Byron Pitts, co-anchor of ABC News’ “Nightline” and ABC News contributor, will give the keynote speech at the Caregiver Education Conference hosted by the Center for Outreach in Alzheimer’s, Aging and Community Health at NC A&T University in Greensboro on Oct. 27. The conference is free to all pre-registered participants, including lunch, parking, respite care and health screenings. To pre-register, call Terri Long at 336.285.2165 or 888.248.2808, or visit coaachhealth.org to pre-register. The registration deadline is Oct. 22.
Pitts spoke to City Beat about his experience of caring for his mother, who suffered from dementia, during her final years in Wake County, and about getting his start in broadcast in Greenville and the future of journalism.
Your mother suffered from dementia before she died. Can you talk about what that was like for your family?
My mom’s name was Clarice Pitts. She was from Apex, NC, which is in Wake County.
My mom passed away about seven years ago now. Cancer ultimately took her life. The last several years she developed dementia. It was difficult for our family. My mother was the strong matriarch. She was the one you called on in times of crisis and celebration. She didn’t call on you in times of need.
The roles change for caregivers. Often times that is traumatic. I remember often times telling my children: “The woman you see now is not the woman who raised me.” You would see the changes in her personality — the times when she wasn’t engaged and in a fog. Other times when she’d be very angry, for no apparent reason. Moments of memory lapse when she forgot events. She never forgot people, even though she forgot events.
Then for her family, which included her children and her siblings there is an emotional toll it takes on you. As family members, there is an emotional cost. This is a woman who was educated in sociology at Morgan State University. She spent the bulk of her professional life as a social worker. This vibrant, independent mind was slowly slipping away.
She sent her children to college. She owned her own home in North Carolina. She was very independent. Near the end the extent beyond what insurance covers takes a toll on the family. Dementia and Alzheimer’s has been known to damage families. In our case it only made our family stronger.
At the end of her life, several family members came together to care for her. That includes, in no particular order, my sister, Saundra Judd, who lives in Clayton; my brother, William Pitts, who lives in St. Peters, Mo.; his wife, Karen Pitts, my mother’s daughter-in-law, would come to help. At the time, I lived in New Jersey. I would go. My wife, Lyne Pitts, would go to look after her. Her siblings, who all lived in North Carolina. Diane Moon, who also lives in Apex, would look after her. Albert Walden, her brother, is a retired Army sergeant. Her sister, Gladys Sanders, who is closest in age to her, lives in Raleigh. Other cousins in the family would prepare her meals and go sit with her to watch her favorite soap opera. People worked to keep her engaged.
My sister organized a very structured schedule so that whoever came could plug in. It might be a different person, but her day was very structured. She encouraged us to make notes about any changes we observed. Like my mother, she has worked as a social worker in the bulk of her life; she’s now retired. She used those skills to help my mother.
Everyone was encouraged to do what they already did well. My brother is a tinkerer. He likes to tinker with cars. He likes to repair things around the house. So he would do that when he came. Me, I can’t fix anything. I can barely unscrew a cap off a bottle. I could read to her. I could drive her around. I could make her laugh. That was my job. Her sister, Gladys, who was closest in age to her, would reminisce about things in her childhood. Other siblings, part of their time would be talking about great memories they had.
You were operating at the top of your profession, which is very demanding. How were you able to dial back your professional commitments to help meet the needs of a family member?
It gave my professional life greater clarity and context. It reminded me I would not have had my career if not for my mother. This woman — and my siblings — gave us everything that she had, and so it was important to work hard to figure out that balance. I know what great pride my mother took in my professional success. I knew that mattered. I knew that even in her declining health, it gave her joy to see me on television.
How did you get involved with the Caregiver Education Conference?
They reached out to me. They knew through a family friend about my family history.
For many families, there may be some measure of embarrassment and shame. Unlike some other illnesses you can’t see it. People don’t lose weight. They’re not restricted. I remember sometimes going with my mother in doctor’s visits, when it was clear that… there was something not quite right with this women. I remember seeing people who may have felt pity or looked down on her. Inside, I’m screaming, “Don’t you know this is a college-educated woman who sent three children to college, and owned her own home?” On a few occasions I expressed that in a pretty direct way.
Your first job out of college was at a news station in Greenville, NC. Can you talk about what it’s like to start in a small market, and how it shaped your career in broadcast journalism?
My first job was at Shaw University in Raleigh. I couldn’t get a job for a year out of school. I wasn’t good enough, whatever it was. I kept sending out resumes and tapes. My first job in broadcast was at WNCT in Greenville. It paid $8,600 per year before taxes. That was very little money then and now.
My mother is a Christian woman, and a woman of great faith. Her favorite scripture was James 1:2, which says, “Count it all joy.” What it means is that whatever your experience, it’s happening for a reason.” In a job in a small market, making very little money it was great because when you don’t make any money you know you’re doing it because you love it. I had clarity that this was absolutely what I wanted to do. The saying is, “To thine own self be true.” Knowing who I was — a fairly shy kid from a working-class family, college education, sure — I didn’t know much about the world. I wasn’t particularly well read. There was value in starting in a small place where I can make mistakes — mistakes that would get you fired in a place like Atlanta or Boston.
Professional deadlines are one of the important lessons in journalism. I’ve missed deadline twice in my career. The first time I missed a deadline was in Greenville. It was because I didn’t manage my time well that day. I remember the anchor woman coming to me after the show very upset. She said, “Byron, that might have been the greatest piece in the history of television, but it doesn’t matter if you’re not ready.” The other time was when I was working as a correspondent at CBS. We didn’t make air in time because our satellite truck broke down, and there was no way we could get the tape out. I felt awful about it, but it wasn’t my fault; there was nothing I could do about it.
You get to make mistakes you get to build confidence. I was able to get a little better. I gained more confidence to take greater risks. Working in small markets don’t mean there aren’t talented people. I worked with a guy named Slim Short. I don’t know what his first name was, but his on-air name was Slim Short. He did farm reporting. In eastern North Carolina, that was as legitimate as being the police reporter. He had perfect sense of timing. They would say, “Slim, we need a minute and 45 seconds,” and he would do it on the nose without a stopwatch or anything. Then they would say, “We need to cut it down to one minute and 20 seconds.” And he would say, “Okay, let me do that over again.”
As a broadcast journalist, understanding time is really important. But he also taught me — he really listened to people. He wouldn’t go to things with preconceived notion. He was respectful of people.
Larry Stogner, he was the anchor at WTVD in Raleigh, he was a great writer and he had great presence in television. When I sign off each broadcast of “Nightline,” I always say, “Thanks for the company.” That line comes from Larry Stogner. He died a couple years ago.
Now, as I look back on it, my job is very compartmentalized. There are only — now they call them MMJ — mixed media journalists. Back in my day, they called them “one-man bands.”
I am not a photographer. When I was in Greenville, I still had to do my own photography. Now, I have a driver. I remember driving myself, and having to get direction and maybe getting lost on the way to the assignment.
Can you talk about the value of good writing in broadcast journalism?
I went to Ohio Wesleyan University. At the time, it was primarily known for print journalism. The dean was heartbroken when I told him I wanted to go into broadcast. He wouldn’t talk to me for six months.
I love to write. It surprises me sometimes how many people in television take the writing parts of the craft for granted. It’s important to know how to tell a story. There are people who understand the production quality, and they have great presence. If you can write, you can overcome a lot of the other things.
You’ve covered so many big stories, including the 9-11 attacks. Since then, it seems like history has accelerated. The first question is, do you ever feel exhausted by the relentless pace of history? The second question is, how do you put your best foot forward to be ready for the next big story, whatever it may be.
There are moments where I feel exhausted by the pace of things. Then, as my mama taught us: “I count it all joy.” I’m blessed to work in this profession. As hokey as it sounds, I get to be an American journalist. The hardships we face don’t compare to the hardships journalists in other places in the world face. I don’t have to worry about getting killed because of my journalism.
When I was a younger journalist out of college, it was important that people like me. I learned that’s not part of my job. Certainly I try to be civil and carry myself as a gentleman. There’s a lot of negativity aimed at journalists. My attitude is, “That’s okay.”
If you go back to the civil rights movement, for journalists — black, Jewish, or a white woman from Michigan — going into the South could be dangerous. I went to Afghanistan. I remember talking to Dan Rather; he went to Vietnam. He was like, “That’s what we do.” Certainly things in the past 20 years have happened at a fast pace.
I’m mindful that’s part of what it means to be a journalist. I take seriously the notion that we provide the first draft of history. The world is always tumultuous, always a hopeful and always a dark place.
I recently read a book on Ulysses Grant. The president has been assassinated. The new president is tearing apart Reconstruction. It looked like we could go back to some form of slavery. We had the birth of the Klan. It’s always been that way. In some ways, as journalists, we’re like that kid in 10th grade chemistry. We’re there just figuring it out. That gives me energy.
As an African-American man, it breaks my heart when I see these images of men who look like me being gunned down by police. As a father of daughters, when these things come out that are all part of the #MeToo movement, it breaks my heart. As a person of faith, when I see sexual abuse in the church or misuse of faith to justify extremism, that breaks my heart. But every bad place I’ve been, whether it’s Haiti or Indonesia when there’s a typhoon, I’ve found good people there.
My great-grandmother, she said, “The truth may hurt, the truth may be funny, but the truth is always the truth. Good and decent people can handle the truth.” Even in this era of Trump and fake news, I still believe that if you give them true and accurate information, most reasonable people can handle the truth.