The Daily Mirror

Los Angeles history

« Previous Post | The Daily Mirror Home | Next Post »

Voices -- Don Hewitt, 1922 - 2009

August 19, 2009 |  9:58 pm
Don Hewitt, the creator of CBS' "60 Minutes" news program in New York in 2004.
(Jim Cooper / Associated Press)

The Man Who Winds the Clock

Don Hewitt built '60 Minutes' and still drives TV's top-rated news program. How does the low-tech, high-intensity machine keep ticking?

January 13, 1991

By JANE HALL, Jane Hall is a Times staff writer.

NEW YORK -- It was a small Manhattan dinner party in the media stratosphere in which Don Hewitt likes to travel. But in the middle of the affair, Hewitt, the creator and executive producer of "60 Minutes," suddenly walked out. Barbara Walters and Mort Zuckerman, the owner of U.S. News and World Report, were criticizing a recent "60 Minutes" story as biased against Israel. The story had been critical of the Israeli government's official account of the killing of 19 Palestinians by Israeli police during a disturbance at Jerusalem's Temple Mount last October.

"They zeroed in on me, giving me a lecture, and I began to feel like I'd just painted a swastika on the door," Hewitt recalled. "Why can I question the Bush Administration without being called a self-hating American, and not question the Shamir Administration (in Israel) without being called a self-hating Jew?"

The incident illustrates both the power of "60 Minutes" and the feistiness of its maestro. Impetuous, engaging and dramatic at age 68, Don Hewitt in many ways personifies his hit TV series.

"Don is the length and shadow of '60 Minutes'--he's flamboyant and he's episodic," said Fred W. Friendly, a former CBS News president (and collaborator with CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow) who now heads the Columbia University Seminars on Media and Society. "That which is important is often dull; they don't have any tolerance for that. But what they have done is interest the blue-collar worker, the non-serious news-reader, in a way that not Murrow or Cronkite or I have done."

Once considered too show-biz for the serious world of CBS News, Hewitt presides over the most successful news program in history. As much of an institution in the American TV landscape as "Monday Night Football" or "MASH," "60 Minutes" has been in the Nielsen Top 10 for the past 13 years. Even now, in its 23rd season, with the networks failing with hip shows about singing cops and dancing schoolteachers, square old "60 Minutes" is seen in an average of 19.6 million homes a week, second only to "Cheers" among all prime-time programs.

And--where it matters most in TV--"60 Minutes" has been immensely profitable. By one count, the news magazine has earned $1 billion for CBS since it premiered in 1968. Before "60 Minutes," news was considered a prestigious loss-leader. Today, "60 Minutes" wanna-bes pop up in prime time with nearly the same regularity as sitcoms and dramas.

"The question is always asked, 'Why hasn't anybody duplicated your success?' " Hewitt observed recently. "It's like somebody writing a memo saying, ' "All in the Family" is a big success--why don't we do a show about a bigot with a dingbat wife who fights with his kids?' If you've got Carroll O'Connor and Sally Struthers and Jean Stapleton and Rob Reiner and Norman Lear, you've got a hit. If you don't, you know what you've got? You've got a memo."

And if Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Harry Reasoner and Ed Bradley are the equivalent of "All in the Family's" stellar cast, Hewitt is its Lear--the alchemist whose vision and talent for mixing the show's various ingredients spells the difference between "60 Minutes" and lesser competitors. "Don is close to genius when it comes to television," says commentator Andy Rooney. "I think '60 Minutes' would fold without him; I don't think it would survive his departure."

Some critics say that "60 Minutes" sometimes seems to be using its powerhouse franchise to shoot a fly with an elephant gun, pursuing too many petty thieves and not enough powerful institutions here and abroad. Behind the scenes, some former and current staffers say there is a chauvinistic attitude toward women. Yet even those who have criticisms of Hewitt say that he is one of the great talents in television. As his close friend Mike Wallace put it, "Don has fresh eyes. He has the same gut, the same resourcefulness, the same desire to make it compelling, that he has had for 22 years."

Each week the "60 Minutes" correspondents--whom Hewitt unabashedly calls his "repertory company of great reporters"--encounter compelling, real-life characters in what one TV critic dubbed "little morality plays."

"My idea was that television reality ought to be packaged as entertainingly as television entertainment," Hewitt said. "I believe that it all comes down to that ancient phrase: 'Tell me a story.' I think people are interested in stories, not issues, even though the stories may be about people coping with issues. In the Bible, the issue was evil, but the story was Noah."

Thus the emphasis on the storytellers. Hewitt has always stressed personalities over issues. As he acknowledges, "casting" the people who appear in "60 Minutes" stories is an important element in the show's success. One recent "60 Minutes" segment, for example, featured an overweight, tall-talking Texan who illegally turned back odometers in used cars. "You couldn't find anybody better to play that guy," Hewitt said.

"We've got to find people who can tell their story on camera," Hewitt continued. "Are you flirting with making reality more appealing than it is? Yeah, but (print journalists) do the same things, bringing phrases in to bring people to life."

And was there theatricality in the casting of the correspondents? "Of course there was," Hewitt answered. "There was theatricality in the casting of Ed Murrow. I've always thought that Ed Murrow as a very appealing man who had the good fortune to look like Walter Pidgeon playing Ed Murrow. People have to care about you before they'll listen to you."

In the case of the Temple Mount broadcast, for example, questions about the Israeli government's official account already had been raised by the Village Voice, an alternative newspaper here. What made the "60 Minutes" story so compelling and controversial were two young Palestinians who appeared on camera to give their version of events. One was a teen-age boy, the son of a Palestinian leader and one of the rock throwers, who spoke in an accent that sounded positively American-suburban.

"You know," Hewitt mused, "I think what people objected to was that the young Palestinian boy was so attractive. I got the feeling that they wanted him to be swarthy, a bomb-thrower."

A man who rarely pauses for reflection, Hewitt prides himself on writing few memos and holding even fewer meetings for his staff. But while the organization at "60 Minutes" appears casual, Hewitt is involved in stories throughout the various stages of productions. He approves proposals from producers and correspondents, who often compete to be the first to pitch him a timely idea, and spends much of his day popping out of correspondents' and producers' offices, editing rooms where pieces are being put together and screening rooms where pieces are shown to him in more finished form.

"He simply has great instincts," observed one "60 Minutes" producer. "He's like a kid in his enthusiasm for a good story, and he really knows how to take something and make it sing."

Hewitt is said to have an uncanny, total "video recall," an ability to screen a segment and suggest moving the elements around, remembering everything he has seen. "Basically, Don is an editor with cold, hard judgment about what works and what will appeal to people," Andy Rooney said. "I'm always surprised at how he can look at a piece once and remember every element of it."

Hewitt and Wallace, in particular, are said to have heated discussions over stories, and some producers say that the program sometimes has been at its best when they disagree. "We've been fighting for 23 years," Wallace said. "Apparently, something good comes from it."

"Mike and I have had the same conversation for many years whenever he records the narration for one of his stories," Hewitt said. "I'll sit with my head down on the counter and say, 'That pause is in the wrong place' or 'That emphasis is wrong.' I edit with my ear."

Since "60 Minutes" stories remain surprisingly low-tech for television, Hewitt may be on to something. His thinking, he said, was influenced by his early work with Friendly and Murrow, who moved from radio into the new medium of television.

"When I came into television, the accepted wisdom was that you put words to pictures. I think you start with what you want to say and think, 'How do you illustrate it?' I believe that it's your ear more than your eye that keeps you tuned to a television set. Look at (the recent PBS hit) 'The Civil War.' That was still pictures--with great audio!"

Even after the pieces are edited and completed to Hewitt's approval, he isn't done with them. Hewitt writes the "teases" at the beginning of the broadcast as well as the on-air promos and the ads.

The son of a newspaper advertising executive, Hewitt grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y. His childhood idols, he said, were the stage characters Julian Marsh, the Broadway producer in the musical "42nd Street," and Hildy Johnson, the aggressive reporter in "The Front Page." Television, where he got a job in 1948 after stints in newspapering, allowed him to be both.

He was a producer-director on the CBS evening newscast with Douglas Edwards from 1948 to 1962, and then became executive producer of the show's successor, "CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite." He was credited with many innovations--from the "double-projector" system integrating pictures and narration to hiring an amphibious plane with Edwards in 1956 to cover the sinking of the luxury liner Andrea Dorea. He also produced the "Great Debates" between presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960.

But while his gift for television was recognized, Hewitt was considered a little too flaky and "show-biz" for the serious ethos of CBS News. (He had once suggested to Edwards that he learn Braille--this was before TelePrompTers--so that he could look at the camera and read copy at the same time.)

Hewitt was moved out of his job as producer of the "CBS Evening News" by Friendly, who says that he was acting on the suggestion of CBS founder William S. Paley. "He had a feeling--which I shared--that the program needed a good administrator more than a driving spirit," Friendly said.

Hewitt spent the next several years in limbo, producing documentaries, before he began to think about combining elements of the traditional one-hour documentary with lighter subjects into a kind of Life magazine of the air.

"Documentaries were getting the same rating, no matter what," Hewitt said. "I thought, 'I bet we could do better in the ratings if we married the Ed Murrow of 'See It Now' (Murrow's documentary series) with 'Person to Person' " (his highly rated celebrity series).

Hewitt had Reasoner in mind as the correspondent for the magazine series when Mike Wallace was suggested for a kind of "white hat, black hat" duo. Wallace, who had been known as the aggressive interviewer on a New York TV program called "Night Beat," was hoping to be assigned to the CBS White House beat. "I remember Hewitt coming to my house one night, describing this show with his customary hyperbole," Wallace recalled. "I figured I'd give it a try; I didn't think it would last very long."

"60 Minutes" premiered as a biweekly program in September, 1968. It had low ratings against entertainment programming in a variety of time periods until December, 1975, when it was moved to Sunday nights at 7 p.m., a relatively protected time slot that had been designated by the Federal Communications Commission for either public-affairs or children's programming. With Wallace, Reasoner and later Safer, Dan Rather and Bradley as correspondents, the show began to attract audiences competitive with entertainment programs. (Despite the news virtues of "60 Minutes," some TV journalists worried that demonstrating that news could be profitable would make that the standard for all news programming--a fear that has proved well-founded.)

Remarkable success notwithstanding, the show remained an all-male broadcast until Diane Sawyer was added in 1984. All of the male correspondents had extensive experience in addition to "star" quality. But the lengthy talent search for the first female correspondent included Candice Bergen, a woman who today plays a glamorous, Sawyer-like character on "Murphy Brown" but who had virtually no journalistic credentials when Hewitt talked to her about co-starring on "60 Minutes."

"It got to be a joke around there, how long it was taking them to add a woman on the show," one former staffer recalled. "They just kept talking about how the woman had to be a big name."

At the end of last season, as part of an effort to put the next generation of "60 Minutes" reporters in place, Hewitt added two new correspondents, Steve Kroft and Meredith Vieira. Both had been reporters on CBS' "West 57th," a now-defunct attempt at a yuppie "60 Minutes." Vieira was going on maternity leave before the birth of her first child when then-CBS News president David Burke approached her about the "60 Minutes" slot. She wanted the job but later took her infant son, Ben, with her to lunch with Hewitt to emphasize, she said, where her priorities were. Vieira and Hewitt made an agreement whereby she would work part-time during her first year, contributing 10 to 15 pieces, about half as many as some of the other correspondents.

At the end of this season, Vieira and Hewitt will have to come to an agreement on plans for her to begin working full-time. "I very much want this to work, and I'm hopeful that it will," Vieira said recently. But, she admitted, "I had a rocky beginning," declining to go further. Several sources contend that Hewitt was uncomfortable with Vieira's arrangement, which included bringing her baby with her into the office when she began, and that he became more critical of her work than he might otherwise have been.

"Don has had a terrible time coming to grips with the fact that her own baby means more to her than his baby," said one source. "His baby is '60 Minutes.' "

Hewitt denies that he was uncomfortable with Vieira's priorities, saying, "You know who minded the baby being around here? Some of the women." Asked to evaluate her work so far on "60 Minutes," he said, "Meredith has yet to really make her mark in the world. I think that her gaze was split between being a mother and being a reporter, although I have a feeling she has solved that."

With Reasoner retiring at the end of this season, Hewitt said, the show needs Vieira to work full-time. Can a woman with children can be a globe-trotting "60 Minutes" correspondent?

"You know, Morley Safer once figured out one year (that) he was home seven weekends. It's a choice you make," Hewitt said. "I think there comes a time when you say, 'If I want to be a member of this group, that's what it takes."'

Although half of the "60 Minutes" producers today are women, several former staffers say that, in earlier days, the program was a tough shop for women. "You had to be twice as good if you were a woman," one former producer said. "Women were expected to do more of their own research, and it was harder for women to be assertive and independent."

"This place was run like a men's club," another former producer said. "They were comfortable with 'girls' who were deferential--or women who were 'one of the boys.' "

Not true, Hewitt said. "This is one place that is completely non-sexist and color-blind. The women who are producers here are the best in the business."

In the mid-1980s, several TV critics wrote that "60 Minutes" seemed to be showing signs of middle age. Wallace was fighting a lawsuit by Gen. William Westmoreland over a "CBS Reports" documentary on Vietnam, for which Wallace had been a principal reporter, and some observers thought the program seemed tired.

The had some validity, Wallace said. "The criticism was helpful. We pulled up our socks."

This season, "60 Minutes" has seemed to be on a roll with a number of news-making stories, including the first TV interview in two years with author Salman Rushdie and a report on whether Sadaam Hussein is secretly mining uranium to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

"They've been re-energized this season, although I'm not sure it's great to see them go back to 'ambush' interviews," said Dan Ruth, TV critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. "All news organizations go through cycles (of more serious stories and less serious ones), but, overall, they have a good track record."

With Wallace at 72 and Hewitt at 68 (Safer is 59, Rooney 72 and Bradley 49), the inevitable question is: How long can they--and the show--go on? Some at CBS News say the program ought to be retired when Hewitt and Wallace retire. But it seems highly unlikely that CBS executives would voluntarily kill the "60 Minutes" goose while it is still laying golden eggs.

Wallace emphatically dismisses any notion of ending the show. "Barring something cataclysmic in the whole business of network television, '60 Minutes' will be around into the 21st Century," he declared. "It took Harry, Morley, Ed and me time to find our voices. Steve Kroft, who is doing a lot of pieces, has surely made his mark, and Meredith is first-rate, although she hasn't done enough pieces yet to make her mark."

Not that either Hewitt or Wallace is showing signs of sailing into the sunset. "I've got 2 1/2 more years on my contract--and then I'll renegotiate!" Wallace said, laughing.

Hewitt has a 10-year, $2.5-million-a-year contract that lasts until he's 74. And, like Wallace, he is not expected to retire even then. "I don't feel like I'm 68," Hewitt said. "I like that line from (baseball player) Satchel Paige: 'How old would you be if you didn't know how old you was?' I'd be about 17."

"He really does think he's a teen-ager," observed Hewitt's wife, Marilyn Berger, who has been married to him since 1979. A former NBC News White House correspondent who now works as a free-lance print journalist, the 55-year-old Berger is Hewitt's third wife. (His first wife died, and his second marriage ended in divorce. He has four children from his previous marriages.)

Berger and Hewitt met on a date set up by Mike Wallace. "I was expecting this bald, old man," she recalled. "Instead, I got this gorgeous guy who said immediately, "If tonight works out, can we go out tomorrow night?' "

Before meeting Hewitt, Berger said, she had formed her impression of him from an unflattering portrait in a book by Washington Post writer Sally Quinn about her short-lived career in TV news. Quinn, who was hired to co-anchor the "CBS Morning News," wrote that Hewitt had threatened to make her look bad on TV when she rejected a romantic advance from him. "Yeah, I made a pass at her," Hewitt says now. "I was between marriages. But I never threatened to make her look bad on TV. I wouldn't make anybody look bad on TV, not even Hitler!"

Berger and Hewitt--who have an apartment in Manhattan and a home on Long Island--became friends with CBS patriarch Paley during the last years of Paley's life, frequently riding with him on a CBS helicopter for weekends on Long Island. Some top CBS network executives resented Hewitt's connection to Paley and said that the couple had ingratiated themselves with the CBS founder, who had rarely socialized before with people who worked for him. But Hewitt said that it was Paley who pursued the friendship. "Bill called us more than we called him. We had a deep affection for him--he had been my hero. I think he sought us out because his crowd was abandoning him."

As Hewitt's own fame and influence have grown, he finds "60 Minutes" more often doing stories on people he knows, but he says it does not affect the coverage. "You can't very well go to Ed Bradley and say, 'Don't do this story because so-and-so is a friend of mine.' We did a profile on (civil rights leader) Vernon Jordan that I think was too hard on him because he's a friend of mine, and I stayed out of it."

Hewitt said that another friend, MCA chairman Lew Wasserman, stopped speaking to him because of a piece that "60 Minutes" did on alleged crime connections in the record industry. According to Hewitt, "Lew's wife told people that I had promised them that we would never do that story. I never did that in my life; I never promised anybody we wouldn't cover a story."

Meanwhile, his passion for his work shows no signs of waning. On one recent day, Hewitt bounded out of his office to a quick lunch downstairs. "We have incontrovertible evidence that the mercury in dental fillings may cause short-term memory loss and other problems," he said enthusiastically. "And this profile of Sting we've got--I told them we've got to explain to the old farts like me who this guy is because I want them to stay tuned to the story."

If he ever did think of retiring, his wide-ranging conversation at lunch indicates that he'd have plenty of notions to keep him occupied. The networks, he believes, are an outmoded delivery system. He has proposed creating a "video wire service" like the Associated Press to provide raw video footage, an idea that has effectively been embraced by the networks in their newly planned news-feed services to their own affiliates. And if that didn't work, Hewitt has an idea for an indexed version of a nightly newscast that would be delivered through videocassette technology so that viewers could watch news stories, features and sports scores in whatever order they wanted.

But for now, Hewitt is focused on next week's "60 Minutes." "What drives me is the joy I get out of crafting a television broadcast," he said. "I'm not an intellectual. But what I think I have are the feel--the fingertips--for what works in television."