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In the News Don Hewitt

August 27, 2009

VIEW: Clips from an interview with Don Hewitt. The piece was produced 15 years ago by students at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley, where Lowell Bergman was one of their professors. Bergman's a former 60 Minutes producer and, for the past decade, a FRONTLINE correspondent.

He wrote the following personal reflections on Don Hewitt:
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As so many have already said, Don Hewitt was not just the creator of 60 Minutes, but much of the grammar of television news. His innovations include putting the anchor in the field doing the first stand-up, the very concept of the television newsmagazine, and recognizing the power of the super tight close-up on the "small screen." Hewitt also demonstrated that television news could make lots of money -- he himself estimated 60 Minutes made $2 billion for CBS.

I learned Hewitt's magazine format first at ABC News, where they imitated the form that Hewitt invented thirty years ago with the creation of 20/20. In 1983, when I moved to 60 Minutes as a producer for Mike Wallace, I further refined my understanding of it under the tutelage of the master himself: "Great story! I know how to make it better."

Hewitt was hands on. He knew what he wanted. But from the beginning, he projected an almost reckless enthusiasm, a persona that was hard to reconcile with the notion that here was the executive producer of the most successful, most watched news program ever. All that came into focus once I started reporting stories that were not just 'investigative,' but took on individuals and institutions who were as, or more, powerful than CBS itself.

My relationship with Don was never close. It was marked not just by arguments, but a kind of dance where he would regularly 'fire' me during my first decade at the program. But it finally disintegrated during a critical period in 1995 when CBS management and lawyers changed the rules, citing a little-used legal concept ("tortious interference") to justify killing an investigation of the tobacco industry that I was working on. Hewitt's acquiescence, and then public justification of management's decision, was the last straw. That episode convinced me he was willing to abandon the basic trust that a real news organization has to maintain with its most important sources: people who are willing to risk retaliation for telling the truth.

I never expected that Hewitt would protest publicly. I was dismayed that someone who had so little to lose was unwilling to at least talk back, even in private meetings, to the powers that be.

I have to acknowledge that working for Don Hewitt taught me how to survive the consequences of my decision to talk openly and honestly about what really happens when powerful interests are threatened by the truth. Seeing him in action over the years prepared me for the consequences of my own decision to try to expose, and hopefully undo, CBS's decision.

After loudly protesting my critique of what he did, as portrayed in the 1999 movie, The Insider, Hewitt went on to try to blackball me in the industry. He finally relented -- citing advice from his friend, Benjamin Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, who told him, "go back to the dugout, sit down and shut up."

As we mark the passing of Walter Cronkite, and now Don Hewitt, both part of that 'grand army' of pioneers in broadcast journalism, it's critical to remember that we have to hold ourselves and our own to the same standards that we use in reporting on others.

On the road one day in the midst of reporting a 60 Minutes story, and sharing vignettes that revealed mistakes and battles in which we'd been involved, Mike Wallace reflected, "We are all damaged goods." -- Lowell Bergman
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READ:

-- A few of the many testimonials/obituaries on Don Hewitt: A piece in The Atlantic online; The Washington's Post's obit, and CBS News' obituary.

-- Also explore FRONTLINE's 1996 report on how CBS caved on the investigation into the tobacco industry. It includes a synopsis, an
interview with Bergman and a chronology of the events.

2 Comments

COMMENTS

News is more than a business and the real star should be the content, not the people who package the content. If news and information at large is only a business or part of a business that thinks about profits first and the information of citizens as an afterthought, then it is of little value. When entertainment and personalities overshadow the news, as we now see on cable news channels and in some newspaper, the public is certainly not as well served. Don Hewitt may have been a great guy, with great packaging ideas, but he did dishonor himself with the tobacco story. Too bad!

Luc H├ętu / August 28, 2009 5:07 PM

I could not agree any more with above comment than if I had written it. I am grateful Lowell Bergman had the courage to continue on to let the rest of us know the truth. I say this realizing we are all flawed in some way.

Cate Gross / August 30, 2009 8:16 PM
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