When Byron Pitts was chasing stories at Tampa's WFLA-Ch. 8 during the late 1980s, he was known as the station's go-to guy: a reporter who would get the job done, no matter what it took, by newscast time. • A cameraman buddy remembers how unflappable Pitts was when a man suspected of running a prostitution ring attacked the two of them with a baseball bat. Others recall pushing him away from an anchorman's career. With his knack for marrying words to pictures, he seemed born for network TV reporting. • So his old friends at WFLA weren't surprised when Pitts was named a correspondent at CBS News a decade later, joining the venerated TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes. • What some of them didn't know: The guy who was so hardworking, suave and professional didn't learn to read until he was 12. He also struggled with a severe stuttering problem until college.
It's a journey Pitts details with brutal honesty in his new memoir Step Out on Nothing, a surprising story of how he progressed from a functionally illiterate child in a working-class Baltimore neighborhood to a spot on TV journalism's most respected news team.
"Many people know me from CBS News and they assume they know my story," said Pitts, whose positive attitude often belies a ferocious professional drive. "I've never been the first pick for any job I've had — usually, I'm the third option — and I'm cool with that. I wrote this book for anyone who said 'You're not ready; you're not worthy.' "
Pitts recalls his time at WFLA fondly, where he worked the night reporting shift in 1988 and 1989. Joining the station as long-running anchors Bob Hite and Gayle Sierens got established, he relished joining a scrappy second-place station striving for No. 1 in a major market.
"For me, Tampa was a major turning point," says Pitts, 48, who came to WFLA after stints in Greenville, N.C., Norfolk, Va., and Orlando. "It was the first time I felt I was beginning to understand (being) a television reporter."
But for Pitts, who says he still reads more slowly than many people, success required a serious level of work.
In the book, he writes about trying to get news releases first, to digest the words. He would say (and sometimes even sing) his stories while writing to check phrasing. And he practiced in front of a mirror to learn how to hold his microphone.
All of which came as surprise to Dan Bradley, former news director at WFLA, who remembered Pitts as one of the best storytellers in his station.
"I'm going to use (former CBS Sunday Morning host) Charles Kuralt as an example," said Bradley, who now serves as general manager at WCMH-Ch. 4 in Columbus, Ohio. "Byron had a unique and uncanny skill to walk onto a scene, ascertain who the players were and put everything into a compelling story on a deadline."
Named for a phrase from a church sermon describing faith in God, Step Out on Nothing at times reads more like a sophisticated self-help book, as Pitts outlines the tremendous faith, support from his mother, fortuitous mentors and tremendous work ethic he leveraged to find success.
"I started doing research for speeches and found that it's estimated that there are 30 million adults in our country who are functionally illiterate — that's one in seven adults — and I realized, I'm not alone," said Pitts, who now speaks well enough that he recorded the audiobook for Step Out on Nothing. "We all know as journalists, sometimes you tell the big story by telling the small one."
Pitts' struggles with reading and literacy seem even more astonishing after reading Step Out on Nothing, a piercing account filled with the kind of evocative prose suited to a sprawling magazine piece.
One sample, featuring Pitts' description of mentor and college professor Ulle Lewes: "She was born to teach English. She taught it the way a good masseuse gives massages: with her entire body. During lectures, she would actually extend her arms in the air, rub her fingers together like a sculptor rolling clay, as if the words were alive in her hands."
Where did a TV guy with literacy issues learn how to write like that?
"Because reading came to me relatively late in life and speaking clearly came even later, I value the power of the written word," he said. "Oftentimes, we only appreciate the things we don't have."
The book contains a lot of journalism war stories as well, including details on an uncomfortable pep talk with Dan Rather before an overseas trip — the former CBS anchor told him to leave letters for loved ones where they could be found if he were killed — and a close call in Afghanistan that eventually reinforced his faith in God.
"At that moment, it hit me that God has been with me in every phase of my life," said Pitts, who was famously shown on CBS dodging gunfire while embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq when the statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down. "Since that moment, professionally, I've had moments when I've been frightened. But I haven't been afraid since then."
Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.