a member of the School of Communications Advisory Board, was the first speaker this year hosted by Elon University’s Liberal Arts Forum, a student-run and Student Government Association-funded programs that brings to campus each year guests who foster conversations about current interdisciplinary topics.
In support of the 2013 Elon Common Reading program, Pitts discussed New Orleans, one of the most resilient communities in the United States. This year’s book, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, is a nonfiction account of the experiences a Muslim family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Speaking to a sold-out auditorium in a talk titled “We Are Tough and Delicate Creatures,” the award-winning newsman focused his remarks on the best and worst of humanity. He told stories of a children killed in Afghanistan, of his reporting from Lower Manhattan the day the World Trade Center fell, and of the failure of local government to protect it’s most vulnerable citizens when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Big Easy.
It was the contrast of New Orleans with the cultures that survived the Pacific tsunami only months earlier that sticks in Pitts’ mind. Where villagers around the world made every effort to identify and bury their dead right away, dead Americans lay on the streets for days as institutions and infrastructures failed.
The experience sparked advice for his audience.
“I think the average person should have a disaster plan. What we saw in Katrina … is that basically when something bad happens in your community, you should expect to be off the grid, on your own, for three days,” Pitts said. “Do you have a plan to take care of yourself? What we saw in New Orleans was a city, from the citizens to the government, that did not have a plan to take care of themselves. … The same thing can happen in Boston, in this community, in Chicago. It can happen anywhere.”
Pitts opened his remarks by praising Elon and telling students they attend what he considers to be the top communications program in the nation. “I am a believer that your communications schools is the best in the country by far,” he said. “Carolina? No. Syracuse? No. Missouri? No. It’s Elon.”
As he soon revealed, what was then Elon College in the late 1970s was one of two schools he considered attending. However, his mother was in North Carolina, which meant Elon wasn’t far enough away as Ohio Wesleyan University to satisfy his desire for space. “I loved my mama!” he quipped. “But I needed to get away for school.”
Pitts was named a contributor to “60 Minutes” and chief national correspondent for the CBS Evening News in January 2009. He had been a national correspondent since February 2006. The 2012-13 season is his sixth on the broadcast.
Pitts reported occasionally for “60 Minutes” before his appointment and his first story for the broadcast, a 2006 interview with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, made national news. Since then, his “60 Minutes” stories have ranged from war reporting in Afghanistan to celebrity and sports profiles to a report on an innovative educational approach for at-risk youth.
One of CBS News’ lead reporters during the Sept. 11 attacks, Pitts won a national Emmy award for his coverage. Later he was tapped to be a war correspondent, reporting on the invasion of Iraq as an embedded reporter and was recognized for his work under fire, including in the dangerous and chaotic scene in Baghdad when U.S. troops entered the city. Pitts also played an integral role in CBS News reporting other big stories, including Hurricane Katrina, the war in Afghanistan, the military buildup in Kuwait, the Florida fires, the Elian Gonzalez story, the Florida presidential election recount and the cholera epidemic in Haiti – where Pitts reported an Emmy-winning story for “60 Minutes”.
Pitts was named CBS News correspondent in May 1998 and was based in the Miami (1998-99) and Atlanta (1999-2001) bureaus before moving to New York in January 2001. Before that, Pitts was a correspondent for CBS NEWSPATH, the 24-hour affiliate news service of CBS News, based in Washington, D.C. (1997-98).
Pitts is the author of Step Out on Nothing, an inspirational autobiography chronicling his rise from a disadvantaged youth.
His other awards include a national Emmy for his coverage of the Chicago train wreck in 1999 and recognition from the National Association of Black Journalists as Best Journalist of the Year in 2002, the organization’s highest honor. He is also the recipient of four Associated Press Awards and six regional Emmy Awards.
Pitts was born in 1960 in Baltimore, Md. He was graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1982 with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism and speech communication. He lives with his wife in Weehawken, N.J.