October 17, 2006

The Sun Talks With 60 Minutes Founder Hewitt

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In 1968, CBS premiered 60 Minutes, the brainchild of Don Hewitt, a producer who worked for CBS. The show was the first investigative news program to showcase reporters as stars in their own right. The theory was that the reporters’ stardom would sell the stories and the show to the public.

Sun: Can you tell me a little about how you came up with the idea for 60 Minutes?

Hewitt: I had done the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, and then I got off that, and I was doing documentaries, which bored me silly.

Sun: Why?

Hewitt: I was doing a show called Town Meeting of The World, and it had a lot of dull boring people on it. I watched the documentaries, and I noticed they all ended up with the same ratings … the good ones and the bad ones are the same, and you figure people just watch them because they’re called “documentaries.”
I had lunch one day with Norman Isaacs, who ran The Courier-Journal, and he said, “Do you know how many people read editorials?”
I said no.
He said, “Seven percent.”
I said, “My god, those are the same people that watch documentaries. I bet if we went multi-subject, and used established broadcasters, and it was not the voice of corporations, but the voice of broadcasters, then we could raise [our ratings from] seven to 12 percent; we raised them to 35 or 40 percent.”… We were in the top 10 for 23 years.

Sun: How much of 60 Minutes’ success do you attribute to the personalities on screen and how much do attribute to the off-screen production?

Hewitt: Everything that is successful has some successful person; I latched on to [original 60 Minutes reporters] Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner right off the bat.

Sun: What were the qualities that attracted you to them?

Hewitt: They just … clicked. It was like the good guy and the bad guy … Mike was the tough guy, who they were all afraid of, Harry was the charming guy who they weren’t; and the chemistry, everything just fell into place.

Sun: In one of your earlier jobs at CBS, you produced the Nixon-Kennedy debate, which was America’s first televised presidential debate.

Hewitt: I get credit for that, but I don’t deserve it — that was the worst night that ever happened to American politics, and I’ll tell you why: that’s the night politicians looked at us and said, “That’s the only way to run for office.” That’s the night we looked at them and said, “That’s a bottomless pit of advertising dollars.”
Starting from that night, you can’t even think about running for office in the greatest democracy on earth unless you’ve got money for television; and it began from the fact that Jack Kennedy got elected because he looked better on television than Richard Nixon. I don’t think that’s why we should elect the president.

Sun: Many believe Kennedy’s handsome appearance during the debate won him the presidential race. Nixon famously refused to wear makeup that night, and, in contrast to Kennedy, he appeared haggard and unkempt. Is it true that you told Nixon he should wear makeup?

Hewitt: I did a special broadcast right after Jack Kennedy was assassinated. We had Nixon on; he was being made up by the same woman he didn’t let make him up the first time.
I said to him, “You know if Mr. Nixon, if you had let Franny here make you up that night in Chicago, you would have been president,” and without thinking he goes, “Yeah, well I would have been dead now too.”

Sun: I know that you spent time as a war correspondent during World War II working for Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper and working with Andy Rooney, another staple of CBS news. What was that like?

Hewitt: I never was scared … I was in a convoy that got wiped out by German planes, I woke up the next morning, [and] I was waiting for them to finish us off, and I saw two little dots. They were coming to escort us — and, as a child of the movies, I thought: “Where’s the music?”

Sun: Well the truth is that’s what you did on 60 Minutes, you took news, but made it more theatrical

Hewitt: Yes, yes — but it was always without compromising the truth as we saw it, and yet, you’re absolutely right: we turned television journalism into show business in many ways, without compromising our integrity — which was the trick.

Sun: A little bit after producing the Nixon-Kennedy debates, you became the executive producer of the Evening News with Walter Cronkite. While there, you created the term “news anchor.” Can you tell me about how that term came to be?

Hewitt: We’re all sitting around the stockyard in Chicago, 1952, and I’ve got four broadcasters that I’m going to be using at the democratic convention … I’m looking at the four guys, and I said okay, I’m gonna consider it like a relay team, and we’re gonna hand the baton off to the last guy.
Walter Cronkite had run the anchor leg, which was what they call the last guy on a relay team — he’s known as the “anchor man.” It’s about track, it’s not about ships … yeah, I coined the phrase, and I hate it, and nobody knows what it means.

Sun: What do you think is in store for anchors in the future? Some say that the “Voice of God” format, with one anchor handing out the news, will be replaced by a multiple anchor system.

Hewitt: Voice of God (President of CBS) Les Moonves coined that term. I don’t think that was fair to guys like Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw and Edward R. Murrow, they were so good. When I worked with Cronkite, he could call anybody in the world and they’d answer.

Sun: Does our generation have its own Walter Cronkite, or anyone close?

Hewitt: It’s probably going to be a woman. I don’t think there’s anyone on television today who demands more respect than Oprah. Oprah is to television what Walter Cronkite was at one time. There is no more broadcast that anyone wants to be on more to publicize anything than Oprah.

Sun: You never graduated from college, and you’ve said the president of CBS, Fred Friendly, fired you from your job on the Evening News for not being intellectual enough. Why then do you think you were able to be as successful as you were?

Hewitt: You couldn’t write this life, it just happened, and I never thought I was worthy of it. I don’t know why I was a success at it.

Sun: Do you agree that everyone’s always afraid they’re going to wake up and have the world realize they’re a fake.

Hewitt: That’s exactly true. I’m very aware of it when I’m here, because everyone here is so in tune … I keep thinking, “What the hell can [you] learn from [me]?” I don’t think you can learn anything from me, I think it just happened.

Sun: Though, perhaps that is what students can learn from you, that somehow, you find your channel.

Hewitt: You’re right, most of the things that happen to you, you stumble upon … I don’t think that most successful people knew they were going to be successful or knew exactly what they wanted to do … life has a way of leading you along paths that develop whatever it is you had inside you that you’re not even aware that you had. I just knew when a story worked and when it didn’t work.