Hewitt, Don S.
HEWITT, Don S.
(b. 14 December 1922 in New York City), news executive involved in some of the most memorable television programs of the 1960s, including the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates, who implemented enduring innovations to evening news broadcasts and created 60 Minutes, the venerable investigative news program.
Hewitt is one of two sons of Ely S. Hewitt, who worked in advertising sales, and Frieda (Pike) Hewitt. He was raised in New Rochelle, New York, where he enjoyed going to the movies. One of his favorites was The Front Page (1931), a film about the newspaper business. Hewitt graduated from New Rochelle High School in 1940 and then briefly attended New York University on a track scholarship but withdrew from the school during his sophomore year, before he could "flunk out." He chose instead to work as a copyboy at the New York Herald Tribune. A year after the United States entered World War II, Hewitt enrolled at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York. He was stationed in London, where he was a correspondent for Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military newspaper; he was discharged from the service at the end of the war.
In 1948 Hewitt was hired by the news division of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), where he first worked as associate director of the network's evening news broadcast. Throughout the 1950s he produced and directed Douglas Edwards with the News, and he remained with the program when it became CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite in the early 1960s. During these early days of television, Hewitt was instrumental in pushing such innovations as the addition of film clips and graphics into newscasts. He also implemented the use of cue cards to force anchors to look directly into the camera. Hewitt directed the 1960 presidential campaign debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. This first ever televised debate between presidential candidates took place on 26 September 1960 and is often cited as a watershed event in that election, in which Kennedy narrowly won the presidency. Despite Hewitt's advice, Nixon chose to wear minimal makeup for the broadcast. The vice president had been ill days earlier and appeared pale and sweaty compared with the vital-looking, young Senator Kennedy. According to Hewitt, "Nixon never recovered from that disastrous first round and the lousy makeup job that did him in."
Evening newscasts were extended from fifteen minutes to half an hour in 1963. CBS and its news anchor, Walter Cronkite, were competing head to head with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and its anchors, David Brinkley and Chet Huntley. Politics behind the scenes at CBS ultimately resulted in Hewitt's firing in 1965. "[G]etting canned … turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. But at that moment, I was filled with despair," remembers Hewitt. "It was devastating, the end of my short, happy career." He went on to say, "I figured my life was over. I'd had this great run, and now what?" Hewitt was reassigned to work on news documentaries as a director and producer. In those days, documentary television suffered from shifting time slots and little commercial sponsorship. In 1966 and 1967 Hewitt started mulling over how he could make a personal, long-form, journalistic news show entertaining.
In developing 60 Minutes, Hewitt sought to make events of the day both provocative and entertaining for viewers, while creating an inexpensive show for the network to produce. The first pilot did little to impress the network executives. Instead of selecting a single anchor, two presenters, Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace, were chosen. At 10 p.m., Tuesday, 24 September 1968, 60 Minutes premiered. The program included interviews with the presidential candidates Nixon and Hubert Humphrey filmed on the nights of their respective parties' nominations; a segment about the turbulent events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; a commentary from the humorist Art Buchwald; and excerpts from a film about Kaiser Aluminum.
Initially, 60 Minutes was never seen at the same time for four consecutive weeks. It was shown every other Tuesday night from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. Other programs continually preempted it. The network even bumped the news show to position the hour-long drama Cannon to compete against Marcus Welby, M.D., which was airing on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Slowly, 60 Minutes developed a reputation for its blend of investigative muckraking with lighter news features. Topics that reporters tackled in its early days included European student unrest and drug addiction. It also featured in-depth interviews with notable people of the day from the varied fields of politics, business, and entertainment.
The 1970s brought changes to Hewitt's program. Reasoner defected to ABC in 1970 and Morley Safer, who had been CBS's bureau chief in London and the main correspondent in South Vietnam, signed on. His only condition was that he be allowed to return to his London post when the program folded. In 1972 the network moved the program from Tuesday to Sunday nights at 6 p.m. Now professional football would be the only cause for 60 Minutes to be bumped. The 1960s and 1970s also saw transitions in Hewitt's personal life. His first marriage, to Mary Weaver, with whom he had two sons, ended in divorce in 1962. Weaver died in 1963. Hewitt then married Frankie Lea Teague Childers; they had two daughters and were divorced in the 1970s. Hewitt has been married to Marilyn Berger, a news correspondent for the Washington Post and then for NBC, since 14 April 1979.
Hewitt and 60 Minutes have won numerous awards. Since its creation, the program has consistently been on Nielsen's top-ten list and after more than thirty years on the air it reportedly has earned more than $1 billion for CBS. Hewitt has said that he does not understand the news show's enduring popularity. In 1990 Hewitt was named to the Television Hall of Fame by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. From 1968 to 2002 60 Minutes accumulated seventy-three Emmy Awards, ten Alfred I. du-Pont–Columbia University Journalism Awards, and nine University of Georgia George Foster Peabody Awards. Hewitt has continued to work on 60 Minutes, saying in 2001, "I'm never gonna retire. I can't think of my life without 60 Minutes. We're so intertwined that I don't know where I end and where the show begins." Hewitt created some of the decade's most memorable television programs and implemented innovations that became standards in evening television news.
Hewitt's autobiography, Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television (2001), chronicles his life in journalism from World War II through the years with 60 Minutes. For an overview of the program, see Axel Madsen, 60 Minutes: The Power and the Politics of America's Most Popular TV News Show (1984), and Don Hewitt, Minute by Minute (1985).
Linda Dailey Paulson