Matthew Felling: I remember "Boys in the Hood" back in the '90s. I remember the debate over midnight basketball leagues – urban violence was on the front burner. Those stories have abated, so viewers likely think things have improved. What are you seeing on the streets of America?
Byron Pitts: Truth be told, in most places, street crime didn't diminish. America's attention just went elsewhere. In Philadelphia, for example, they've had a steady increase in the murder rate in the past six years – with the expectation that it's going to go up this year. Already in Philadelphia this year, there's been one person killed per day. This past Sunday, five people were killed.
I spent some time with the Philadelphia Police Commissioner, a guy named Sylvester Johnson. An old school cop, a cop's cop. Been in the force for over 40 years. When I asked him 'What happened all of a sudden to make violent crime such a pressing issue?' He looked at me like I was crazy. He said 'Where have you been? It didn't just get bad yesterday or last year. It's been bad for a growing number of years.'
In the case of Philadelphia over the past few years, their police department has gotten smaller – while others, like New York City, have gotten larger. Philadelphia has some of the laxest gun laws in the country. We found that in a number of neighborhoods in Philadelphia, it's probably easier for a kid to get a handgun than a cell phone.
Matthew Felling: In your Philadelphia crime report, you spoke with an activist named Mel Watts. He said 'What's going on here is a war' and you challenged him on that terminology. What was going through your mind as a journalist when you did that?
Byron Pitts: When Mel and I did that interview, it was early on in our research time on the ground. And when he compared what was happening there to 'a war,' I rolled my eyes. I find when people make statements like that – 'a war on … something' – that it's an exaggeration. I've covered wars. And they are unique, and violent and dangerous … awful things. So when he pushed back, he made some good points. And the more time I spent in Philadelphia, the more I saw things that I'd only seen before in war zones.
I still think it's a frightening comparison to make. But there are some legitimate comparisons. I've spent time in Baghdad, where law-abiding people are afraid to leave their homes. I've certainly seen some situations like that in North Philadelphia, parts of Baltimore – where I was born and raised – Los Angeles, Minnesota, Chicago. That's a reality that goes on.
Matthew Felling: What do you want people to walk away remembering about your crime reports?
Byron Pitts: Most of the time, when a news person files a story about urban violence, viewers in a comfortable setting say 'oh, those people' as if it would never impact their lives. Or 'those people' are somehow different. We wanted to instill in the stories a sense of 'there but for the grace of God …' We wanted to show that there are law-abiding citizens there. There's a woman we met that works hard, she's excited her daughter's about to go to Temple University and get her college education. I've got a daughter going to college this fall, and I'm excited. A number of my friends, a number of people across the country can relate to her.
Her daughter was murdered, trying to put her key in the lock of her front door, coming home after a hard day's work. So we were trying to make the point that this isn't happening in a foreign place. These issues are happening in the United States.
We in network television spend considerable time and resources talking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well we should. But it seems to me that there are some violent things happening here in the United States that deserve our attention. In the past 6 years, 10,000 people have been shot in Philadelphia. Think of the old Boston Garden, it fit 19,000 people. Can you imagine, that we live in a country where there are cities with enough people who have been violently shot to fill more than half of that sports arena. And not all those people were thugs and gang-bangers or people involved in crime.
(Pitts then took a phone call to discuss the Michael Vick case.)
Matthew Felling: Since you took that call, and you're in Richmond on the Vick story … Tell me how you see the relationship between professional leagues and their athletes. Michael Vick's is a top-selling jersey. Allen Iverson's jersey is always in the top five, in terms of merchandise sold. Professional leagues push a "Bad Boys" image for their players, but when things get hot they distance themselves.
Byron Pitts: Bad boys have been a part of professional sports since [early football stars] Paul Hornung and Joe Namath. Sports marketing have always had affection for them. But in 2007, everything is more extreme than it used to be. Some athletes embrace the street culture, and there's good and bad that comes with that. Maybe now, though, marketers have pushed that line and gone over it.
Matthew Felling: [Football star] Ray Lewis and [NBA star] Kobe Bryant had heavily-publicized criminal proceedings, and their images and careers have rebounded to an extent. Do you think that could happen with Michael Vick?
Byron Pitts: I've talked to some sports marketing people who say 'sure.' Ray Lewis has enjoyed success on and off the field since his arrest on murder charges. Kobe Bryant is still an all-star since his legal trouble. [Yankees star] Alex Rodriguez has been photographed with a woman who posed nude, who isn't his wife. And he's had an all-star season so far. When comparing Ray Lewis and Michael Vick, Ray Lewis went down this road. But shortly after clearing charges, Ray Lewis won a Super Bowl. American sports fans still love their winners. Many sins can be forgiven if you win. Fast-forward to Michael Vick: If he is found not guilty of these charges, I still think his sports career is up in the air. Michael Vick is damaged goods today. But if he is cleared of these charges and wins a Super Bowl? All is forgiven, think many sports fans.
Matthew Felling: We've moved a bit far afield. Getting back to the Philadelphia crime story, though … what did you want to convey?
Byron Pitts: The story of Philadelphia, in my mind, was about guns and about violence in America. We went as narrow and deep into Philadelphia as we could, but what is true in Philadelphia is true across the country – the availability of illegal guns to all people, the surge in violent crime. Some people want to ignore what's going on in cities like Philadelphia and then raise their arms and shout after what happens in Connecticut, or what happens in Columbine. There are issues in our country that some want to dismiss as race issues or class issues. What I hope we've achieved is to raise a flag and remind people that there are serious issues in our country, and that Philadelphia is not an isolated case and it's not unique to any one community of America.