☰ Menu
The HeldenFiles Online

Don Hewitt, R.I.P. (Updated)

By admin Published: August 19, 2009

From CBS:

60 MINUTES will devote its entire hour this week to the news magazine’s creator and former executive producer, Don Hewitt, who passed away today at the age of 86. The special 60 MINUTES program will be broadcast Sunday, Aug. 23 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.

The 60 MINUTES correspondents are working on individual segments that will tell the story of the legendary newsman’s life, lasting contributions to the television news industry and especially their favorite stories about their boss and his times at 60 MINUTES.

The hour will be produced by 60 MINUTES Executive Producer Jeff Fager.

"You can look in Marilyn Monroe's closet if you're also willing to look in Robert Oppenheimer's laboratory." -- Don Hewitt

He was at Murrow's side on the first telecast of "See It Now." He oversaw the Kennedy-Nixon debate (which he thought was a terrible thing for politics). He was the inventor of "60 Minutes" and its mastermind for many years. He could be combative, especially with the print media, but also with his colleagues when the quality of a story was at stake. You can't write a serious history of TV news without mentioning him more than once. The full death announcement from CBS is after the jump. After the CBS announcement I have posted the column I did on Hewitt when he stepped down from "60 Minutes" in 2004.

Don Hewitt, recognized as a father of modern television news and the creator of the medium's most successful broadcast, 60 MINUTES, died of pancreatic cancer today. He was 86 and had homes in Manhattan and Bridgehampton, New York, where was with family at the time of death.

Hewitt was executive producer of CBS News, the title he took when he stepped down from his post as executive producer of 60 MINUTES in 2004.

Hewitt’s remarkable career in journalism spanned over 60 years, virtually all of it at CBS. As a young producer/director assisting at the birth of television news, it was usually Hewitt behind the scenes directing legendary CBS News reporters like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, using a playbook he had to write himself. He played an integral role in all of CBS News’ coverage of major news events from the late 1940s through the 1960s, putting him in the middle of some of history’s biggest events, including one of politics’ seminal moments: the first televised presidential debate in 1960.

Hewitt produced and directed coverage for the three networks of the debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, an event that instantly transferred the political king-making powers print news once held to a new and more powerful medium where appearances mattered. Critics have long maintained that Kennedy won the debate because he looked better. As Hewitt recalled in many interviews, he offered makeup to Kennedy first, who refused. Nixon, following Kennedy’s cue, also refused. But the suntanned Kennedy was a vigorous contrast to Nixon, whose pasty complexion put his five o’clock shadow in high relief. Hewitt often rued the day as the first step in the dangerous dance between politicians and the special interests that provide the big money to buy the now crucial political television advertising.

Hewitt also directed the first network television newscast, featuring Douglas Edwards, on May 3, 1948. He was the executive producer of the first half-hour network newscast when the “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite” became the first to go to a 30-minute format on Sept. 2, 1963. Among Hewitt’s innovations was the use of cue cards for newsreaders, the electronic version of which, the TelePrompTer, is still used today. He was the first to use “supers” – putting type in the lower third of the television screen. Another invention of Hewitt’s was the film “double” – cutting back and forth between two projectors – an editing breakthrough that re-shaped television news. Hewitt also helped develop the positioning of cameras and reporters still used to cover news events, especially political conventions.

Hewitt had seemingly done it all for broadcast news when he topped those achievements by producing his magnum opus, the television news magazine 60 MINUTES – a new concept that changed television news forever and became the biggest hit in the medium’s history. “His real monument is 60 MINUTES,” said another broadcasting legend, the late Roone Arledge, when he presented Hewitt with the Founder’s Emmy in 1995. “He is truly an innovator in this business…[the news magazine] is an innovative format no one had done before. It’s been copied all over the world…He’s been a leader in our industry. He has inspired all sorts of people,” said Arledge.

Hewitt’s idea for 60 MINUTES was to break up the traditional hour documentary into a three-segment magazine – a Life of the airwaves. It would work if he and his team could “package an hour of reality as compellingly as Hollywood packages an hour of make-believe,” Hewitt often recalled. His first step was to pick a “white hat” and a “black hat.” Hewitt put the black hat on the grand inquisitor, Mike Wallace, and made the avuncular Harry Reasoner the white hat to launch his news magazine on Sept. 24, 1968. The broadcast ran in various time slots for several seasons before a focus on investigative stories and a permanent home on Sunday nights -- running after CBS’ football coverage -- helped 60 MINUTES catch fire with the public. Critics praised the unique program and it won awards right from the beginning, but the move to Sundays proved crucial. After its first full season in the 7:00 P.M. slot, 60 MINUTES became a top-20 hit in 1977. The next year, it was a top-10 hit, a rank it would reach 23 straight seasons – a record no other program ever approached. Two years later, in 1980, it was the number one program, a feat it would achieve five times – a record only matched by “All in the Family” and “The Cosby Show.”

As Hewitt’s correspondents exposed crooks, drilled to the core of a celebrity or interrogated world leaders and newsmakers, 60 MINUTES became an unprecedented success, drawing legions of faithful followers who planned their Sundays around the program. Even when CBS lost its NFL contract in 1994, putting its former lead-in audience on another network to compete against it, 60 MINUTES was still a huge hit, finishing number six for the 1994-95 season.

Hewitt always had stock answers to questions about what 60 MINUTES’ secret was. He often told journalists, “It’s four words every child knows: Tell me a story.” He sometimes wondered if people flocked to 60 MINUTES as to church on Sunday for redemption from a week of watching entertainment programs. He sometimes said it was people’s interest in the adventures of his correspondents that made it so compelling. But he also admitted it was the talent of his staff, saying he never hired anyone who wasn’t smarter than himself.

Hewitt liked to say that 60 MINUTES’ success was not the best thing to happen to the small screen. Especially later in his life, he railed about how his news magazine changed television for the worse. News programs were never supposed to make money, he argued, and the minute they did, the pressure was on for news to get ratings. The quest for ratings led to more sensational topics on an increasingly larger number of broadcasts. Indeed, as soon as 60 MINUTES broke the top 20 in 1977, a parade of imitators began and, at one point in the late ‘90s, nearly 30 percent of the top 20 programs were news magazines. Hewitt began to say publicly that “behind every news magazine there is a failed sitcom” – the networks were using the format to cover their mistakes, not the news.

But 60 MINUTES never really suffered from the glut of competitors, relying on its quality reputation. "It's an institution," Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post television critic Tom Shales told People for a 1995 profile of Hewitt, "and it's twice as good as its nearest imitator." 60 MINUTES' audience was also much greater than that of any other news program and attracted the biggest stories, which often made 60 MINUTES a shaper of events. When Gov. Bill Clinton wanted to address questions about marital infidelity plaguing his democratic presidential nomination in 1992, he came to 60 MINUTES, where he and his wife, Hillary, appeared on a post-Super Bowl special edition viewed by 34 million people. His conduct during the interview was widely credited with winning him the nomination and the presidency. Dr. Jack Kevorkian didn’t fare as well when he brought his case for euthanasia to 60 MINUTES in 1998. The tape he made of himself lethally injecting a terminally ill patient shown on the broadcast brought Kevorkian a murder conviction and Hewitt much criticism for putting on what critics called a ratings stunt. It was the first time a “mercy killing” was shown on American television and it spurred debate for weeks – exactly, argued Hewitt, what good journalism was about.

Good journalism could also exonerate the innocent, and 60 MINUTES did this many times over the years. When pressed for 60 MINUTES’ finest hour, Hewitt cited the Lenell Geter story in 1983. Geter, a young man sent to jail for life for a robbery in Texas, was freed after Morley Safer's report discredited evidence and used eyewitnesses to prove he was innocent.

60 MINUTES’ lowest point, said Hewitt, was the Jeffrey Wigand story, the interview with the highest-ranking tobacco executive to turn whistleblower that was held back by CBS management in fear of a $10 billion lawsuit that could have bankrupted the company. The initial spiking of the interview, in which Wigand revealed tobacco executives knew and covered up the fact that tobacco caused disease, led to an unusual 60 MINUTES segment. A portion of it, with Wigand disguised, was broadcast, followed by an unprecedented rebuke of management read on the air by Mike Wallace. A few months later in February 1997, CBS allowed the Wigand interview to be broadcast. A film about the incident, “The Insider,” was made in 1998. Hewitt said at the time that he had no choice but to comply with management, or quit in protest, opting instead to “fight another day.” In a 1998 documentary about him, “Don Hewitt: 90 MINUTES on 60 MINUTES,” broadcast on the PBS series “American Masters” for his 50th anniversary at CBS News, he allowed that he wasn’t proud of his actions during this episode.

Donald Shepard Hewitt was born Dec. 14, 1922 in New York City and grew up in the suburb of New Rochelle, N.Y. During high school there, he worked at the town’s weekly newspaper, covering his school, and was also a track star. His running earned him a scholarship to New York University. After a year, he dropped out of NYU to pursue his dream to be a reporter and landed a job as copy boy at the New York Herald Tribune. When the U.S. entered World War II in 1942, Hewitt joined the Merchant Marine, which made him a war correspondent at the age of 20 and the youngest posted to Gen. Eisenhower’s London headquarters. He covered the D-day invasion and the war in the North Atlantic and the Pacific. He returned in 1946 to become, briefly, night editor for the Associated Press in Memphis, and then editor of the Pelham (N.Y.) Sun, before becoming an editor for Acme News Pictures, the photo division of the wire service United Press.

His picture experience prompted a friend in 1948 to tell him about television, where CBS News had a job opening. “Whatavision?” was his response to the call, he often told reporters years later. But he took the job as associate director, even though most journalists regarded the fledgling medium as a fad. He remarked later that after seeing the cameras and lights at CBS News, he felt “like Dorothy in the Emerald City.”

Hewitt’s pluck and personality became legend as he quickly rose in the news division, becoming director and producer of “CBS TV News” in 1949, as well as just about every other program CBS News put on the air. He began inventing the wheel, coming up with the techniques he needed to improve the infant broadcasts – even suggesting anchor Douglas Edwards learn Braille to read the news on air before finally settling on cue cards. Hewitt contributed significant ideas to covering the first televised political conventions in Philadelphia in 1948 and Chicago in 1952. In Chicago, he noticed the pushpin letters on a diner’s menu board and bought it to construct the first on-screen “supers,” used to identify the various speakers at the convention. It was at that same convention that the news term “anchor” began to be associated with Walter Cronkite – the new star reporter CBS News executives wanted their convention coverage to revolve around.

Hewitt also directed and produced iconic events, such as the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth. It was the first same-day coverage of a foreign event and it was achieved by editing the film aboard a chartered flight home. In 1956, Hewitt and his cameraman arrived late and missed the opportunity to film the slowly sinking Andrea Doria, but sweet-talked a pilot to take them over the ship – just in time to be the only crew to film it as it dramatically disappeared below the water. He also produced and/or directed regular CBS News programs besides Edwards’ nightly news, including Murrow’s “See It Now” and “Person to Person,” plus others, like “Omnibus,” throughout the 1950s. In the 1960s he directed coverage of events like the early space launches and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hewitt’s boldness in the highly competitive news business was legend. He once became a deputy sheriff to get closer than his competition to the visiting Nikita Khrushchev. And in perhaps the most publicized incident, Hewitt found a lost copy of NBC’s coverage playbook at the 1964 Republican convention and pocketed it with the intention of using it to scoop his competitors. He gave it back after an NBC producer, it is said, threatened to throw him out a hotel window. Hewitt’s colorful style clashed with the staid nature of another CBS News legend, Fred Friendly, and led indirectly to Hewitt’s creation of 60 MINUTES.

Friendly was named president of CBS News in 1964 and, in December of that year, a few months after the NBC playbook incident, he removed Hewitt from his role as executive producer of the “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite." Despite the fancy title Friendly bestowed on him -- Executive Producer of Live and Taped Documentaries -- Hewitt knew he was off the front lines. Exiled with time on his hands, Hewitt then slowly emerged with the idea for what would become the most successful television program in history. About a year later, he began showing anybody who would take the time the 60 MINUTES pilot comprised of three hour-long documentaries cut down to 20 minutes each that he said would be a new news format, a magazine for television.

If there was an achievement he was as proud of as 60 MINUTES, it was his Frank Sinatra documentary. Broadcast in 1965, it was the most intimate portrait of his life and art that Sinatra ever allowed. Hewitt said he got the reluctant entertainer to agree to it, even though he could not pay him any money, by baiting him with a challenge: Could he sit and answer questions from Cronkite -- the same newsman American presidents had sat down with? Over the years, Hewitt periodically cut down the hour so it could be broadcast in the event of Sinatra’s death. Instead, CBS broadcast the entire hour of “Sinatra: Living with the Legend” in May 1998 as a news special after the entertainer’s death.

Hewitt wrote two books, Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television (Public Affairs, 2001), and Minute by Minute (Random House, 1985), about 60 MINUTES.

Hewitt won every major award numerous times and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1990. He was the recipient of many honorary degrees, among the most prestigious was the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Journalism from Harvard University he shared with the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward in 1992. He also won the Paul White Award in 1987, the highest honor bestowed by the Radio and Television News Directors Association, and the President’s Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Overseas Press Club in 1998. As executive producer, he shared in all of 60 MINUTES’ awards, including 13 Peabody Awards won by the broadcast during his tenure; he won two others, one awarded directly to him for his body of work in 1988 and shared another with CBS News in 1958. 60 MINUTES won several Alfred I. DuPont/Columbia University’s Awards, including the highest broadcast honor, the Gold Baton for him and the broadcast collective in 1987-88, scores of Emmy Awards – including a special Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 2003 and The Founder’s Emmy in 1995. The Founder’s Emmy citation reads, “Awarded to the creator of 60 MINUTES for a body of work crossing geographic and cultural boundaries to touch our common humanity.”

For the past several years, he had been involved in a variety of broadcast projects, mostly outside of CBS, including producing a primetime documentary about the Radio City Music Hall’s annual Christmas show.

He is survived by his wife of 30 years, Marilyn Berger; two sons, Steven and Jeffrey and his wife Nancy; daughter Lisa Cassara and her husband, William; stepdaughter Jilian ChildersHewitt, adopted by Hewitt, who was the daughter of his second wife, Frankie (nee Teague) Hewitt by her first husband Bob Childers.; three grandchildren: Balin Hewitt, Connor and Jack Cassara. Frankie Hewitt and Hewitt’s first wife, Mary Weaver, both predeceased him.

Funeral services will be private.

“In the history of journalism, there have been few who were as creative, dynamic and versatile as Don Hewitt. The depth and breadth of his accomplishments are impossible to measure, because since the very beginnings of our business, he quite literally invented so many of the vehicles by which we now communicate the news. He will be missed by our entire industry, but most of all by his many, many friends at CBS both past and present who continue to be inspired by his professionalism, grit and dedication to the truth.” Leslie Moonves, President, CBS Corp.

"Don's creativity, drive and outright enthusiasm were an inspiration to everyone at CBS News. He shaped the television news business from its earliest moments through the creation of his masterwork, 60 MINUTES, which is still a vibrant and successful symbol of his colossal influence." Sean McManus, president, CBS News and Sports

“It is a sad and difficult time for all of us who work at 60 minutes. Don was a giant figure in our lives and will always have an impact on this broadcast - there’s a part of him in every one of us, and it affects every decision we make. He will be remembered as a brilliant editor and story teller, an irrepressible force who changed journalism forever. Those of us who knew him and worked with him will remember him simply as a great guy to be around. He was full of life, usually armed with a joke, and he always found a way to make our stories better. I will miss Don very much.” Jeff Fager, executive producer, 60 MINUTES

(end CBS material) Here's my column:

Don Hewitt is fond of summing up his programming philosophy as "tell me a story."
It's not that simple. It should be, "Tell me a story with a great celebrity, a good scrap or both."
That, at least, is Hewitt's legacy as he steps down as executive producer of 60 Minutes later this month.
That show is by far the most successful news magazine in television history. It still attracts more than 14 million viewers a week. Hewitt is the rare news producer who has also been portrayed in a movie -- The Insider, where Philip Baker Hall played him.
Hewitt doesn't think much of the movie, which dealt with 60 Minutes's struggle to get a story with tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand on the air. ("While reporters have an obligation to the truth, movies don't," he said in his autobiography.)
But 60 Minutes has survived the occasional scandal for almost 36 years. And it's not the only TV milestone in the life of the 81-year-old news impresario, which will be celebrated in a CBS special at 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Go back and look at the first installment of See It Now in 1951, the groundbreaking TV news magazine hosted by the legendary Edward R. Murrow. There's Hewitt at his side.
Think of the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, where two presidential candidates had to stand on the same stage and face American TV viewers. Hewitt was in charge behind the scenes.
He has been at CBS more than half a century and took some pains to tell the press he is not retiring just yet.
He is moving to a bigger office. ("Bryant Gumbel's old office," he said. "It's so big, it's known as Bryant Park.")
Hewitt will also have a new title: executive producer of CBS News.
"I'm not going anywhere in the foreseeable future," he said, "however long that future turns out to be. . . . Would I like to sort of relax a little more than I have? Sure. Will I be around if I'm needed? Yes."
And needed for what? "Being a general pain in the ass," he said. "Hanging around trying to give whatever wisdom I think I've gathered over 55 years at CBS."
Hewitt, whose famous temper can be seen in an old clip on Tuesday's special, will make sure everyone knows he's still around. Noting Hewitt will now be on the floor below 60 Minutes, CBS News President Andrew Heyward said, "He'll be tapping a stick on the ceiling."
Not that Hewitt is proud of everything he has done in TV. The Kennedy-Nixon debate, he has said, "is the worst night that ever happened in American politics.
"That's the night that politicians looked at us (in TV) and said, 'Those guys are the only way to run for office.' And we looked at them and said, 'That's a bottomless pit of advertising dollars.' "
So politicians needed both to tailor their message to TV and to have the money to buy ad time. As a result, Hewitt said, "Every time people congratulate me for that broadcast, I get a little uneasy."
Still, a rough cut of the CBS special included clips from Murrow and from the debate.
It also has Hewitt's mantra in the title: Tell Me a Story: The Man Who Made "60 Minutes." (Hewitt, who still writes those tight little 60 Minutes promotional spots, probably could have come up with something better.)
The special includes Hewitt at a table with the current 60 Minutes stars -- Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Steve Kroft and Lesley Stahl -- to reminisce about great moments from the show. Some of the stories and the accompanying clips are pretty good, although many of them have been told before (including in Hewitt's 2001 memoir called -- you guessed it -- Tell Me a Story.)
But the story also provides a glimpse of Hewitt's fascination with the famous. In one clip, he chats up Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to get a photograph with him. At the press conference, as well as in the special, Hewitt spoke fondly of such 60 Minutes profiles as George Burns, Lena Horne and Muhammad Ali. And in the special, the other correspondents comment on the way Hewitt would show up for the big-ticket interviews.
He didn't find those profiles inconsistent with the show's other missions, such as looking at global politics, righting injustices and exposing con men, cheats and sleazy businessmen.
"You can look in Marilyn Monroe's closet if you're also willing to look in Robert Oppenheimer's laboratory," he said.
But what about Britney Spears' closet?
"Of course I'd do Britney Spears if she has something to say," Hewitt said. "What is she going to say? I don't want to do Britney Spears because she's Britney Spears."
If Spears was in the middle of a really good, public fight over something, Hewitt might relent. When the show went into war zones, when it tried to root out scams, when it recently put prominent critics of the Bush adminstration on the air, it was just looking for a scrap.
I got a close look at Hewitt's pugnacious side about 20 years ago, when he held a press conference in New York City. Things weren't going well for CBS or CBS News then. (Hewitt once briefly tried to make a deal to buy the news division and run it independently.) He needled the critics, even suggesting that TV should do regular scrutinies of newspapers -- before declaring that no one would watch that.
It seemed like a testy exchange. But not long after, I saw Hewitt on the street, chatting up a friend, grinning and gesturing as he recapped the press conference. He had obviously had a ball.
And why wouldn't anyone argue, if the ideas are important? Hewitt is so passionate about his show, he fought for years to keep CBS from putting on 60 Minutes II because he feared the second show would not be as good as his. Although he lost the fight over the name, he is satisfied that the second show aims as high as his.
"I have never flown off the handle in my life that I haven't apologized five minutes later," he said. "If you settle for less than excellence, there's something wrong with you."

The HeldenFiles Online Archives




Heldenfels' mailbag

  • Main Blog Promo
  • Cavs Blog Promo
  • Browns Blog Promo
  • Indians Blog Promo
  • Beer Blog Promo
  • Fracking Blog Promo
  • High School Blog Promo
  • Zips Blog Promo
  • Akron Dish Food Blog
Prev Next