Pulitzer prize-winning columnist shares importance of ‘truthiness’
“Facts matter. Facts are the building blocks of truth. You can shade, stretch, color, pick and choose…but you can’t pull them out of a certain bodily orifice.”
This was the message Pulitzer Prize winner Leonard Pitts Jr. conveyed to a packed room of community members, faculty, staff, administrators and students during his guest lecture, “Owning What You Know,” on Feb. 23 in Ice Auditorium.
Pitts pointed to politicians, government officials, text books and everyday citizens who have been quoted for fudging and blatantly distorting the facts, whether it is about statistics, historical events or corporations.
Pitts dedicated his speech to Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, who stated on the Senate floor that abortions make up “well over 90 percent” of Planned Parenthood’s services, when in fact they represent about 3 percent. When confronted about the mistake, Kyl said his point was not meant to be factual.
“We are in the process of what I like to call the stupidfication of the United States,” Pitts said. “People feel free to say whatever they want. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. You don’t get to ignore facts that are inconvenient.”
To strengthen his point, Pitts shared an encounter he had with a reader who responded via email to his column about African-American World War I soldier Henry Johnson. Johnson, who was only 5’4’’, 130 lbs., single-handedly fought off about a dozen German soldiers, sustaining several injuries in the process. He was recognized by the media and former president Theodore Roosevelt.
Even with numerous sources and historical evidence, this reader still insisted that Pitts’ column was incorrect, claiming African-Americans were not allowed to fight in WWI and the date of the war was wrong. This reader also referred to the Germans as Nazis, even though there weren’t any Nazis in WWI.
Today, people are more concerned with winning the argument than persuading. It shouldn’t be about winning the argument and undermining each other, Pitts said.
“Some people have no respect for facts or intelligence,” Pitts said. “We are becoming a facts-free nation. Even journalism has joined the ‘non-factual hit job of America.’ “Car-accident journalism is good for ratings but it’s not illuminating.”
Another example Pitts used was about a high school class that was assigned to write an essay about Martin Luther King Jr. One African-American girl Googled Martin Luther King Jr. and found martinlutherking.org, quoting it in her paper.
However, what the student didn’t know was that the site is actually run by a white supremacist group. Pitts said he wasn’t horrified by the young lady’s laziness, but that she didn’t have the critical thinking skills to realize the untrustworthiness of her source.
Pitts said fear is often the basis of the problem.
“Fearful people by definition are not capable of critical thinking and are easily manipulated. This is true of the young and old,” Pitts said.
A lecture attendee, senior Greg Larson, said he was happy to see Ice Auditorium packed with only standing room left.
“I don’t think he made a new argument because there is already evidence of it…I liked the heart of his message, though. We need to get back to arguing with the same facts,” Larson said. “I don’t know how much will translate in McMinnville though because we are no New York. But, [Pitts] was eloquent and pithy.”
Pitts began his writing career at a young age. He drew inspiration from Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics and consciously imitated his style.
“I guess he is the one to blame,” Pitts said, referring to Stan Lee.
Spiderman is Pitts’ favorite character in American literature. If one follows Spiderman’s methodology, it’s a story of the underdog who conquers all. Peter Parker is a nerd, whereas Clark Kent pretends to be a nerd until he puts that “S” on his chest and becomes brave, Pitts said.
“Heroism isn’t about being fearless, it’s about doing the right thing even if you are scared,” Pitts said.
Pitts began his career as a music critic at the age of 18 for Soul Magazine, what initially started as a stopgap on his way to becoming a novelist. However, this lasted longer than Pitts anticipated after joining the Miami Herald as a pop music critic.
“Thank god I got out a few years before Britney Spears came to power,” Pitts said. “I would have enjoyed ripping her to pieces.”
Pitts switched his beat to column writing in 1994 because it was the only other job he felt qualified to do, and he liked the idea of commenting and having a voice in the country, he said.
Now, Pitts discusses social issues, pop culture, politics and family life.
One of Pitts’ most moving columns, “We’ll go forward from this moment,” sparked a worldwide response after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
“I wasn’t thinking about the audience reaction,” Pitts said. “I only had anger going through my mind. Anger and resolve. ‘We are angry and going to get you.’ At the time, we didn’t know who the bad guys were so I had to be general.”
This was one of Pitts’ faster columns. It only took him two to three hours to write. Usually it takes him about five hours.
“Anger has a way of clarifying and cutting through the clutter,” Pitts said.
Now, Pitts is set to release his newest book, “Freeman,” in May. It’s a love story about a former slave trying to reunite with his wife.
Pitts said he’s always wanted to write books, and it’s been an ongoing process.
“This is what I was put here to do. I’m lucky and blessed to have figured it out young,” Pitts said.
Pitts’ lecture left the audience captivated and moved to a standing ovation.
“Own what you know. Earn your opinion by sharpening them on others’. If owning what you know makes you question your opinion, it’s not the end of the world,” Pitts said. “Take responsibility for what you believe.”
Jessica Prokop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.