Pulitzer Prize-Winner Leonard Pitts Jr. Discusses Politics, Journalism, Truth

The Gerald M. Boyd Lecture Series Honors Alumnus Who Served as First African-American Editor of The New York Times

By Ashley Rhoades

Columbia, Mo., (Oct. 6, 2016) — Nationally syndicated columnist and author Leonard Pitts Jr. was honored as the guest speaker for the Gerald M. Boyd Lecture Series on Politics and Press Responsibility Sept. 23. He spoke to a capacity audience in Fisher Auditorium at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Gerald M. Boyd Lecture Series 2016
Nationally acclaimed columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. spoke on current issues of today’s media and press responsibility during the 2016 Gerald M. Boyd Lecture.

Pitts, a columnist for the Miami Herald, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary and currently writes an opinion column twice a week that appears in multiple periodical publications throughout the U.S. His open letter to the terrorists after Sept. 11, titled “We’ll Go Forward from This Moment,” gained nationwide attention and generated more than 30,000 emails.

“He’s a journalist, and he’s a columnist, which allows him a bit more latitude to explore issues and the underlying assumptions,” said Brian Steffens, director of communications for the Reynolds Journalism Institute, who organized the lecture. “He’s proven himself to be an astute observer with a common sense approach to addressing complicated issues.”

In his lecture, Pitts covered topics on politics, journalism and “truthiness,” a term coined by Stephen Colbert that describes a truth that is not based in fact but “comes from the gut.”

Pitts used the controversy surrounding where President Obama was born as an example to explain how “truthiness” is affecting our country. According to Pitts, at one time, one in five Americans and 72 percent of Republicans believed that Obama was not born in the U.S., although his American citizenship is proven by his birth certificate.

Pitts asserted in his lecture that our media is skewed by what the public wants to believe, which is further complicated by people who believe anything they read on the Internet. Because the Internet offers anonymity and provides extensive reach, Pitts noted that it has become easy for anyone to make outrageous claims that people will believe.

Gerald M. Boyd Lecture Series 2016
Attendees of the Gerald M. Boyd Lecture Series raise their hands as they are asked if they have ever cut out guest speaker Leonard Pitts Jr.’s column and hung it on their refrigerator.

He encourages people to know that they should earn their opinion and that one should possess some intellectual honestly to earn their belief.

“That was probably my favorite line,” said Philip Schaefer, who attended the event. “I think that was an insightful and challenging statement that should have a person think and read to be well informed.”

Despite all of the corruption and inconsistencies he sees in politics and the media, Pitts referenced Anne Frank and her belief that people are good at heart. Every day Pitts says he strives to be as fair and balanced as possible.

“I try to use the right word in the right situation,” he said. “All I’m trying to do is to tell the truth as I see it.”

Pitts’ speech was given at this year’s Gerald M. Boyd Lecture Series, which was created in memory of the 1973 Missouri School of Journalism graduate. Boyd was the managing editor of The New York Times and managed the newsroom during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The following year The Times received six Pulitzer Prizes, the most a newspaper has ever received in a year. Boyd went on to receive many more awards, including the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism from the University of Missouri and being named Journalist of the Year in 2001 by the National Association of Black Journalists. He died in 2006 at the age of 56.

Updated: October 2, 2020

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