World’s Oldest Cub Reporter: Hewitt’s Half Century at CBS

Don Hewitt is good at offering pithy explanations for the present pathetic state of TV news.

Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television , by Don Hewitt. Public Affairs, 272 pages, $26.

In his breezy new memoir, Don Hewitt informs us that, as a youngster, the journalist he most identified with was Hildy Johnson from The Front Page , the beguiling reporter in the best movie ever made about journalism. But for at least the first half of his career at CBS News, the person Mr. Hewitt most resembled was Hildy’s boss, Walter Burns, the editor who would do anything to anyone to get a story.

When Mr. Hewitt found himself surrounded by the competition on a tug that was taking him to the wreckage of a plane that had crashed into the East River, he managed to charter the boat, steer it to the nearest dock and march his rivals down the gangplank. (When NBC retaliated by hiring its own, smaller boat, the skipper of Mr. Hewitt’s tug “accidentally” rammed the competition.) During Khrushchev’s visit to the Midwest in 1959, Mr. Hewitt came across an unmanned NBC remote truck parked on a dirt road near the farm. He immediately jumped in the driver’s seat and headed into a nearby corn field, where he hoped to hide the truck-until suddenly he came to his senses. Four years later, when Dan Rather called him from Dallas to tell him that a man named Zapruder had apparently filmed John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Mr. Hewitt instructed Mr. Rather to go to Zapruder’s house, “sock him in the jaw, take his film to our affiliate in Dallas, copy it onto videotape, and let the CBS lawyers decide whether it could be sold or whether it was in the public domain.” Mr. Rather thought that was a “great idea” and slammed down the phone, but Mr. Hewitt changed his mind a second later and called the eager rookie back to rescind the order for assault and robbery. Mr. Hewitt recalls that Mr. Rather was sorry he hadn’t left before the second call came through.

A few months after his 45th birthday, when he had mellowed (a bit), Mr. Hewitt invented 60 Minutes , the most successful news hour in the history of television. Mr. Hewitt’s guess is that it has netted CBS $2 billion since it first hit the air in 1968.

60 Minutes is the last remaining serious program from that halcyon era when network news divisions were still more interested in prestige than profits. Mr. Hewitt is good at offering pithy explanations for the present pathetic state of TV news-and for why we are unlikely ever to see again anything nearly as original as his signature program.

“The difference between then and now is that [the networks] were obliged to give something back in exchange for their public use of the airwaves. That was what the Federal Communications Commission demanded. So if news was a loss leader, that was the price of doing business.” Broadcasting was once a sacred trust, but no one has taken that attitude “since Bill Paley of CBS, David Sarnoff of NBC and Leonard Goldenson of ABC passed from the scene.”

Don Hewitt is smart enough to know that he and the rest of his seven-figure colleagues have become a big part of the problem-and clever enough to know that he should admit it. “Why aren’t we broadcast journalists hollering about it? Because we want it both ways. We want the companies we work for to put back the wall the pioneers erected to separate news from entertainment, but we are not above climbing over the rubble each week to take an entertainment-size paycheck for broadcasting news…. Those of us who signed and re-signed during the Tisch era [when scores of jobs were eliminated from CBS News] are in no position to join the chorus.” Mr. Hewitt knows that it “makes no sense for people like us to get all high and mighty about the corrupting influence of money in the news business when we ourselves are the beneficiaries of this newfound prosperity.”

Of course, the only reason 60 Minutes is still allowed to exist (and even cover stories in foreign countries!) is that it remains one of the most profitable programs on television. It’s never been broken, so no one’s tried to fix it: “The broadcast has remained essentially unchanged since the very beginning. This is no accident. I have this crazy theory that we are the only thing in American life that still looks, feels, and smells the same as it always did. The supermarkets look different, the gas stations look different, the banks look different. But if you remember 60 Minutes as a kid, you’ll feel an intimacy with it today.”

The program has retained its distinctive personality in part because it’s managed differently from every other magazine show on the air. Instead of Mr. Hewitt and his deputies dictating its content, all of the story ideas are generated from the bottom up, by its five full-time correspondents (and contributors Christiane Amanpour and Bob Simon) and their 20-odd producers.

Besides Hildy Johnson, Don Hewitt’s other childhood hero was Julian Marsh, the Broadway producer in 42nd Street . That may explain why he has done a better job of maintaining an inherently precarious balance than most of his emulators: “There is a line that separates news biz from show biz. The trick is to walk up to that line, touch it with your toe, but don’t cross it. If you don’t go near it, you’re going to lose your viewership or your readership. If you step over it, you’ll lose your conscience. For more than thirty years, 60 Minutes has walked up to that line but never crossed it.”

Why do I continue to admire a news program that flirts so frankly with “show biz”? After all, this is also the show that nearly disgraced itself in 1995 when it bowed to corporate pressure and gutted Mike Wallace’s piece about a whistle blower from the tobacco industry-probably because Larry Tisch was nervous that the piece (and the lawsuit it might have provoked) had the potential to scuttle a planned merger with Westinghouse. (This saga happens to be the subject of one of the longest, most defensive and least convincing chapters of Don Hewitt’s memoir.) It’s a relatively rare lapse in the program’s 33-year history, and it’s not as serious as other recent journalistic felonies, including the wholly unwarranted prosecution of Wen Ho Lee by The New York Times . In the end, 60 Minutes retains our respect for the same reason The Times does: Its standards haven’t declined quite as precipitously as those of the culture that surrounds it.

Charles Kaiser, author of The Gay Metropolis (Harcourt), is a former media critic for Newsweek.