Thursday, August 20, 2009

Don Hewitt


The creators of ABC's Twenty-Twenty and NBC's Dateline must be awfully thankful that their competitor Don Hewitt had an idea for an unusual kind of news show back in the mid-60s. He pitched a prime time program consisting of celebrity profiles, investigative reporting, and feature stories to CBS, who flew in the face of reason and granted him an hour slot on Sunday night. Sixty Minutes was the first newsmagazine, and Hewitt can be credited with inventing the genre (in fact, he was the first to link the term "newsmagazine" to television. He wanted the show to reflect the mix of hard and light news which had been popularized by Life Magazine.)

Forty one years later, the show is currently the longest running prime-time program of any genre; it finished in the top 10 a whopping 23 years in a row, and has been the number one, top-rated program four times (so far). In its early decades, it was certainly appointment television in my family (and remains so for my father); that tick-tick-ticking of the stopwatch has become one of the truly iconic images in the history of television.

The correspondents in those early years were all newsmen of the highest caliber: Morley Safer and Harry Reasoner, along with curmudgeonly humorist Andy Rooney, became unlikely celebrities due to their involvement with the program. Dan Rather was the baby of the bunch; at his departure in 1981, Ed Bradley replaced him, raising the profile of African-American journalists across the country. But the breakout star of 60 Minutes was surely pitbull Mike Wallace, whose relentless questioning of his subjects became legend. The last thing any corporate or political swindler wanted to see out the window was Wallace, approaching his front door with a film crew.
Prior to the creation of 60 Minutes, Hewitt had a substantial career in television journalism. He was the first news producer to superimpose words onto the TV screen during a news story, and is said to have been the first to add cue cards to his broadcasts. In fact, he directed the very first news broadcast, in 1948, and in 1960, produced the first televised presidential debate. That debate probably remains the most influential of all subsequent debates, as historians claim it turned the election in John F. Kennedy's favor. As the story goes, Hewitt asked candidates JFK and Richard Nixon if they wanted make-up for the camera. Kennedy was confident in his tan and declined, so Nixon declined as well. Nixon's pasty complexion, glistening brow, and sweaty lip did not compare well with the healthy glow of the senator from Massachusetts, and Kennedy won the day. (Interestingly, polls which focused on voters who heard the debate on the radio reflected that people who listened to, but did not watch, the debate thought Nixon was the victor.)

But 60 Minutes remains the crowning achievement in Hewitt's career (in fact, it may be the crowning achievement in the entire history of CBS News). Under Hewitt's leadership, the show won 73 Emmy Awards and 9 Peabodys. The list of correspondents who have contributed to the program over the years is a Who's Who of broadcast journalism. Hewitt had final approval on every story which hit the air, many of which were highly controversial. He admits his decision to pull a story about a whistleblower of the tobacco industry was not his finest hour (the Russell Crowe / Al Pacino film The Insider covers that incident), and his decision to broadcast a tape of Dr. Jack Kevorkian ("Dr. Death") administering a lethal overdose to a terminal patient ignited a national debate about euthanasia. He was most proud of stories which exonerated the innocent, such as Morley Safer's investigation into the evidence which convicted a Texas man for robbery; the man was ultimately released.

Hewitt was at the helm of his creation for over 35 years, but was asked to step down at the end of the 2003-2004 season. Demographics were catching up with the old warhorse, and 60 Minutes had the oldest audience in television (and some of the oldest stars, too), so new blood was needed. Hewitt remained on the CBS payroll and continued to critique the work of his replacement. He was determined that the show maintain its core mission, which he summed up in four words:

"Tell me a story."

Don Hewitt died yesterday from pancreatic cancer, at the age of 86.

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