Don Hewitt: Hall of Fame Tribute
“I’ve gotten older and wiser,” says Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes and its executive producer since the top-rated news program made its debut in 1968. “I’m a little more settled, a little more staid, and a little more respectable. If I behaved the way I did when I was younger and more audacious, I’d be looking for a job. If somebody did today the things I did around here in the early days, I’d fire him.”
Hewitt cites as an example an incident during the 1967 Glassboro, New Jersey, American-Soviet summit when he was executive producer of The CBS Evening News. He rented the house across the street from the meeting site — and then evicted from the front lawn any newspeople not working for CBS.
His competitors were outraged, but CBS was delighted. Similar stories about Hewitt’s earlier days are legion.
Born in New York City in 1922, Hewitt attended New York University and in 1942 joined the New York Herald Tribune as head copyboy. During the Second World War, he served as a correspondent in Europe and the Pacific. Later, he worked in Memphis, Tennessee, for the Associated Press and in Pelham, New York, as editor of the Pelham Sun.
Immediately prior to joining CBS in 1948 as associate director of Douglas Edwards with the News, a position he held for 14 years, Hewitt was night telephoto editor for Acme Newspictures. In 1963, he became executive producer of The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
“Hewitt has done it all,” says 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace. “He pioneered The CBS Evening News. He was an in-studio director. He was and is a producer. And he devised all the techniques of a technical nature that are now standard operating procedure in broadcast news.”
Relieved of his evening-news duties in the mid-‘60s, Hewitt, by his own account, was languishing in the backwater of CBS. I was getting out documentaries. I did a series of Town Meetings of the World, in which we linked up world statesmen on the satellite. You could fall asleep in the control room listening to Harold Macmillan. Who wants to listen to Harold Macmillan? One day I looked at the ratings of the documentaries on all the networks, and they were about the same: a 10 or a 12 share of the audience. And I said, ‘There’s got to be a way to double that share.’
“I came up with an idea: make the hour multisubject to deal with people’s attention spans, package reality as attractively as Hollywood packages fiction, and use very personal journalism — I don't mean advocacy journalism, I mean personal journalism — and you could double the 10 percent share. One week 60 Minutes got up to a 50 percent share. It just kind of worked. It was the first broadcast I ever worked on where the accepted wisdom of writing words to fit the pictures didn’t apply.
“It is your ear, as much as or even more than your eye, that keeps you at the television set. So the whole thrust of 60 Minutes has been on what you hear and on telling a story. We realized years ago that a broad audience is not interested in issues. You have to tell them a story about an issue. Even the people who wrote the Bible knew that the issue was evil; the story was Noah.
Hewitt and 60 Minutes pioneered investigative television journalism weekly, but he pooh-poohs the dichotomy between so-called hard news and soft news. “I don’t believe in the phrase hard news,” Hewitt says. “I believe news is news. The daily newscasts deal in the news of the last 24 hours, and we deal with the news of the times in which we live, and who's to say which is hard and which is soft. I always find that most of the news I read today didn’t really happen today; it was revealed today. Some people talk about changing and modernizing 60 Minutes. I say, ‘Don't be ridiculous.’ I wouldn’t touch the show with a 10-foot pole.”
Wallace sees Hewitt as the television equivalent of a great newspaper editor. Wallace says, “He has this uncanny eye and ear for taking a 20-minute rough cut of a segment that eventually has to come down to 14 minutes and finding out how to keep the best stuff in and cut the worst stuff out. He has the eye and ear of an editor who knows what is going to provoke and interest an audience, what will take them by the lapels and say, ‘Watch!’ It’s an extraordinary quality.”
Currently in his fifth decade at CBS News, Hewitt says, “I wish I knew how I survived for 41 years in one place. I quit a couple of times in a huff, and they laughed at me. They said, ‘Oh, stop acting like a jerk and go back to work,’ and nobody would take it seriously.”
Wallace says, “Hewitt runs the happiest shop in all broadcast journalism. I think we’ve had eight meetings in 21 years. It is not a memo-ridden hierarchy or a stuffy, congealed operation. It is freewheeling. No matter who you are, whether you're a secretary or an assistant film editor or a correspondent, if you’ve got good ideas, Hewitt wants to hear them. Don cannot hear a ringing phone without picking it up, whether it’s his or somebody else’s. He loves to talk to people who call. If it’s somebody from the audience who’s complaining, he’ll talk. That’s his nature. He wants to know everything that’s going on.”
“The other thing not to be sneezed at,” Wallace says, “is 60 Minutes circulation. To have the circulation we have, which is 35 million to 50 million Americans each week, is extraordinary. What happened as a result of 60 Minutes was that television news became lucrative. The show still makes somewhere between $50 million to $70 million a year in profits for CBS.”
It’s a record Hewitt is proud of. He says, “At the time when Michael Jackson was working for Columbia Records and 60 Minutes was at its peak, I ran into a member of the CBS board at the opera one night, and he said to me, ‘Do you realize that you and Michael Jackson support this company?’ I said, ‘No, but it’s a nice thing to hear.’”
Wallace says, “When we first started work on the program, we worked 15-hour days, seven days a week. The same kind of enthusiasm and fresh eyes and curiosity that Hewitt had at the beginning, he has today. When he gets going, when he gets enthused, he's irresistible.”
Hewitt: “This program energizes me. It rejuvenates me. It excites me, and I can’t think of anything in the world I would rather do than 60 Minutes. In fact, I have never met anyone in my life with whom I would change places.”
Hewitt’s virtually infallible news sense has kept 60 Minutes firmly ranked in the top ten. Hewitt says, “Do I like it? Am I proud of it? You’re damn right.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Don Hewitt's induction in 1989.
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