A Christian testimony was unexpectedly heard on Monday afternoon at CBS News headquarters in New York City. That I had not anticipated hearing such a witness discloses more about my expectations of national TV reporters than about national reporters themselves.
A common prejudice among Baptists and other people of faith is that the national media is hostile or at least indifferent toward authentic faith. Within my own Southern clan, I’ve often heard grumbling about CBS News, albeit something I’ve never fully understood. After hearing what I heard, I’m going to check my bias more quickly and think differently about CBS News.
What was it that I heard?
I heard Byron Pitts, a national correspondent for “CBS Evening News” and contributing correspondent for “60 Minutes,” tell some 40 Protestant and Greek Orthodox journalists and media producers that he carries his Bible in his backpack and does devotions in the morning.
Pitts’ impromptu remarks were made at the fall meeting of the National Council of Churches’ Communication Commission earlier this week.
The author of a newly released book, “Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life’s Challenges,” Pitts shared that he could not read until he was 12 years old and stuttered until he was 20. He said he was in his 27th year as a professional journalist.
His book title was based on a sermon he heard in his church.
“To nonbelievers, it appears that we are stepping out on to nothing, but we’re stepping out on our faith,” said Pitts, who is a Baptist.
“I’m proud of my faith. I don’t make an effort to flaunt it…because I’m also respectful of who I am professionally. I’m respectful of all faiths,” he said.
“I was raised in church. My faith is very important to me. I don’t see any conflict between my faith system and my professional responsibilities,” remarked Pitts. “I think fundamentally my job as a journalist is to search for truth and as a believer my belief is a search for a better understanding of what God wants me to do with my life. I’ve never thought those two things were in conflict.”
Then, Pitts told us what he called “a funny story.”
Before going to Afghanistan a few months after Sept. 11, 2001, Pitts recalled getting advice from a CBS anchor, who was one of his mentors. Knowing of Pitts’ faith practice, the newsman cautioned him against taking his Bible.
“My Bible is in my bag right now. I travel with it always. I do devotion in the morning,” said Pitts. He added, “As a professional, it’s my job to respect other people’s faith, their beliefs.”
He disregarded the anchor’s advice.
Late one night—in privacy—with his headlamp on, Pitts was reading his Bible when he saw several shadowy figures pass by. He thought they were some of his CBS colleagues. The next day, his Afghan guides asked him what book he was reading. They wanted to know if he was reading the Quran. Pitts answered that he was a Christian and had been reading his Bible.
A lengthy discussion ensued about Christianity and Islam. His Afghan associates said they were men of God and thought respectfully that he was wrong.
A few days later, Pitts said he and his Afghan associates were out on a story and moved too close to the front. Their vehicle was hit in crossfire. He was listening to Christian music and didn’t realize at first what was happening. When he did, he, too, put down his head and to calm his nerves put back on his headset.
When the tension ceased, Pitts said his Afghan companions asked him why he had been smiling. He said he told them “that’s what Jesus will do for you. He’ll make you laugh when you should be crying.”
I haven’t read Pitt’s book. If his informal and transparent remarks are any evidence of what’s in the book, it will be a rewarding read for people of faith.
One thing is for sure: I received an unexpected blessing in an unexpected place, the kind of experience that reminds me why prejudice or pre-judging always gets us into trouble.
Byron Pitts is a professing Christian and professional journalist whom I will be watching with a lot more interest.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.