Don Hewitt, the creator and former executive producer of CBS'
venerable newsmagazine 60 Minutes, died
on Aug. 19 of pancreatic cancer. He was 86.
Harry Reasoner's introduction to the show's first broadcast,
on Sept. 24, 1968-"This is 60 Minutes. It's a kind of magazine for
television"-neatly conveyed Hewitt's concept for a new type of news program: Life
magazine for television. The idea was to break up the traditional hour-long
documentary format with a mix of stories-the "high Murrow and the low Murrow,"
as Hewitt put it.
But as important as the stories were, it was the cast of characters
who presented them-Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Steve Kroft, Lesley
Stahl-that elevated 60 Minutes.
"The storytellers were always as important as the stories,"
he said during a 2008 interview with B&C. "We built a cast that
could have been a Broadway show. Broadcasters are what makes broadcast. And I
decided I was going to have a star-studded cast."
60 Minutes popularized the
correspondent-as-reporter model of investigative and interview journalism.
Wallace was the tenacious gotcha guy, ambushing mendacious business executives.
Safer ferreted out obscure slice-of-life stories with wide-eyed wonder.
The considerable egos of the famous correspondents were
matched by Hewitt's own outsize personality. "He filled the floor here," says
Jeff Fager, who succeeded Hewitt as executive producer of 60 Minutes.
"You knew when he was on the floor because he just made his presence felt-and
you could hear him from a long way away."
Always outspoken, Hewitt was quick to register his
disapproval when the network decided to launch 60 Minutes II, a second
weekly edition of 60 Minutes that ran from 1999 to 2005. And while the
broadcast can claim many stellar pieces, including a 2004 report about prisoner
abuse at Abu Ghraib, it will also be forever linked to the flawed report later
that year about George W. Bush's National Guard service that precipitated the
retirement of Dan Rather and a subsequent lawsuit by the newsman.
"When they did 60 Minutes II, I said, â€˜You don't own
a masterpiece and make knockoffs,'" Hewitt recalled in that 2008 interview. "You
let other people make the knockoffs.'"
Hewitt was a broadcast-news original. He joined CBS News in
1948, when television was a nascent technology.
"It was like a bunch of kids playing with Play-Doh," he said
in a 2004 CBS News interview. "We had no idea what we were doing in the early
days. It was horse-and-buggy. Nobody knew what he was doing, but you didn't
care because who had a television set?"
He pioneered the use of cue cards for anchors. He was the
first to use "supers"-superimposing type on the bottom of the television
screen. He directed the first television newscast with Douglas Edwards in 1948.
And he was the executive producer of the first half-hour network newscast when
the CBS Evening News went from 15 minutes to a half-hour format in 1963.
That broadcast featured another stalwart of the industry, Walter Cronkite, who
passed away on July 17.
Hewitt produced and directed the pool coverage for the first
televised presidential debates in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy.
When Kennedy, tan and the picture of health, was offered makeup, he demurred.
Nixon, who had been under the weather, followed suit. It would become one of
the signature missteps of the campaign. While those who listened on radio gave
Nixon the advantage, television had instantly transformed politics. Suddenly,
it wasn't just what you said; it was how you looked when you said it.
Recalling the many changes he had witnessed over 50 years in
the business, he told B&C last
year that perhaps the most significant was that women had achieved stature as
broadcast stars. In 1984, he hired Diane Sawyer as 60 Minutes' first
"The one biggest change I've seen in television news for the
better is the women," Hewitt said. "How we went that long without realizing how
good women were as broadcasters, I'll never know."
Hewitt was funny and gregarious. He told a good joke and
appreciated one in turn.
The passing of the baton to Fager in 2004 prompted Safer to
present Hewitt's successor with a reproduction of the classical Greek sculpture
The Wrestlers with a plaque that reads: "The Tranquil Transition: Hewitt
"He loved it," Fager says, adding, "It was tough at first.
He didn't want to leave. He agreed it was time, and then he had second thoughts.
But once he sorted that out, there was nothing but support and great advice
Hewitt was a straightforward, old-school, shoe-leather
reporter who taught his producers that the story was the thing.
"The first thing he said to me when I was a 30-year-old
producer was, â€˜Look, we don't have any meetings here. And we don't put out any
memos. Just go out and do good stories and everything will be fine,'" Fager
recalls. "He really had a great gut. It was such an important part of how he
ran this place."
But he also had a capacity for self-deprecation, recalling a
time when his vaunted instincts failed him. "I was producing the CBS Evening
News when Barbara [Walters] was a program assistant at the Today show,"
he recalled. "She said to me, â€˜I want to be a broadcaster.' And I said to her,
â€˜Barbara, with your voice?'"
Hewitt famously said he wanted to "die at my desk," and the
consummate producer never stopped churning out ideas. A year before his death,
he was pitching his network on a "Best of 60 Minutes" DVD collection featuring its famous correspondents.
60 Minutes is the longest-running primetime show on television and has
spent more time in the top 10 than any other program.
"I guess I'm the ultimate television creature," he said in
2004. "I feel it. I live it. I breathe it."
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