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Leonard Pitts Jr. On How He Responds To Critics On Twitter: "I Give Back What Readers Give Me"

Miami Herald
Leonard Pitts Jr.

Sometimes Leonard Pitts Jr., the nationally syndicated Miami Herald columnist, wants to change your mind. Sometimes he just wants to scream about the things that bother him. He says that may be the case when he's writing about President Trump. Currently, he's in a Twitter spat with Senator Marco Rubio.

"He and I (went back and forth) about his claims that Trump supporters sort of held their noses and voted for Mr. Trump despite his bigotry and misogyny," Pitts said Wednesday on Sundial. 

On the program, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner talked about his craft, what inspires him, dealing with critics, and a neat story about the moon.

WLRN: Where did your love of writing come from? When did it start for you?

Pitts: It's funny because people often ask me ‘when did you decide to be a writer?’ and I never am able to answer the question because I never did decide to be a writer. I knew that I was a writer when I was five years of age, and you know I used to tell people that and I'd see the shocked look on their faces till I got older and had kids of my own and realized how young five is. But nevertheless when I was a kid of five I said that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to be a writer who was good enough that people would want to read them. So outside of my family achievement, that’s probably the proudest thing for me in my life - that one, I was a writer, but two, I was a writer that was able to make some kind of living at this for 42 years.

What do you want to accomplish with your work? Are you just documenting life for future generations or are you trying to ignite change?

It depends on the piece of work. I guess whatever work you're doing the bottom line is that you're trying to communicate something, you're trying to communicate an idea. Certain columns you’re trying to change their mind, you’re arguing a point. Certain columns are just primal scream columns; a number of my columns about Donald Trump have probably fallen into that category where there's just a need to vent. And there's observational columns or softer columns. I did a piece on looking at the moon. It was a change of pace for the readers but frankly it was also a nice change of pace for me to be able to just write about something that had nothing to do with race, culture, politics, gender identity, or any of the other touchstones of division that we have in this country.

Reading your Twitter feed is interesting, especially how you handle critics. Is that something you learned over time or is that just your natural way of dealing with them?

I guess it's natural. I never thought it was anything special but people keep telling me about my Twitter feed and I'm going to have to go back and look and see what it is that I'm doing. But essentially I give back what I perceive ... the readers [are] giving me. If it's something thoughtful I try to be thoughtful in return. If it's something snarky and nasty, well I've got that gear. I think I explained to somebody on Twitter once that you know I'm a black guy who grew up playing the dozens in south L.A. So if it's just going to be a game of insults, I'm pretty well armed for that. So let's not do that. Let's try to do something else. But if you want to do that you know here I am.

I wanted to come back to this column you wrote recently about this film of filmmakers Wiley Overstreet and Alex Gorosh. They were in L.A. with a telescope letting people look at the moon.

I don't know if you've seen the film, it was a really beautiful little film. They travel around L.A. and they ask people to look in the telescope and look at the moon. Some people would come up and ask ‘what’s that?’ because it's a telescope and it's an odd looking thing for those of us who have no idea what a telescope actually looks like. It's a very odd looking contraption and people come up to them and want to look at it and everybody is amazed and say the same thing (“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God”) at the closeness and the newness of the moon. It's just the point that I was making - that sometimes we all ... get so entrapped in looking down into the detritus of our own lives and into the differences that exist between us both real and superficial, into our own problems and the stuff that we deal with, that we forget sometimes to look up and to look out from ourselves. And I thought that movie was a great way of making that point in a non-preachy and maybe even non-obvious way.

Luis Hernandez is an award-winning journalist and host whose career spans three decades in cities across the U.S. He’s the host of WLRN’s newest daily talk show, Sundial (Mon-Thu), and the news anchor every afternoon during All Things Considered.