CBS News veteran Byron Pitts says he jumped ship to ABC for three reasons, in order of importance: “God, diversity and Diane Sawyer.”
Pitts, 52, the lone correspondent of color on “60 Minutes” and a CBS staffer since 1997, officially joined ABC yesterday as chief national correspondent. He begins April 15.
In addition to reporting, Pitts will anchor prime-time news specials as well as fill in as news reader on “Good Morning America” and on weekend news. He signed a four-year deal with a “significant” salary bump, he says.
A devout man, Pitts prays over all major decisions. ABC was no exception. “For me, God is the ultimate closer,” he says. “Once I felt I had His blessing, it was full steam ahead. I’m grateful for my time at CBS, and I’m excited about this opportunity grace has provided.”
In the Gospel According to Pitts, diversity ranks a strong No. 2. In his talks with ABC News president Ben Sherwood, Pitts says he was impressed that Sherwood made a point to bring up his (Sherwood’s) commitment to the hot-button issue.
“It was encouraging to have a network executive talk to me, openly and with enthusiasm, about the importance of racial diversity,” says Pitts. “I never had that conversation at CBS.”
Not with his division leaders, anyway.
Pitts says he and CBS Corp. chieftain Les Moonves have discussed diversity, and he admires Moonves’ passion about it. As for CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager and his lieutenant, David Rhodes, here’s how Pitts puts it:
“I don’t want to seem critical. They were certainly nice and supportive of me. But the facts are the facts. Sixteen years ago, when I joined CBS, there were 10 people of color on the air. Now there are seven. Why is that? It’s discouraging. America is becoming more diverse, not less diverse. “
According to CBS News spokesperson Sonya McNair, CBS has “more than double” Pitts’ estimate of seven correspondents of color. “We wish Byron well,” she adds. ABC News has a total of 29, says division rep David Ford.
Because Pitts “cares deeply” for CBS, he wants his alma mater “to be reflective of the America we all live in. If our mission statement is to cover the world, we need to look like the world.”
Ditto for the cable news networks, whose all-white prime-time lineups Pitts labels as “shameful. Anyone who says they can’t find talented people of color or women for these jobs is lying to themselves or lying to the people they’re talking to. It’s just no longer possible.”
As for Diane Sawyer, Pitts has long admired the “World News” anchor. At ABC’s initiation, the two met for lunch. (When it comes to wooing talent, Sawyer learned from the best — the late, great Roone Arledge. Pitts never had a chance.)
“I’ve always been a huge, huge fan,” he gushes. “She’s a gifted journalist, a trailblazer, with real humanity in her work. I love her style.” Like Pitts, Sawyer had walked away from “60 Minutes,” where she had been the first female correspondent, to join ABC.
Not that it was easy for Pitts to leave “60.” It was his dream job; one he had prayed for as a teenager watching the late Ed Bradley.
“My prayer since I was 18 was, ‘Lord, make me good enough to work at ’60 Minutes’ someday.’ Those are the exact words. … My prayers were answered. My faith constantly reminds me that God can see beyond our greatest desires for ourselves.”
Amen. Now we’ll see if ABC’s prayers were answered.