CBS's Late Bloomer

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 7, 2007 7:32 AM

NEW YORK--Byron Pitts was chatting with students at a Harlem charter school the day before a recent visit by President Bush when the CBS correspondent had a realization: They viewed him as just another empty suit who couldn't possibly understand their problems. Little did they know.

"When I was your age," he told them, "I couldn't read."

That was no exaggeration. When Pitts was 12, officials at Baltimore's Archbishop Curley High School summoned his mother to report that tests had determined her son was "functionally illiterate." She broke into tears.

"It was humiliating. It was awful," Pitts says. "You sort of live your life in disguise. . . . When you live in the 'hood, you have to wear a mask." Pitts didn't even consider his inability to read his biggest problem; he was far more upset over his constant stuttering.

How Pitts overcame that inauspicious start to excel in a profession built on writing and speaking is as good a story as any that he has covered. To this day, at a public event he will fight to get one of the first copies of a press release because he needs time to digest it. He says his wife can finish a book three or four times as fast as he can.

"I'm not ashamed of my reading difficulties, but I'm aware of my slowness," says Pitts, 46.

When he was young, Pitts says, he memorized his reading assignments with help from an older brother and sister as they did their homework at the kitchen table. If he had to read aloud in class, he would commit a few sentences to memory and then raise his hand at the right moment. Since he was quiet and polite, Pitts says, teachers mostly left him alone.

His mother, Clarice, who after a divorce raised the kids as a single mother, says she knew Byron had problems in the third grade, but says authorities at his Catholic school conducted psychological tests and said they could find no problem. At home young Pitts preferred watching television; the only reading material regularly in the house, he says, was Ebony, Jet and the Bible.

After the diagnosis at 12, she sent away for a machine that her son had seen advertised on television that provided help with phonics and other basic reading skills.

Pitts says he began to make progress after that and became a B student in high school. His mother, who was working in a factory making London Fog raincoats, had something to do with his improved grades.

"I told him he couldn't play Little League football unless he got a B or above," she says. "I had the same rule in high school. He really started studying hard because he wanted to play football."

But Pitts remained in remedial reading classes, and things got harder when he got to Ohio Wesleyan University.As he struggled on academic probation, a freshman English teacher told him: "Mr. Pitts, you're wasting my time and the government's money. You're not Ohio Wesleyan material and you shouldn't be here." Pitts walked away in tears and went to the administrative office the next day to withdraw.

Ulle Lewes, who ran the writing resource center, happened to be walking by. "I saw this young man very despondent on the steps," she says. When Lewes asked him what was wrong, he showed her the research paper that had elicited the scolding. She agreed to help him, and soon concluded that Pitts had a fine analytical mind but poor training.

"What he did was extraordinary," Lewes says. "I loved his commitment. It was a beautiful thing in someone so young. . . . That cruel freshman teacher almost squashed him."

Pitts also got help from a fellow dorm resident, Peter Holthe, who agreed to help correct his papers. "He wanted to be a journalist, but he didn't have the writing skills," Holthe recalls.

They roomed together during sophomore year, when Pitts decided to pursue a broadcasting career. "He had a horrible stuttering problem," Holthe says. "I said: 'Okay, dude, this is harder. You've got to learn one new word from the dictionary each day and pronounce it properly, and we're going to play like you're on the radio.' "

Holthe never imagined that Pitts could work for a major network: "He was a black kid from the wrong side of the tracks in Baltimore. I'm a privileged white boy from Minnesota. I thought we could get him to the point where he'd be functional in society."

After graduation, Pitts says: "I told my mother I'm going to be a network correspondent by age 35. We prayed about it." While he was working at Atlanta's WSB-TV, "CBS called on October 22, 1996, the day after I turned 36."

Some of the early scars still linger. Pitts says he still stutters from time to time. And he has not forgiven his father for leaving the family when he was 7, several years before his parents divorced. "I've told him: 'When I was a boy, you didn't have time for me. Now that I'm a man, I don't have time for you.' "

Pitts, who has now put three of his four children through college, hasn't forgotten his early struggles. He spoke about his early difficulties when he gave a commencement address at Ohio Wesleyan last year.

He insists he is not angry about the school system failing him. "There are stepping stones in life," Pitts says. "Everything you perceive as bad is God preparing you for some task."

The Murdoch Exclusive

Nothing frustrates David Faber more than when someone says of one of his scoops: "Oh yeah, you aggressively picked up the phone."

The CNBC reporter beat the world on Tuesday morning by disclosing that Rupert Murdoch was trying to buy the Wall Street Journal's parent company, Dow Jones. Faber nailed that story the way he gets most of his exclusives: by working the elite circle of bankers, lawyers and executives who are involved in such deals.

"It starts with one person saying one tiny thing, and then another person gives me something, and then I call a third person," Faber says. After talking to five sources on the bid to buy Dow Jones, he called Murdoch's News Corp. for comment. "People called and told Rupert, 'Faber's got it,' " he says. In this case he beat one of his biggest competitors--the Journal itself--on a story unfolding in its building.

After 13 years at CNBC, Faber has Wall Street pretty well wired. In recent months, he broke news of the biggest leveraged buyout in history -- a $45 billion takeover of the Texas energy firm TXU -- and the Blackstone Group deciding to go public with a $4 billion offering.

But his role has broadened since the late 1990s, when he and Joe Kernen bantered about stocks on the morning show "Squawk Box" during the market boom that sent CNBC's ratings ever higher -- until the bubble burst. Faber left the program last year, and was relieved to do so when the start time was moved up to 6 a.m.

Now he occasionally appears on NBC and hosts the monthly CNBC magazine show "Business Nation," where he is working on a story on the faltering music industry. He books interviews with top corporate executives, such as his chat last week with Carl Icahn. And Faber has done five documentaries for the cable network, the most watched of which--"The Age of Wal-Mart"--won a Peabody and a Dupont award. While taping a documentary on the fall of WorldCom, he landed an interview on a Mississippi street with CEO Bernard Ebbers -- which was later used in the trial that convicted Ebbers in an $11 billion fraud.

At times he has thought of giving up journalism for investment banking. "I've been watching people amassing enormous wealth, people I know pretty well," Faber says. But he remains at CNBC's Englewood, N.J., headquarters, trying to unearth the next big deal.

"I love the hunt," Faber says. "I love breaking stories. I still love it."

Footnote: How does a newspaper justify telling its journalists not to talk to other journalists? Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger urged his staff to refer all media calls to spokesman Robert Christie. Christie says such orders are "typical" because "Dow Jones is the target of a potential acquisition." But that didn't happen when Tribune Co. was sold recently, and is disappointing for a company whose reporters ask other people to talk every day.

Now to politics: Everyone and his brother has an opinion about the GOP debate. The 10-man matchup may quickly be forgotten, by not by the punditocracy. Roger Simon says Mitt won:

"Mitt Romney achieved almost everything he wanted to achieve.He looked and sounded presidential. He hit his talking points. And voters who knew nothing about him before the debate except that he was a Mormon, came away knowing a lot more.Romney cannot alter the way he has changed his stance on things like abortion.All he can do is face up to that and say he has changed his mind. Which he did. And he gave some red meat answers that primary voters often like."

At National Review, Mark Hemingway found one question for Romney profoundly unfair:

"He was good on his own merits, but it certainly helps that he was on the receiving end of the most asinine question of the night about whether or not the government should interfere when Catholic churches deny Communion to pro-abortion politicians . . .

"You'd think that the separation of church and state is enough of a cherished American value that no one, let alone a candidate for president of the United States would have to seriously answer that question. Unfortunately, Romney is seen by many not foremost as a presidential contender, but as a Mormon and therefore odd and suspect. It can't be a coincidence that that particular inquiry was directed at him."

Peggy Noonan says Giuliani didn't get it done:

"Mr. McCain seemed alert, and full of effort. Somehow he seemed both high-energy and creaky. He uncompromisingly supported fighting it out in Iraq. He also had the best line of the night. When Mitt Romney was tagged for saying catching Osama is not of pre-eminent importance--"It's more than Osama bin Laden"--Mr. McCain quickly pounced. 'I'll follow him to the gates of hell.' Go, baby. But there was something 'Poignant Echoes of the Past' about his performance. He didn't make it new, but I think he made it more moving.

"Mr. Giuliani seemed unsure at first, and was badly lit, or badly made up since he had the same lighting as everyone else. He did not make a strong impression until he spoke on abortion, and then it was a bad one. He seemed to support overturning Roe v. Wade and also not overturning it. Whatever. He shouldn't be surprised by such questions, and should have enough respect to have thought it through. His New York riff seemed tired. His problem is the same as Hillary Clinton's. Both of them do well by themselves. Both seem diminished when standing and vying with others. They are solo acts.

"The statuesque Mr. Romney had a certain good-natured command, a presidential voice, and a surprising wiliness. He seemed happy to be there, and in the mysterious way that some people seem to dominate, he dominated. He had a quick witted answer when Mr. Mathews asked him if the Roman Catholic Church should deny communion to pro-abortion politicians. What, said, Matthews, would he say to the bishops? 'I don't say anything to Roman Catholic bishops,' he said. "They can do whatever the heck they want!" He deftly flipped it into a church-state issue. He did some light-handed and audience-pleasing Clinton bashing, and was confident on stem-cell research. But he was weak on Iraq, predictable, like someone who knows the answer that polls right with the base. How can you be utterly banal about a war, and such a controversial one?"

The New York Sun's Ryan Sager says Rudy really didn't get it done:

"Winner: Mitt Romney. Loser, by a mile: Rudy Giuliani. Treading water: John McCain.

"Mr. Romney: If anyone stood out from the other candidates, in terms of looking polished and poised, it was clearly Mr. Romney. He got off some of the best lines of the night, partially because Chris Matthews gave him some oddball questions . . . He, more than any of the others, managed to sound reasonable and assured no matter what he was saying. He's still got a major flip-flopping problem, and basically lied about it during his answers on abortion. But any casual observer of the debate (were there any non-junkies watching?) would probably have to view him as head-and-shoulders above the others.

"Mr. Giuliani: At this point, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the Giuliani campaign is in a full meltdown. The former mayor simply wasn't himself on that stage, trying to contort himself into something the religious right can accept, while at the same time refusing to pander to them in any way that would actually help him win the nomination. Basically, he was offending them while seeming terrified of offending them. His answer on abortion will go down as one of the worst moments of either debate so far this season -- just painful to watch.

"Mr. McCain: Maybe it's because I've seen too much of him recently, but Mr. McCain was really relying on a lot of canned lines at this debate, and it was grating. He didn't embarrass himself like Mr. Giuliani, but he didn't distinguish himself either. He may be the tortoise in this race. But it's no fun watching him plod."

Rudy in full meltdown? After one early-season debate?

Here's an interesting tidbit on Keith Olbermann and Rudy:

Olbermann's popularity and evolving image as an ideologue has led NBC News to stretch traditional notions of journalistic objectivity. The danger for MSNBC is provoking the same anger among Republicans that Democrats feel toward Fox News Channel.

Jim Geraghty flunks the Hardball guy:

"Who the hell thought Chris Matthews would make a good moderator? I thought he interrupted the candidates too much, got into this bizarre tussle with Huckabee over a comment he gave to George Stephanopolous, basically brought his whole hyper, over-caffeinated Hardball persona, and it just wasn't the right tone for the debate that introduces so many of the candidates to the public for the first time. The questions from the Politico were a joke, including asking Thompson to name the exact number of casualties in Iraq. Absolute sandbagging; if the Democrats won't go on Fox, the GOP should tell MSNBC and the Politico to go to hell."

Bush's approval rating "has sunk to 28 percent, an all-time low for this president in our poll," Newsweek reports. Lowest for a White House occupant since Jimmy Carter in 1979.

Here's something I didn't know about GOP savior Fred Thompson, from a Nashville Tennessean profile: "a used-car salesman's son, a kid who by all accounts was an unimpressive student and who married before he graduated from high school after getting his girlfriend pregnant."

The Boston Globe finds another suspicious angle in the U.S. attorneys saga:

"Todd Graves brought just four misdemeanor voter fraud indictments during his five years as the US attorney for western Missouri -- even though some of his fellow Republicans in the closely divided state wanted stricter oversight of Democratic efforts to sign up new voters.

"Then, in March 2006, Graves was replaced by a new US attorney -- one who had no prosecutorial experience and bypassed Senate confirmation. Bradley Schlozman moved aggressively where Graves had not, announcing felony indictments of four workers for a liberal activist group on voter registration fraud charges less than a week before the 2006 election.

"Republicans, who had been pushing for restrictive new voting laws, applauded. But critics said Schlozman violated a department policy to wait until after an election to bring voter fraud indictments if the case could affect the outcome, either by becoming a campaign issue or by scaring legitimate voters into staying home."

At Justice, Scholzman "came into conflict with veteran staff over his decisions to approve a Texas redistricting plan and a Georgia photo-ID voting law, both of which benefited Republicans."

And here's a story the western press must have missed, but which Pravda digs out:

"American radio icon Don Imus disgraced, fired after threat to reveal 9/11 secrets."

It's seriously weird. Maybe they spend too much time hanging around with KGB agents.

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