October 13, 2006

Hewitts Foretell Media’s Future

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Last night, Don Hewitt, the founder of CBS’s 60 minutes, answered a burning question before even giving an audience member the chance to ask it.

“How is Katie Couric doing? As she more and more gets the hang of what it means to follow Walter Cronkite, once known as the most trusted man in America, she has a good shot as replacing Oprah as the most trusted woman.”

Hewitt, and his his wife, Marilyn Berger Hewitt ’56, spoke last night at Alice Cook house about experiences in and perspectives on the media. The event was moderated by Prof. Ross Brann, near eastern studies.

Don started his career as a copyboy for the New York Herald tribune. At 21, he got a job as a war correspondent. He later spent some years working for the AP and Acme news.

After a few years, Don received a call from CBS inviting him to work in a medium called “television.” Hewitt’s immediate reaction to the offer was far from excited: “You mean,” he had declared in the phone, “where you sit at home and watch little pictures in a box?”

Eventually, Don acquiesced to the idea of working with “the little pictures in a box” and joined the CBS news-team. Don’s list of accomplishments at CBS run long, but he is most well known for his creation of the television news show 60 Minutes. Don created 60 minutes with the idea that his reporters would attract consumers in the same way that magazine covers do.

”Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner [the original anchors] were my covers,” Don said.

Wallace was not only Don’s cover; he was introduced Don to a journalist named Marilyn.

Marilyn said, “This very gorgeous man appeared, and the rest was history.”

Marilyn became involved in journalism later in life. After earning an undergraduate degree at Cornell and a Masters at Columbia, Marilyn worked at the U.N. When she realized that journalism was something she “could” and wanted to do, she pursued the profession. Eventually, she became news correspondent for both NBC and PBS. She is currently an editor for the New York Times.

Don’s speech, which Brann remarked was so expansive it could have been delivered at “graduation, convocation” and freshman opening ceremonies, was flavored with memories from his time at CBS, views on current politics and advice to fellow writers.

Don describes his venture in the television industry as the “second time” he thought he’d “died and gone to heaven.” The first was his stint as a reporter during World War Two.

As the speech closed, Don transitioned to his passion for language and words.

“Some time between now and when you graduate you’re going to fall in love. You probably have several times already and will several times more,” explained Don. “Now, if you’re lucky enough to be smitten, you’re about to fall in love gain — with words.”

For the “lucky” ones, Don gave advice on using words.

“Good writing has no unnecessary adverbs or adjectives, which is the essence of telling the way it … words used sparingly make their point best.”

The first question Don faced was about Dan Rather’s departure from CBS. In 2004, Rather aired a piece that questioned President’s Bush’s involvement in the Texas Air National Guard. The piece was largely criticized for being untrue and improperly reported upon, and that same year, Rather announced his retirement from the Evening News.

Hewitt condemned Rather. He said he believed that Rather let his leftist bias influence his coverage of the story and claimed had “it been about John Kerry, “they would have been a lot more careful.”

In general, most of the other questions centered on perceived failings in today’s media. One questioner asked why networks tend to prefer sensational stories over more important but less tantalizing ones. Another questioned the benefits of a 24-hour news-channel, which recycles the same news.

Don’s answer was simple: the media is a business, and it must act as such to survive. In order to attract viewers and maintain their sponsors, networks must deliver news that will also bring them money.

Despite this, Don said, “Americans are pretty damn well informed.”

If you don’t like television news, he said, “you know that little button on your television that says ‘on’, it also says ‘off.’”

When asked whether the internet will oust print media, Marilyn responded that print will always be around and always be needed.