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Extended Interview: Don Hewitt

May 25, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: To begin with, what will your new title be?

DON HEWITT: Executive Producer, CBS News, and what that means, I’m not sure, but I like it.

TERENCE SMITH: As you look back over 56 years in the business of television news, what was the high point?

DON HEWITT: 60 Minutes was to me the high point because it was the first time we were able to take what was something that was always considered public service and make it a vital part of a network and not something they were obligated to do so they could butter up the FCC –which, incidentally, as you and I know, doesn’t even exist anymore for all intents and purposes.

TERENCE SMITH: If you look at the things (Edward) Murrow did, you look at Cronkite in Vietnam; you look at the business — and beyond CBS — is there an era where television news, in your view, mattered more than any other time?

DON HEWITT: Yeah, I think it, well, the McCarthy period, when Ed Murrow took on Joe McCarthy, which was the first big moment that television news ever had.

Up to that point, Terry, I remember the Murrows, the Sevareids (Eric Sevareid), the Collingwoods (Charles Collingwood) — wouldn’t deign to be in a television studio — radio was what was important. Television was for Howdy Doody and Romper Room and Douglas Edwards and this … and they were right, it really wasn’t very much.

And when Fred Friendly first dipped his toe into television with See It Now, it all of a sudden became respectable for these — what were known as the Murrow boys — to come into television. And the first big moment was Ed Murrow taking on Joe McCarthy. That was the first big moment I remember. 

The other big moment was when Walter Cronkite became the biggest name at the 1952 Republican and Democratic conventions, almost as big as the guys they had nominated. And it took off from there. It was lumbering along, going nowhere and those two events catapulted into the forefront of America.

TERENCE SMITH: Contrast that with today. When you look at this business — I’m not just talking about 60 Minutes — but the business of television news, what do you see?

DON HEWITT: I happen to believe that both you guys and Brokaw and Jennings and Rather, do very, very, capable jobs every night.

I am horrified that everybody else seems to be doing nothing other than using their news to promote reality television, quiz shows. I find that shocking, but, hell, come on, it’s their network, if that’s what they want, you know, I’m in no position to do anything about it, except to make sure that they don’t use 60 Minutes for that.

TERENCE SMITH: If television today is less than what it once was and less than what it should be, why? Is it economic pressure?

DON HEWITT: Yes, yes. Many, many years ago, I said to these guys, you’re going to price yourself out of business. You can’t cover every skirmish on every battlefield everywhere in the world. You can’t cover every river that’s overflowed its banks and stay in business — it costs too much.

The big mistake we made was the three networks not getting together and having a wire service where the newspapers had an AP and a UPI.

They need to concentrate on the big stories and let the little ones be done by, what in effect, would be a wire service. They’ve priced themselves out of business.

That’s why today, there are no foreign bureaus. Nobody covers foreign news. They sit in London and they get feeds from other sources. They put their own narration on somebody else’s pictures. They weren’t there.

They don’t know, really, what happened. And it’s economics. You can’t support it.

TERENCE SMITH: Some would argue that you had a lot to do with pricing — running up the price of television news by paying correspondents big salaries and making them into celebrity journalists.

DON HEWITT: That’s true and we all made a lot of money. Because as broadcast was $2 billion profit to CBS, during the 23 years or so that we were in the top ten.

Well, do you know who really is responsible for the big money thing? Barbara Walters broke the million-dollar barrier.

Terry, I remember the day when Walter Cronkite called me into his office and said, close the door, I got something to tell you. He said I just got a call from WCCO Minneapolis. You’re not going to believe what I’m going to tell you. They just offered me, $100,000 a year. Can you believe that?

I remember that morning. And now I see guys that, I don’t know –Jennings, Brokaw, these guys are all up on the, you know — and Diane Sawyer, I guess, is north of $10 million, Barbara, I made a lot of money. We all made money because they were making money. I don’t imagine that if The NewsHour were making millions, you guys wouldn’t be going in there and saying where’s our share?

TERENCE SMITH: Is it other things beyond economic pressure, when you look at television news? Is it the phenomenon of the 24-hour cable news and the recycling of the product? I mean, what’s been the impact of that?

DON HEWITT: The appeal is something called “attention span.” And the attention span is getting less and less, mostly because the old days of Walter Cronkite and (Chet) Huntley and (David) Brinkley — all of America waited till 7 o’clock every night to find out what happened.
There’s not a soul in America who doesn’t know what happened by 7 o’clock at night.

And I don’t think it’s as much the all-news cable channels as it is all news radio. America lives in its automobiles. The automobile is where you learn what happened in the world today. There’s a car radio.

So, I don’t think anybody is waiting for Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, or Tom Brokaw or you guys to find out what happened today.

That’s why you, so wisely, kiss that off and go into a little depth of why what happened fits into anything else. I don’t think we’re doing enough of that.

TERENCE SMITH: Those evening news shows were considered and often described as dinosaurs in the late ’90s. And, yet, here we are into the 21st century and they’re still there and they still — among the three of them, if you combine the audience — the largest audience of any news outlet in this country. 

DON HEWITT: That’s what I just said, you know what I would do? I’d get together. I’d have the three networks run as a service of broadcasting one network news show each night. I’d have Jennings in the anchor seat, Brokaw and Rather out on stories. Next week, Brokaw would come in, Jennings and Rather would go out.

In other words, I would come back to a public service and you’d make money from it at the same time.

But you take any three people you know, you lock one guy in a room and say you watch Brokaw; you watch Jennings; you watch Rather. At the end of the year, if they took a test, no one would know anything the other guy didn’t know.

So, it’s personalities — the people who like Jennings, watch Jennings; the people who like Brokaw, watch Brokaw. But they don’t learn anything different, it’s the same newscast.

TERENCE SMITH: Don Hewitt’s one of the most competitive people I know and this is the most anti-competitive suggestion I’ve ever heard!

DON HEWITT: But there is no competition — you see, there’s a competition among, for want of a better word, liberal newspapers, conservative newspapers. You don’t want to lose that.

But there’s not a dime’s bit of difference in the philosophy of ABC News, NBC News and CBS News. They all try to play it down the middle. They’re all saying the exact same thing and there are three different voices saying it. And it always struck me as a terrible waste of time.

It isn’t that it’s going to kill competition because they don’t compete. They do the same stories.

Whereas the New York Post may compete with the Daily News because they have a different point of view. But you can’t say that about television.

TERENCE SMITH: So you would put them all together into one, as you said, public service broadcast?

DON HEWITT: I would go back to the days where news would become a public service and this would be a way to make money also. Because you’d make a fortune with it. Because it — as you say, together, they’re the largest audience in television.

TERENCE SMITH: The other big change in the 56 years that you’ve been in this business has been the ownership of these networks, all of them. 


TERENCE SMITH: From the era of the William Paleys to the era today of huge conglomerates –


TERENCE SMITH: — that have them as some small item in their portfolios.

DON HEWITT: But it’s the same with newspapers and the same with everything in America. I mean, it isn’t just the networks that have this multifaceted operation where they own — The New York Times owns a piece of the Boston Red Sox.


DON HEWITT: They own — in other words, everybody is in some sort of conglomerate today.

TERENCE SMITH: That may be, but what I’m asking you is what’s been the impact on television news of that conglomeration if we make up a word, and that ownership by very large corporations, as opposed to the more individual ownership — do these organizations today have a different set of priorities than a Bill Paley did?

DON HEWITT: Well, of course or a David Sarnoff or a Leonard Goldenson — they owned their companies. They were king of the hill.

All of these companies — and this is not just in broadcasting — they’re beholding to stockholders. Their shareholders out there want to know why aren’t — why is my stock not performing as well?

Bill Paley didn’t have to worry about why the stock wasn’t performing as well. I once said — and Bill and I were very close — we were almost best friends in the end.

And I said, well, why did you go public? He said you can’t exist without being in this world, you can’t stay private.

I said, the same thing to Ted Turner. You’re this rugged individualist, why did you ever sell out to Time Warner? He said, I’d have been out of business. You can’t exist — it’s what’s wrong with the capitalist system and it’s what’s right with the capitalist system. 

TERENCE SMITH: But what’s the effect on news operations?

DON HEWITT: None here.

TERENCE SMITH: News divisions?

DON HEWITT: None here.

TERENCE SMITH: Not at 60 Minutes?

DON HEWITT: I found out a long time ago, the answer to being a success in broadcasting is to do something for their pocketbook, as well as their soul. And as long as you take care of their pocketbook, and you take care of their soul –

TERENCE SMITH: The owner’s pocketbook?

DON HEWITT: — you are golden, they don’t touch you. They didn’t touch it.

Now they do. They’re making some changes now. I’m not even sure I know why, but I’m not going to bemoan it. I’ve had too great a life. I can sit around and say, what are they doing to me, you know? And I did that — you know, in the words of Ella Fitzgerald, I was “bewitched, bothered and bewildered,” and I got over it. And I figured, what have I got to complain about? 

I’ve had the best life of anybody I ever knew of. I sit here, surrounded by all this memorabilia and what am I going to complain about? I could complain, but I’m not going to.

I’ve got another idea I can’t tell you about, but I got an idea that I think may be as good as the 60 Minutes idea.

TERENCE SMITH: So, you’re going to go a floor down, is it?

DON HEWITT: Down, down, one floor.

TERENCE SMITH: To another office?


TERENCE SMITH: And another title?


TERENCE SMITH: And more ideas? Is that going to be your stopping point?

DON HEWITT: I’ve already presented it to them and they’re now considering it. And I think it’s the logical extension of 60 Minutes, but I can’t talk about it yet, but when we’re ready, I’ll come and tell you about it.

TERENCE SMITH: You have talked in the past about the role of television in the electoral process, the political process. 

DON HEWITT: Awful, awful.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell me what you think about it — what the problems are?

DON HEWITT: I get a lot of credit for being the producer and director of the first Nixon/Kennedy debate.

And, in hindsight, I think I get the blame not the credit.

That’s the night that politicians looked at us and said, hey, those guys are the only way to run for office.

TERENCE SMITH: Those television guys?

DON HEWITT: And we looked at them and said — television guys –and we looked at them and said, those guys are a bottomless pit of advertising dollars.

Now, from that day on, nobody could even contemplate running for office in the greatest democracy on earth, unless you got money to buy television time. And you cannot get money to buy television time unless you’re doing something with a lobbyist you shouldn’t be doing.

And I look back and it almost dates from that debate that there are, what, about a thousand legislators on Capitol Hill? There are 10,000 lobbyists up on Capitol Hill. And they’re all there to tell these guys, you do what I want done and I can give you the money to buy the television time to get elected.

There’s something wrong in the system when you can buy your way into office by buying television time. And so, that great night of that great debate was really not all that we’d like to think it is.

Firs of all, most of those debates are baloney. Think back. I can’t remember any — Kimoy, Matsu, make up, they’re you go again, Jerry Ford’s gaffe about Poland. I don’t know what they mean.

Teddy White and I once, after he’d written “Making the President,” went to the League of Women Voters and said, I think we know how you want to do the debate. Each candidate brings two great debaters with them. You do a real debate, hypothetically, proposed: John Kerry is the next president of the United States. Pro and Con. Bush brings two great debaters, Kerry brings two great debaters and they debate in front of Congress for one hour, as a real debate. And the second hour, no reporters — the Democrats in Congress have at the Republican and Republicans in Congress have at the Democrat. 

Now, you and I know — we know every one of these guys who’s ever been part of that panel. I know every guy who sat there on the panel and said to himself the night before, what can I ask that’s going to make me look smart but not make me look partisan? If you’re not partisan, you shouldn’t be in a debate. Debates are about partisan. They’re not about nonpartisan news guys.

That’s a joint news conference. Have those if you want, but that’s not the debate.

TERENCE SMITH: Beyond the debates, should television cover politics differently? Should it offer free air time to candidates? 

DON HEWITT: No, no, it should cover the political year and give adequate coverage that were said and not said, but I don’t — first of all, if you give free time, what you’ve got is you’ve got a Madison Avenue copywriter who’s going to try to tailor a guy to an image and he’s going to become an actor. And I wouldn’t give any free time. I mean, newspapers don’t give free space. So, I would cover them, but I wouldn’t give them time.

But I wouldn’t sell television time. I think that’s made a travesty of what used to be called a free election, which is now an expensive election.

TERENCE SMITH: Let’s talk about a couple of things that are current these days in the news. Since the Super Bowl half-time show, the whole issue of Janet Jackson’s right breast has set off this great debate about decency and indecency in television and what should be done about it. What’s your opinion?

DON HEWITT: I think they’ve got a point. I think we’re skirting the limits of what you can do and can’t do. There’s been a pressure. It starts in books; goes to Broadway; it goes to movies; and now it’s about to explode in television. 

TERENCE SMITH: When you say “it” you’re talking about? 

DON HEWITT: Anything goes. I find it unattractive and I realize I leave myself wide open to, you old fuddy-duddy, you know. I know that. But, I’m offended by it.

TERENCE SMITH: Would you have the industry regulate itself or would you have the FCC do it?

DON HEWITT: If the industry — I think the industry is beginning to realize that they’ve got to pull back a little bit. You know, you don’t want to offend people. I mean, I don’t like to be offensive to anyone. And you are offending people. And if this were a private channel, if you sat home and wanted to watch a tape and it had every dirty word in the thing –that’s — you did it, you put it on. But it’s going to spill over. And I think there’s a general level of — I mean, it’s almost barbaric behavior. I mean, it’s got to do — I find the violence worse than the dirty words.

I mean, I can live with all the words that the FCC doesn’t want, but I can’t live with the violence. I don’t go to the movies anymore. By the time the coming-attractions are over, I’m a nervous wreck. I’ve seen six people thrown through a plate-glass window; six guys got knifed, and I’m thinking, hey, I’m going home.

TERENCE SMITH: Another flap that’s current and very serious right now: the controversy over these photographs out of the prison in Iraq. And the 60 Minutes: II playing a role in this. CBS is approached by General Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and asked to hold the broadcast for, I guess, a couple of weeks?


TERENCE SMITH: Because it’s a sensitive time in Iraq.


TERENCE SMITH: What did you think of that? Right decision to hold?

DON HEWITT: I think it’s more or less the same decision that Abe Rosenthal had when the Pentagon tried to stop the Pentagon Papers. And Richard Nixon tried to stop it. And if I — if it were my decision at that moment — I would have gone to my corporation and I’d have said, gentlemen, it’s your problem. It’s not mine. It’s your network. You’re the ones who are licensed by this government, your stations, you make the decision and whatever you say. And that’s exactly what Abe did –

TERENCE SMITH: Well, sure –

DON HEWITT: He went to Punch (Arthur Ochs Sulzberger) and Ben Bradley went to Kay Graham and said, what do I do? They didn’t make that decision. And same thing.

TERENCE SMITH: I understand that. But what I’m asking is, was it the right decision when presented with that set of facts, in your view?

DON HEWITT: There are a lot of kids dying in Iraq. That’s the — to me that’s the central issue. The central issue is not that somebody had a camera and took these awful pictures and they did these terrible things.

The thing is, did we send those kids there adequately prepared, adequately trained, adequately armed? And I wouldn’t want to do anything that would cause more American kids to get killed than are being killed there right now. And, therefore, I’m not sure I would consider myself the authority to make the decision. 

It’s their network, they’re the ones that have stations that are licensed by the government and I would not take it upon myself to make that decision. I would buck that up to the powers that be and say, your network has been asked by the government, you make the decision.

TERENCE SMITH: Of course, when an earlier decision that you had to make was bucked up to the corporate level, that of Jeffrey Wigan and the whistle blower in the tobacco case, the corporate answer was, don’t put that on the air.

DON HEWITT: So, how was I going to put it on the air, I don’t own the transmitter? I could have gone out and hired a bunch of guerrillas and got some rifles and taken the transmitter and said, we’re putting it on whether you like it or not. What do you do? I don’t care, who you are on earth — if the newspaper, the magazine, the broadcasting company you work for, doesn’t want to put it on the air, there’s not a way in the world you can.

Were they wrong? I think they were wrong and they admitted later the were wrong. And I never understood — I never understood why he didn’t do it and why all of a sudden, one day, they said, it’s okay we can do it. That’s because The Wall Street Journal had done it. Why that gave them the right to do it is beyond me. But it wasn’t my decision.

TERENCE SMITH: Finally, you’ve been at this for 56 years — this business of television news, where do you think it’s going to go in the next, say, five, ten, or 15 years? What’s going to change?

DON HEWITT: Well, first of all, I don’t think the network is going to go on spending the kind of money they spend on their news broadcasts because there are fewer and fewer people now — they were once the end-all and be-all of television — Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, Edward R. Murrow. It was 60 Minutes, you know, top ten, 23 years. It doesn’t exist anymore.

And you’re in this 800 — there are 800 channels or something like that, you’ve got. You’re in a whole…

When I came into television, Terry, Channel 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13, that was it.

So, you existed in that kind of an atmosphere. I don’t think you can go on with 800 channels and make the kind of money to support the kind of news operations we want to do. I’m not sure that CNN and Fox and the rest of them can go on supporting that kind of thing.

TERENCE SMITH: So, consolidation is what you forecast?

DON HEWITT: Well, that’s what I said. I said that I think you’re going to spend yourself out of business if you don’t find some way and what they found is a cheap way to do it, which is to close foreign bureaus and have a guy tell you what Al-Jazeera said today or somebody else — not what they found out.

I think, slowly but surely, news that was once the end-all and be-all of television has so spread into cable and everything else. And the Internet, I mean, don’t discount the Internet.

There are probably more kids, right this minute watching the Internet for news than watching television for news.


DON HEWITT: Those are realities you have to deal with.

TERENCE SMITH: And 60 Minutes in five, ten, or 15 years?

DON HEWITT: If this broadcast continues to be what I set out to be, it’ll still be here. What I said, when I started this broadcast is, everybody’s doing a pretty good job of covering the news of the day. I want to do a show about news of the times we live in.

And that’s what 60 Minutes does, it doesn’t make much difference. They keep saying what’s the peg for this? I said, there isn’t any. It happened, it’s part of our world. And it’s almost like that old Roy Howard, you know, give light and the people will find their way. And, you know, I’m a — you and I come from that part of journalism — where it was give light and the people will find their way.

And I’m not interested in re-scripting and reproducing the same stories that you can see everywhere else. I want to go out and find parts of our world — and one of the things I learned more than anything.

Do you know who I compete with? I don’t compete with ABC or NBC or Dateline or 20/20. I compete with that little remote that everybody has in his hand. That’s what everybody in television (competes against) — and these guys don’t know it.


DON HEWITT: You know that remote is like a gun: Bang, you’re dead. Bang. You sit there at night and you kill people, left and right. The minute they reach for the remote, you’re dead. And that’s the end-all and be-all of 60 Minutes, don’t ever let them look around and find out where’s the remote.

TERENCE SMITH: So, your forecast is, 60 Minutes will be here and Don Hewitt will be one floor down, spinning off ideas?

DON HEWITT: I would hope so, and that’s what I think might happen. But, who knows, I’m going to be 82 years old. I’m so happy to be alive and still going strong. You know, I’ll take anything, but that’s what I think is going to happen.

TERENCE SMITH: Don Hewitt, thanks so much.