Weehawken students and Elks members buzzed around serving food to a roomful of local press, educators, and residents at the Elks Lodge’s 64th annual “Press Night” on Monday, Oct. 24. Mayor Richard Turner discussed a recent news report that said he receives five paychecks, and also talked about the town’s plans to buy and preserve a local reservoir. CBS World News Correspondent Byron Pitts, a new Weehawken resident, spoke of his many journalistic achievements and the importance of honesty in the press. Veteran helicopter pilot Chris Quimby, who returned from Iraq 12 weeks before press night, explained how lucky Americans are to have free press at all.
The atmosphere was light, celebratory, and serious all at once as Elks Chairman Dom Facchini presented the speakers.
“Journalistic integrity is vital to the health and welfare of every democracy.” –Will Lenchus
Three members of Weehawken’s Kids Witness News—Ruchi Amin (11), Johnny Marrero (12), and Daniel Sanchez (13)—sat at the press table with the club’s teacher at Weehawken High School, Jon Hammer. They had the opportunity to interview Pitts and Quimby, and were honored by Mayor Turner as representatives of the future generation of journalists.
Mayor Turner talks paychecks and reservoirs
“[Turner] has been our mayor for the last 60 years or so—very hands-off, very relaxed, and very calm,” Facchini said as he passed the microphone, accompanied by the audience’s laughter.
“The press is always trying to scare politicians,” Turner said, and as he pointed to the members of Kids Witness News, he added, “You can’t believe anything the adults say.”
Speaking of the press scaring politicians, Turner chose Press Night to address the matter of the five paychecks that a news website had reported he received. “I’m here to categorically deny this,” he said, and answered to each one.
Turner said he never collected a salary when he served as chairman of North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue for 11 years. He denied the alleged $48,000 he was said to have earned as a consultant for West New York Mayor Felix Roque. He called the salary he receives from the town of Weehawken as part-time mayor a “pittance” ($8,000 per year) and said that the pension he receives from the state after retiring as business administrator of West New York under former Mayor Albio Sires was falsely reported. And finally, Turner stated, “I do get a salary from the federal government, but I want you to know it’s been frozen for six years.” The salary is for his current work as district director for U.S. Representative Albio Sires.
After each denial, a member of the audience ran up to the podium carrying a tote bag full of fake money bearing Turner’s face, much to the enjoyment of the attendants.
He also announced that he and Mayor Brian Stack were in the process of purchasing a 14-acre reservoir that borders on 20th Street, Highpoint and Gregory avenues, from United Water. The towns received $2 million in grants toward the purchase, and Union City and Weehawken will be splitting the rest of the $9 million selling price with low-interest loans.
Turner said that when the Department of Environmental Protection saw the property, they urged him and Stack to save it from buyers who wished to build apartments there. “We want to preserve it as it is—it will help with property values,” Turner said, because it’s a “very beautiful piece of water in the middle of a very [dense] urban area.”
Weehakwen honors Byron Pitts
Turner welcomed CBS World News Correspondent and new Weehawken resident Byron Pitts to press night. Pitts’ journalistic career has been extensive, but his journey there was not the smoothest. “[Mine] is a story that can only be told in America,” he said. “All of us have a story to tell: people who overcame tremendous odds to allow us to live our dreams.”
Pitts was born in East Baltimore when his mother was still in high school. He didn’t learn to read until he was 12, and he stuttered until he was 20. When he was in elementary school, therapists declared him “mentally retarded” and recommended he be institutionalized. His mother refused, and he went on to graduate “thank you lordy” (which he said instead of summa cum laude) from the prestigious Wesleyan University. After that, he began a career in journalism.
In 1998 he was named CBS News correspondent in Miami, Fla., and eventually became a CBS Evening News reporter and “60 Minutes” Contributor in New York City in 2011. He won an Emmy for his coverage of Sept. 11, 2001, plus two more Emmys.
Pitts has, perhaps, the perfect journalistic resume. It bursts with the heaviest-hitters over the years: he has covered Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, Hurricane Katrina, Elian Gonzales, the Florida “chad” issue and subsequent electoral recount, the mudslides of Central America, the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Indonesia, and (deep breath), he witnessed the execution of Timothy McVeigh. Pitts has been to 39 countries, covered three wars, and watched 49 people die.
The man who didn’t learn to read until age 12 has also written a book about facing life’s challenges. He maintains an optimism for the future of the field.
Pitts became a journalist to get at the truth, he said. He has been to many countries where the privilege of freedom of speech—and therefore access to the truth—simply does not exist. “What we as journalists must always remember is that the power we have is in the words,” he stated, “not in the technology we use to transmit them.”
And passionate, well-informed opinions are okay, too, he said. It’s the lack of opinion that scares him. “I’ve seen over the years that indifference is a deadly weapon. Don’t take that for granted.”
Pitts left the audience with one last bit of advice, and it’s safe to say that with it he leads by example: “If you work hard, you can do anything you want to do.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org/a>