Columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. fears America is turning into 1984

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Are Americans losing their comprehension of our history, as well as the essential truths that we need to understand to contend with our culture?

That was the underlying theme from a speech given last week by one of the most successful black newspaper columnists in the country, Leonard Pitts Jr.

The Miami Herald columnist (whose twice weekly pieces are syndicated around the country and can be found frequently in both the Tampa Bay Times and Tampa Tribune) had a lot on his mind in his nearly 40-minute speech that he gave at the Griot Drum Awards, the annual celebration of the best in local journalism highlighting people of color presented by the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists at the Westshore Marriot.

Pitts writes about a variety of topics in columns, but in the eyes of his critics, he told the rapt audience, he’s obsessed with race.

“We have evolved a weird paradigm in this country where a media professional who dares to break the conspiracy of silence on race is said to be ‘consumed’ by matters of race,” he said, adding that if he had a dollar from every reader and editor who told him he was “too black,” he’d be too wealthy to worry about readers.

The 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner spoke about the spread of ignorance in our culture and how it was important for the journalists in the room to be beacons fighting against the so-called “truthiness” running amok, quoting TV comedian Stephen Colbert’s infamous phrase from a few years back.

“Too much of our media is ‘truthy,’ he said, citing inaccurate memes that gained currency like the Obama administration had planned the children’s refugees crises at the border this summer, to ‘’Obamacare’’ killing a woman, to former Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachmann claiming the HPV vaccine caused mental retardation because a never identified “mother” told her so (uttered at a GOP debate at the Florida State Fairgrounds back in September of 2011).

“The truth is whatever the loudest voice says it is,” he lamented, adding that “we live in alternate realities. We have red facts and blue facts but fewer and fewer ‘fact facts’ and some of us like that just fine.

Speaking to a room filled predominantly with African-American journalists, the 57-year-old columnist said that such ignorance had profoundly dire consequences for blacks, twice saying that “If America has a cold, then African-Americans get double pneumonia with a bronchitis chaser.”

Pitts reflected on the sheer warp speed of how our culture has changed in the two decades since the world was introduced to the World Wide Web., pre-Google, pre-Twitter, pre iPhone, iPad, iPod and “iLife.”

“In other words, we face challenges in a nation far more complicated and radically transformed from when Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, but if you ask about the radical challenges faced by African-Americans in this fast moving and difficult new world, I would add to that list one more that’s gone largely unnoticed. We are losing our stories.”

He went on to quote some disturbing statistics regarding students from some of our most elite universities showing a disturbing lack of history. He said the country was in some ways not unlike the nation that Winston Smith, the protagonist in George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984, lived in.

“There was no objective reality. There was no objective facts. There was no objective truth. The truth is whatever the loudest voice says it is.”

But despite the despair, Pitts exhorted the journalists to continue to persevere and tell their stories. “You and I are paid to be the opposite of blind eyes and deaf ears.”

Pitts’ keynote speech was the highlight of an evening, which also was a tribute to the late Jetie B. Wilds, the longtime WTMP radio personality, La Gaceta columnist and community activist who passed away in September at the age of 74. The Griots also bring out a number of local print and broadcast journalists who are nominated for stories that highlight people of color.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.