Don Hewitt, recognized as a father of modern television news and the creator of the medium's most successful broadcast, 60 MINUTES, died of pancreatic cancer today. He was 86 and had homes in Manhattan and Bridgehampton, New York, where he was with family at the time of death.
Hewitt was executive producer of CBS News, the title he took when he stepped down from his post as executive producer of 60 MINUTES in 2004.
Hewitt’s remarkable career in journalism spanned over 60 years, virtually all of it at CBS. As a young producer/director assisting at the birth of television news, it was usually Hewitt behind the scenes directing legendary CBS News reporters like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, using a playbook he had to write himself. He played an integral role in all of CBS News’ coverage of major news events from the late 1940s through the 1960s, putting him in the middle of some of history’s biggest events, including one of politics’ seminal moments: the first televised presidential debate in 1960.
Hewitt produced and directed coverage for the three networks of the debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, an event that instantly transferred the political king-making powers print news once held to a new and more powerful medium where appearances mattered. Critics have long maintained that Kennedy won the debate because he looked better. As Hewitt recalled in many interviews, he offered makeup to Kennedy first, who refused. Nixon, following Kennedy’s cue, also refused. But the suntanned Kennedy was a vigorous contrast to Nixon, whose pasty complexion put his five o’clock shadow in high relief. Hewitt often rued the day as the first step in the dangerous dance between politicians and the special interests that provide the big money to buy the now crucial political television advertising.
Hewitt also directed the first network television newscast, featuring Douglas Edwards, on May 3, 1948. He was the executive producer of the first half-hour network newscast when the “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite” became the first to go to a 30-minute format on Sept. 2, 1963. Among Hewitt’s innovations was the use of cue cards for newsreaders, the electronic version of which, the TelePrompTer, is still used today. He was the first to use “supers” – putting type in the lower third of the television screen. Another invention of Hewitt’s was the film “double” – cutting back and forth between two projectors – an editing breakthrough that re-shaped television news. Hewitt also helped develop the positioning of cameras and reporters still used to cover news events, especially political conventions.
Hewitt had seemingly done it all for broadcast news when he topped those achievements by producing his magnum opus, the television news magazine 60 MINUTES – a new concept that changed television news forever and became the biggest hit in the medium’s history. “His real monument is 60 MINUTES,” said another broadcasting legend, the late Roone Arledge, when he presented Hewitt with the Founder’s Emmy in 1995. “He is truly an innovator in this business…[the news magazine] is an innovative format no one had done before. It’s been copied all over the world…He’s been a leader in our industry. He has inspired all sorts of people,” said Arledge.
Hewitt’s idea for 60 MINUTES was to break up the traditional hour documentary into a three-segment magazine – a Life of the airwaves. It would work if he and his team could “package an hour of reality as compellingly as Hollywood packages an hour of make-believe,” Hewitt often recalled. His first step was to pick a “white hat” and a “black hat.” Hewitt put the black hat on the grand inquisitor, Mike Wallace, and made the avuncular Harry Reasoner the white hat to launch his news magazine on Sept. 24, 1968. The broadcast ran in various time slots for several seasons before a focus on investigative stories and a permanent home on Sunday nights -- running after CBS’ football coverage -- helped 60 MINUTES catch fire with the public. Critics praised the unique program and it won awards right from the beginning, but the move to Sundays proved crucial. After its first full season in the 7:00 P.M. slot, 60 MINUTES became a top-20 hit in 1977. The next year, it was a top-10 hit, a rank it would reach 23 straight seasons – a record no other program ever approached. Two years later, in 1980, it was the number one program, a feat it would achieve five times – a record only matched by “All in the Family” and “The Cosby Show.”
As Hewitt’s correspondents exposed crooks, drilled to the core of a celebrity or interrogated world leaders and newsmakers, 60 MINUTES became an unprecedented success, drawing legions of faithful followers who planned their Sundays around the program. Even when CBS lost its NFL contract in 1994, putting its former lead-in audience on another network to compete against it, 60 MINUTES was still a huge hit, finishing number six for the 1994-95 season.
Hewitt always had stock answers to questions about what 60 MINUTES’ secret was. He often told journalists, “It’s four words every child knows: Tell me a story.” He sometimes wondered if people flocked to 60 MINUTES as to church on Sunday for redemption from a week of watching entertainment programs. He sometimes said it was people’s interest in the adventures of his correspondents that made it so compelling. But he also admitted it was the talent of his staff, saying he never hired anyone who wasn’t smarter than himself.
Hewitt liked to say that 60 MINUTES’ success was not the best thing to happen to the small screen. Especially later in his life, he railed about how his news magazine changed television for the worse. News programs were never supposed to make money, he argued, and the minute they did, the pressure was on for news to get ratings. The quest for ratings led to more sensational topics on an increasingly larger number of broadcasts. Indeed, as soon as 60 MINUTES broke the top 20 in 1977, a parade of imitators began and, at one point in the late ‘90s, nearly 30 percent of the top 20 programs were news magazines. Hewitt began to say publicly that “behind every news magazine there is a failed sitcom” – the networks were using the format to cover their mistakes, not the news.
But 60 MINUTES never really suffered from the glut of competitors, relying on its quality reputation. "It's an institution," Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post television critic Tom Shales told People for a 1995 profile of Hewitt, "and it's twice as good as its nearest imitator." 60 MINUTES' audience was also much greater than that of any other news program and attracted the biggest stories, which often made 60 MINUTES a shaper of events. When Gov. Bill Clinton wanted to address questions about marital infidelity plaguing his democratic presidential nomination in 1992, he came to 60 MINUTES, where he and his wife, Hillary, appeared on a post-Super Bowl special edition viewed by 34 million people. His conduct during the interview was widely credited with winning him the nomination and the presidency. Dr. Jack Kevorkian didn’t fare as well when he brought his case for euthanasia to 60 MINUTES in 1998. The tape he made of himself lethally injecting a terminally ill patient shown on the broadcast brought Kevorkian a murder conviction and Hewitt much criticism for putting on what critics called a ratings stunt. It was the first time a “mercy killing” was shown on American television and it spurred debate for weeks – exactly, argued Hewitt, what good journalism was about.
Good journalism could also exonerate the innocent, and 60 MINUTES did this many times over the years. When pressed for 60 MINUTES’ finest hour, Hewitt cited the Lenell Geter story in 1983. Geter, a young man sent to jail for life for a robbery in Texas, was freed after Morley Safer's report discredited evidence and used eyewitnesses to prove he was innocent.
60 MINUTES’ lowest point, said Hewitt, was the Jeffrey Wigand story, the interview with the highest-ranking tobacco executive to turn whistleblower that was held back by CBS management in fear of a $10 billion lawsuit that could have bankrupted the company. The initial spiking of the interview, in which Wigand revealed tobacco executives knew and covered up the fact that tobacco caused disease, led to an unusual 60 MINUTES segment. A portion of it, with Wigand disguised, was broadcast, followed by an unprecedented rebuke of management read on the air by Mike Wallace. A few months later in February 1997, CBS allowed the Wigand interview to be broadcast. A film about the incident, “The Insider,” was made in 1998. Hewitt said at the time that he had no choice but to comply with management, or quit in protest, opting instead to “fight another day.” In a 1998 documentary about him, “Don Hewitt: 90 MINUTES on 60 MINUTES,” broadcast on the PBS series “American Masters” for his 50th anniversary at CBS News, he allowed that he wasn’t proud of his actions during this episode.
Donald Shepard Hewitt was born Dec. 14, 1922 in New York City and grew up in the suburb of New Rochelle, N.Y. During high school there, he worked at the town’s weekly newspaper, covering his school, and was also a track star. His running earned him a scholarship to New York University. After a year, he dropped out of NYU to pursue his dream to be a reporter and landed a job as copy boy at the New York Herald Tribune. When the U.S. entered World War II in 1942, Hewitt joined the Merchant Marine, which made him a war correspondent at the age of 20 and the youngest posted to Gen. Eisenhower’s London headquarters. He covered the D-day invasion and the war in the North Atlantic and the Pacific. He returned in 1946 to become, briefly, night editor for the Associated Press in Memphis, and then editor of the Pelham (N.Y.) Sun, before becoming an editor for Acme News Pictures, the photo division of the wire service United Press.
His picture experience prompted a friend in 1948 to tell him about television, where CBS News had a job opening. “Whatavision?” was his response to the call, he often told reporters years later. But he took the job as associate director, even though most journalists regarded the fledgling medium as a fad. He remarked later that after seeing the cameras and lights at CBS News, he felt “like Dorothy in the Emerald City.”
Hewitt’s pluck and personality became legend as he quickly rose in the news division, becoming director and producer of “CBS TV News” in 1949, as well as just about every other program CBS News put on the air. He began inventing the wheel, coming up with the techniques he needed to improve the infant broadcasts – even suggesting anchor Douglas Edwards learn Braille to read the news on air before finally settling on cue cards. Hewitt contributed significant ideas to covering the first televised political conventions in Philadelphia in 1948 and Chicago in 1952. In Chicago, he noticed the pushpin letters on a diner’s menu board and bought it to construct the first on-screen “supers,” used to identify the various speakers at the convention. It was at that same convention that the news term “anchor” began to be associated with Walter Cronkite – the new star reporter CBS News executives wanted their convention coverage to revolve around.
Hewitt also directed and produced iconic events, such as the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth. It was the first same-day coverage of a foreign event and it was achieved by editing the film aboard a chartered flight home. In 1956, Hewitt and his cameraman arrived late and missed the opportunity to film the slowly sinking Andrea Doria, but sweet-talked a pilot to take them over the ship – just in time to be the only crew to film it as it dramatically disappeared below the water. He also produced and/or directed regular CBS News programs besides Edwards’ nightly news, including Murrow’s “See It Now” and “Person to Person,” plus others, like “Omnibus,” throughout the 1950s. In the 1960s he directed coverage of events like the early space launches and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hewitt’s boldness in the highly competitive news business was legend. He once became a deputy sheriff to get closer than his competition to the visiting Nikita Khrushchev. And in perhaps the most publicized incident, Hewitt found a lost copy of NBC’s coverage playbook at the 1964 Republican convention and pocketed it with the intention of using it to scoop his competitors. He gave it back after an NBC producer, it is said, threatened to throw him out a hotel window. Hewitt’s colorful style clashed with the staid nature of another CBS News legend, Fred Friendly, and led indirectly to Hewitt’s creation of 60 MINUTES.
Friendly was named president of CBS News in 1964 and, in December of that year, a few months after the NBC playbook incident, he removed Hewitt from his role as executive producer of the “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite." Despite the fancy title Friendly bestowed on him -- Executive Producer of Live and Taped Documentaries -- Hewitt knew he was off the front lines. Exiled with time on his hands, Hewitt then slowly emerged with the idea for what would become the most successful television program in history. About a year later, he began showing anybody who would take the time the 60 MINUTES pilot comprised of three hour-long documentaries cut down to 20 minutes each that he said would be a new news format, a magazine for television.
If there was an achievement he was as proud of as 60 MINUTES, it was his Frank Sinatra documentary. Broadcast in 1965, it was the most intimate portrait of his life and art that Sinatra ever allowed. Hewitt said he got the reluctant entertainer to agree to it, even though he could not pay him any money, by baiting him with a challenge: Could he sit and answer questions from Cronkite -- the same newsman American presidents had sat down with? Over the years, Hewitt periodically cut down the hour so it could be broadcast in the event of Sinatra’s death. Instead, CBS broadcast the entire hour of “Sinatra: Living with the Legend” in May 1998 as a news special after the entertainer’s death.
Hewitt wrote two books, Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television (Public Affairs, 2001), and Minute by Minute (Random House, 1985), about 60 MINUTES.
Hewitt won every major award numerous times and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1990. He was the recipient of many honorary degrees, among the most prestigious was the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Journalism from Harvard University he shared with the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward in 1992. He also won the Paul White Award in 1987, the highest honor bestowed by the Radio and Television News Directors Association, and the President’s Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Overseas Press Club in 1998. As executive producer, he shared in all of 60 MINUTES’ awards, including 13 Peabody Awards won by the broadcast during his tenure; he won two others, one awarded directly to him for his body of work in 1988 and shared another with CBS News in 1958. 60 MINUTES won several Alfred I. DuPont/Columbia University’s Awards, including the highest broadcast honor, the Gold Baton for him and the broadcast collective in 1987-88, scores of Emmy Awards – including a special Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 2003 and The Founder’s Emmy in 1995. The Founder’s Emmy citation reads, “Awarded to the creator of 60 MINUTES for a body of work crossing geographic and cultural boundaries to touch our common humanity.”
For the past several years, he had been involved in a variety of broadcast projects, mostly outside of CBS, including producing a primetime documentary about the Radio City Music Hall’s annual Christmas show.
He is survived by his wife of 30 years, Marilyn Berger; two sons, Steven and Jeffrey and his wife Nancy; daughter Lisa Cassara and her husband, William; stepdaughter Jilian ChildersHewitt, adopted by Hewitt, who was the daughter of his second wife, Frankie (nee Teague) Hewitt by her first husband Bob Childers.; three grandchildren: Balin Hewitt, Connor and Jack Cassara. Frankie Hewitt and Hewitt’s first wife, Mary Weaver, both predeceased him.
Funeral services will be private.
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