Advertisement

Don Hewitt: Helping invent the wheel of TV news

If the only thing that Don Hewitt had done in his six decades starting at the birth of TV News was to invent the phenomenally successful "60 Minutes," he would still have been one of the most influential producers in the history of the medium.

But Hewitt's legacy extends well beyond "60 Minutes." To a large extent, each time viewers tune into a newscast, they are experiencing a Hewitt invention.

Advertisement

No one else in television has played a larger role in shaping the face of television news -- from nightly newscasts and prime-time newsmagazines to special events and election coverage. Hewitt's list of credits reads like the index of a television news history book. 

He began in 1948 as producer-director on the network's first 15-minute-long attempt at a nightly newscast, "Douglas Edwards with the News." He was also the director for "See It Now," Edward R. Murrow's landmark documentary series that ran from 1951 to 1958. When Edwards was replaced at the CBS nightly news anchor desk in 1963, Hewitt became executive producer of the "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite."

Under his direction, CBS became in 1948 the first television network to cover the national political conventions. Hewitt oversaw convention coverage every four years through 1980. In 1960, he directed the television debate between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon -- an event that, for better or worse, changed the way campaigns are conducted. He directed CBS' around-the-clock coverage of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, and produced coverage of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

And that list only takes his story up to 1968, when he invented "60 Minutes," television's most honored (75 Emmys) and most popular program (higher ratings than "Lucy," "Gunsmoke," "Cosby," "M*A*S*H" or "All in the Family").

"Don Hewitt can't be replaced," Morley Safer, a longtime "60 Minutes" correspondent, told me in an interview for a profile I wrote of Hewitt when he stepped down from the newsmagazine in 2004. "No one is going to have those kinds of instincts and that frenzied enthusiasm. The trick has been controlling him. If we didn't control him, we'd all be as crazy as he is."

There was no such thing as a television newsmagazine before Hewitt came up with "60 Minutes." "Dateline," "20 / 20," "48 Hours" are all made in its image. Beyond its award-winning-brand of watchdog journalism, "60 Minutes" has earned more than $2 billion in profit for CBS, annually contributing $100 million a year to the network's bottom line through the 1980s and 1990s.

"I don't think there is any disputing that he and Roone Arledge [the late president of ABC News] are the two most influential producers in the history of television news," said Andrew Heyward, then the president of CBS News. "Don doesn't like the "L" word, legend, and he doesn't like the "G" word, giant, but he is both. Having Don here is like being in the aircraft industry and coming into the plant every day and having one of the Wright Brothers on the assembly line."

This is one of my favorite Hewitt stories.

One morning in 1952, Hewitt was eating breakfast in a Chicago diner. In town to direct coverage of the Republican National Convention, he was puzzling over how to identify speakers at the podium without interrupting their remarks with a voiceover. Then he noticed a menu board with "little white letters stuck on a black background" on the wall.

"Bingo! It suddenly hit me: white letters superimposed on a black background is the way you superimpose names on the screen because the camera will not pick up the black, and you can superimpose that shot over anything you want to and show the letters and the picture simultaneously," Hewitt said.

When the waitress came to take his order, he said: "I'll have the board."

He bought it for $45 and within hours, the menu board -- and the concept of television subtitles -- made their national debut on CBS.

Part showman, pure storyteller, the irascible and iconoclastic Hewitt peppered his conversations with four-letter words, vivid imagery and allusions to Hollywood formulas -- many of the same elements that have come together to form the look and feel of 60 Minutes.

"I feel like I'm living a sort of movie life," he said to me in 2004 trying to explain his worldview. "I've always seen my life through the movies. I mean, I grew up with the movies. To this day, I'm not sure that you're here, and I'm here, and this isn't a movie. I mean that really -- I'm just such a child of the movies."

Hewitt's rise at the network was meteoric, but not without bumps. In 1965, at the age of 32, he was fired as executive producer of Cronkite's nightly newscast by Fred Friendly, another legendary figure who was then president of CBS News.

"Friendly called me one day and he said, 'Don, the Cronkite news is not big enough for you -- you're so much bigger than that. I'm going to take you off the nightly news and have a special unit.'" One of his new tasks was to rethink how the network presented documentaries.

"Now, I'm stupid enough to believe all that," Hewitt continues, "So, I leave Friendly feeling great, and I walk into the office of Bill Leonard, who's the vice president of CBS News and also my pal, and I say, 'Bill, guess what? Friendly just told me the evening news is not big enough for me, and he wants me to have a special unit all my own. Isn't that great?'"

"And Leonard looks up from his desk and says, 'Kid, you just got fired.'"

In his CBS memoirs, "In the Eye of the Storm," Leonard says Friendly felt Hewitt's "talent lacked depth and intellectual commitment." But true to form, Hewitt attacked his new assignment with his usual enthusiasm -- and invented "60 Minutes."

Until 1968, most television documentaries were long, evenly paced and often dull. "As I studied the ratings," Hewitt says, "I saw that no matter what network a documentary was on and what it was about, each and every one -- good, bad or indifferent -- got the same share of the audience: 8 percent. So I thought, what if we made a program that was multi-subject and packaged reality as attractively as Hollywood packages fiction?"

To create his new show, Hewitt looked beyond television. He patterned "60 Minutes" after "Life" magazine, which packaged sociology and pop culture as successfully as it's ever been done.

"You can look in Marilyn Monroe's closet, if you're also willing to look in Robert Oppenheimer's laboratory," Hewitt says. "The secret is to put them together -- but with Marilyn Monroe on the cover. Do heads of state, but put them together with George Burns or Lena Horne or Jackie Gleason," he adds, naming some of "60 Minutes" most celebrated celebrity profiles.

He looked to films for inspiration when choosing correspondents. "At the start, I had two guys, Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace, the white hat and the black hat," Hewitt says. "Harry was the guy who came from the heartland and brought Iowa to New York, and Mike was the tough guy in the trench coat. ... People tuned in each week to see the adventures of these correspondents."

More important than anything else, according to Hewitt, is storytelling -- creating a narrative that brings information to life and allows the viewer to fit it into a model of the world that makes sense. Hewitt titled his 2001 autobiography, "Tell Me a Story." It is, he said, the mantra that made "60 Minutes."

"There are four words that every child knows: Tell me a story. That's the secret.

"Even today, I will sit in our screening room looking at tape, and I'll say, 'This tape is pretty fantastic,' " Hewitt said during our 2004 conversation in his office and around the "60 Minutes" shop. "'But what is the story we're trying to tell here? Tell me a story. Tell me the story.'"

The ticking stopwatch. Hidden cameras. Ambush journalism. In 36 years, "60 Minutes" has reflected and shaped popular pop culture. Its correspondents, from Mike Wallace to Ed Bradley, are instantly recognizable. It inspired a Saturday Night Live parody starring Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd. In the late '90s, two PBS documentaries, "Smoke in the Eye" (1996) and "Inside the Tobacco Deal" (1998), were made about a "60 Minutes" episode that was delayed and ultimately aired in a watered-down way that left no one happy except perhaps the lawyers who were involved. A 1999 feature film called "The Insider" and starring Russell Crowe further popularized the same episode.

That segment, which has become the show's most infamous, got its start in 1994 when Wallace and producer Lowell Bergman proposed featuring a biochemist named Jeffrey Wigand, a former executive at the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company. Wigand was willing to say on air that his former employers had deceived the public by ignoring evidence of the health hazards of their cigarettes.

Ultimately, Laurence Tisch, then the chairman of the network, and his lawyers did not allow Wigand's segment to be aired. That decision was made as Tisch was attempting to sell CBS to Westinghouse, and it was feared that an expensive lawsuit brought by the tobacco companies would decrease his company's value. The debate over the decision and Hewitt's role in accepting it will probably never end.


As Hewitt described it to me in 2004, he had no choice. "The only way I could have got that broadcast on the air would have been to go out and hire a bunch of guerrillas and take the transmitter at gunpoint," he says. "It's their transmitter. I can't get the story on the air if they don't want it on the air. They own the transmitter to transmit the stories to the public. You can't get past that."

Like I said, the debate on that will probably never end.

Advertisement

Most of the material in this appreciation appeared in my 2004 profile. The morning after it ran in the "Sun," Hewitt was on the phone bright and early.

Advertisement

"Hey kid, nice piece," he said. "Really, I hope I can get you to write my obit with all this great stuff in it."

I promised I would try.

UPDATE: CBS News announced Wednesday afternoon that it will devote all of Sunday's broadcast of "60 Minutes" to Hewitt. I can't wait to see it.

Advertisement
Advertisement