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Hewitt, Don

Don Hewitt

BORN: December 14, 1922 • New York, New York

American television producer

Don Hewitt is probably best known as the founding producer of television's most acclaimed investigative news program, the long-running CBS series 60 Minutes. He is also a pioneering and influential journalist and television news producer. Highlights of his long career include working with such TV news legends as Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965; see sidebar in William S. Paley entry) and Walter Cronkite (1916–; see entry), and serving as the producer-director of the first presidential debates ever to appear on television, the 1960 contests between Republican Richard Nixon (1913–1994) and Democrat John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63).

"Confrontation is not a dirty word. Sometimes it's the best kind of journalism as long as you don't confront people just for the sake of confrontation."

A newsman from an early age

Don Hewitt was born on December 14, 1922, in New York City. He was the son of Ely S. Hewitt, an advertising salesman for Hearst newspapers, and Frieda Pike Hewitt. Don knew that he wanted to be a journalist from an early age. In fact, his childhood idol was Hildy Johnson, the sarcastic, hard-hitting reporter in the 1931 movie The Front Page. In 1941 he attended New York University on an athletic scholarship, but he dropped out after his freshman year to start his career in journalism as a copy boy at the New York Herald Tribune. (A copy boy carries copies of articles and runs errands in a newspaper company.)

During World War II (1939–45), Hewitt worked as a front-line reporter in Europe for the War Shipping Administration. While there, he got the chance to work with two young journalists, Andy Rooney (1919–) and Walter Cronkite. Once the war was over, Hewitt worked at a number of short-term jobs in journalism. In one of these positions, as a night editor at the Associated Press in Memphis, Tennessee, he met his first wife, Mary Weaver. They would eventually have three children: Jeffrey, Steven, and Jilian. Hewitt returned to New York City in 1947, where he worked on the suburban paper Pelham Sun and then as a photo editor for Acme News Pictures. In 1948, he got a job offer from Edmund Chester, the head of the CBS TV network's news division. Hewitt jumped at the chance to work in the emerging field of television news.

At CBS, Hewitt was put to work in the control room on a news show hosted by Douglas Edwards (1917–1990). At that time, newscasts did not have videotape of major stories, on-screen graphics, or filmed reports from the field. In fact, most of the programs consisted of the anchor (host) reading the news from a script. Hewitt immediately began to think of ways to make the nightly news broadcasts more interesting. He came up with several new ideas, including the use of a lineup (a list detailing what stories would be covered and what resources would be needed for each night's broadcast). He also thought up a technique for superimposing letters on the screen, or making words appear along with the image of the newscaster. It soon became apparent that Hewitt had a flair for the visual presentation of the news.

In 1956 Hewitt made history when he flew over the sinking Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria with Edwards and a cameraman to film the story for CBS News. The ship, which carried 1,700 passengers and crew members, had collided with another ship in heavy fog off the coast of Massachusetts. The dramatic news footage, which showed the crippled vessel lying on its side as survivors struggled to board lifeboats, had a profound emotional effect on viewers and illustrated the power of televised news events.

In 1960 Hewitt directed the first-ever televised presidential debates. A debate is a discussion that gives each person a chance to voice his or her thoughts on various issues. Vice President Richard M. Nixon entered the first debate with a comfortable lead in the polls over his relatively unknown opponent, Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy. As the two candidates answered questions on stage, however, Kennedy seemed calm and confident, while Nixon sweated visibly and appeared uncomfortable. Kennedy's strong performance on television helped convince television viewers that he had the experience and maturity to be president, and he ended up winning the election a few months later. "That night I learned TV was a very dangerous medium," Hewitt recalled in Zap! A Brief History of Television. "We elected a president that night and we didn't have to wait to vote."

In 1962 Edwards was fired because of poor ratings (measures of the number of viewers watching a particular program), and Hewitt became executive producer of The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. When the ratings of the newscast remained in second place behind NBC, Hewitt was replaced by Ernie Leiser, who was regarded as a more traditional and serious news producer. In his personal life, Hewitt divorced his first wife and married Frankie Teague Childers, a public relations advisor to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. In 1967 the couple had a daughter, Lisa.

Creating 60 Minutes

From 1965 through 1968, Hewitt produced documentaries (fact-based films) for CBS. He produced a highly regarded profile of singer Frank Sinatra in 1965, for instance, as well as aggressive investigations of poverty and race relations in America. Throughout this period, though, he wanted to get back into producing news broadcasts. He eventually came up with an innovative format for a new show—an hour-long news magazine that would provide both investigative reports and feature stories, similar to the mix of articles in a print magazine. The show would use several reporters, with each focusing on a separate story. Unlike the nightly news, the show would be able to devote enough time to cover various sides of a story, providing in-depth analysis of political, social, and cultural issues that appealed to viewers.

Hewitt filmed a pilot (initial test) episode of the show, which would become 60 Minutes, with reporters Harry Reasoner (1923–1991) and Mike Wallace (1918–). It began airing on television on September 24, 1968. Critics immediately recognized that the show represented a new kind of broadcast journalism. Over the first few seasons, however, 60 Minutes struggled to find the right mix of aggressive investigative pieces and softer entertainment stories. Although it received poor ratings in its initial Tuesday-night time slot, CBS was willing to stick with it because the news magazine cost far less to produce than a situation comedy or drama.

Under Hewitt's guidance, 60 Minutes soon gained a reputation for covering difficult and controversial stories. In 1969, the show caused an intense debate when it aired an interview with Paul Meadlo, an American veteran of the Vietnam War who claimed that U.S. soldiers had massacred Vietnamese civilians (people not involved in a war, including women and children). Later that season, reporter Mike Wallace conducted a controversial interview with Eldridge Cleaver, a leader of the Black Panther Party who encouraged people to overthrow the U.S. government. This interview attracted the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, which filed a lawsuit to force CBS to turn over its interview footage and outtakes. The legal argument over the case put 60 Minutes on the front page of every newspaper in the country. As the show itself became news, more viewers began watching it.

By the early 1970s, 60 Minutes had also earned a reputation for having a highly competitive atmosphere behind the scenes. Hewitt upset many colleagues with his aggressive, argumentative style. Meanwhile, reporters such as Mike Wallace and Morley Safer (1931–) developed a bitter personal rivalry. Finally, some producers complained that the star power of the main reporters overshadowed their in-depth research and reporting work. Somehow, though, the on-camera result emerged as one of the best shows in television news.

Finding a home on Sunday nights

In 1971, CBS moved 60 Minutes to a new weekly time slot on Sunday nights. The program continued to air a mix of entertaining and investigative stories. Many people felt that it provided a voice for the average citizen in disputes with powerful corporate and government interests. Despite the growing critical praise for the show and its popular stories, however, 60 Minutes still pulled in low ratings.

In 1975, 60 Minutes moved from 6 pm to 7 pm and added another news reporter, Dan Rather (1931–). His addition meant more competition for airtime, as well as more aggressive stories. The rivalry that developed between Rather, Reasoner, Safer, and Wallace resulted in positive reviews and increased ratings. Stories from the mid-1970s covered such issues as safety concerns at the nation's nuclear power plants and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of union leader Jimmy Hoffa.

Becoming a star in the news business

With the growing success of 60 Minutes, Hewitt became a star in the news business. In 1976, he was asked to produce a new, gossip-driven entertainment news magazine called Who's Who. Unfortunately, the show premiered against two of ABC's biggest hits, the sitcoms Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, and it was canceled quickly despite good reviews. Hewitt was also asked to move to ABC and take over the production of the network's morning news program, Good Morning America. But ABC withdrew the offer when Hewitt demanded to own half the show. In 1979 Hewitt got married for the third time, to reporter Marilyn Berger.

By the late 1970s, 60 Minutes had grown into one of the most popular shows on television. In September 1978, it hit the top spot in the weekly TV ratings, marking the first time that a regularly scheduled nonfiction program ranked number one in the history of television.

By the 2000s, 60 Minutes was considered one of the most successful news programs of all time. It spent twenty years among the top ten prime-time series, and it was the only show to hold the number one position in the annual TV ratings in three different decades. Although the reporters varied throughout the decades it appeared on the air, the format essentially remained the same. Hewitt was regarded as the creative thinker behind the show, and he received widespread praise for his innovations to the field of television news.

In 2004 Hewitt stepped down from his role as executive producer of 60 Minutes, but he remained at CBS with the title of executive producer. Over the years, Hewitt has received numerous awards for his work. In 1980 he received the Broadcaster of the Year Award, and a decade later he was named to the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. He also received numerous Emmy Awards, the President's Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Overseas Press Club, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Producers Guild of America.

For More Information

BOOKS

Blum, David. Tick, Tick, Tick: The Long Life and Turbulent Times of "60 Minutes." New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Calabro, Marian. Zap! A Brief History of Television. New York: Four Winds Press, 1992.

Hewitt, Don. Minute by Minute. New York: Random House, 1985.

Madsen, Axel. "60 Minutes": The Power and the Politics of America's Most Popular TV News Show. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1984.

WEB SITES

"Don Hewitt." Museum of Broadcast Communications. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/H/htmlH/hewittdon/hewittdon.htm (accessed on May 22, 2006).

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