How a Functionally Illiterate Kid can Grow Up to be a ’60 Minutes’ Correspondent

By Gail Shister 

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Look for Byron Pitts to be “60 Minutes'” next full-time correspondent.

“I fully expect to be full time in the next year or so,” says Pitts, a “60” contributor since January 2008 and CBS’s chief national correspondent. He joined the network in 1998.

Pitts would be only the second African-American full-time correspondent at “60” in its 42-year history. Ed Bradley, who served with distinction for 26 years, died in 2006 from leukemia.

Pitts’ stunning memoir, “Step Out on Nothing” — in which he reveals he was functionally illiterate until he was 12 — hits the stands today.

A full-time “60” gig was a deal-breaker for Pitts in his contract negotiations a year ago, according to CBS sources. He had several other offers, they add.

“For me, the goal at CBS News has always been to get to ’60 Minutes,'” says Pitts, 48, “It’s the reason I came here. It’s the reason I stayed here.”

“60” has been Pitts’ dream job since he was a student at Ohio Wesleyan. While shooting the studio open for his first piece, he got so choked up it took seven takes. This season, he will do as many as 10 stories, he says. A full load is 14.

“60’s” current lineup includes five full-time correspondents, including Morley Safer, 77, who has cut back sharply on his workload. The last person to break into the full-time roster was Scott Pelley, in 2003.

Though Pitts “has never been that private” about his childhood illiteracy, he acknowledges that many will be shocked by the book’s revelations. (He also stuttered until he was 20, but only when he was “very nervous or very angry.”)

“People’s jaws drop when I tell them,” says the East Baltimore native. “Most people know me for where I am, not where I’ve come from.”

As a youngster, Pitts was labeled “slow” or even “stupid” because of his difficulty with reading. Painfully shy, he faked his way through by memorizing “enough to get by,” he explains. When his problem was finally discovered, “it was the only time I had seen my mother cry,” he says.

Pitts’ friends had been urging him for ages to write a book, but he was resistant. When a Washington Post piece a few years ago prompted a call from a book agent, “I said, ‘I have a full and exciting career. I don’t have time for it, thank you very much.'”

But when he was deluged with calls, letters and emails from teachers, people in prison and members of Congress (including John Kerry) who identified with his struggle, Pitts decided to pursue the project.

“Thirty million people in this country are functionally illiterate,” he says. “It’s a pain and a shame I know well. I thought it was a story worth telling.”

Five publishing houses bid for the book, he says. “It was pretty heady stuff,” Pitts admits. “For me, it was one more reminder of how fortunate I’ve been most of my life. Opportunities kind of come my way.”

A journalist baring his soul to the public has its downsides, of course, but Pitts, a religious man, is by nature an optimist.

“I look for what can be gained as opposed to what can be lost. It’s about making yourself vulnerable, putting yourself in places to tell the story.

“I was raised to believe in dreams, hard work, faith. I always believed I could get here.”