Don Hewitt, 86
'60 Minutes' Creator Don Hewitt, 86, Dies; CBS Veteran Turned TV News Profitable
Thursday, August 20, 2009
"60 Minutes" creator Don Hewitt, 86, who transformed television journalism by showing that news programs could generate money, and who helped make TV an essential part of politics when he produced and directed the first televised debate between U.S. presidential candidates, died Aug. 19 at his home in Bridgehampton, N.Y. He had pancreatic cancer.
The 1960 televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon was watched by 70 million Americans. It proved a turning point in the presidential race, in large part because an ailing Nixon rejected Mr. Hewitt's advice to use professional makeup instead of a cheaper product. Nixon's sickly appearance while he recuperated from a staph infection, in contrast to the tan and vigorous Kennedy, was seen as helping to turn the election in Kennedy's favor.
"From that day on," Mr. Hewitt later said, "you can't even think of running for office in the greatest democracy on Earth unless you've got the money to buy television time."
Mr. Hewitt, who spent his career at CBS News, also directed programs of such early TV news giants Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. He led coverage of political conventions, royal weddings and coronations, papal installations and national days of mourning for assassinated leaders including Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
With the debut of "60 Minutes" in 1968, Mr. Hewitt merged elements of news and entertainment and shattered the traditional view that news divisions were run as a public trust with little concern for how much money they made. Mr. Hewitt also was a central voice in the 1990s debates over corporate censorship in journalism when network executives interfered with a "60 Minutes" segment on a tobacco industry whistleblower.
Mr. Hewitt's impact on television was almost unparalleled, said Marvin Kalb, founding director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and a former reporter for CBS and NBC News.
"We never made money before '60 Minutes,' " Kalb said of news and public affairs programs. "That had probably, with the exception of the introduction of the Internet, the most profound impact on television news. It meant that everybody else had to make money, and in the quest for profit, standards began to fall. Then add the Internet and you can see the powerful impact the combination of new technology and news profitability had upon the quality of the product."
In starting "60 Minutes," Mr. Hewitt's key insight was to combine the prestige surrounding the network's documentary unit with the editorial and visual pacing of an entertainment show. He likened his proposal to a "Life magazine of the air."
"We could look into Marilyn Monroe's closet so long as we looked into Robert Oppenheimer's laboratory, too," he once wrote, referring to the sexy film star and the atomic scientist. "We could make the news entertaining without compromising our integrity."
"60 Minutes," which Mr. Hewitt produced until his retirement in 2004, helped turn correspondents such as Mike Wallace, Diane Sawyer and Morley Safer into instantly recognizable stars. At its boldest, the show popularized a confrontational style of reporting on establishment institutions such as the military and major corporations. At its most controversial, it unleashed reporting techniques such as hidden cameras and ambush journalism, which surprises the interview subject.
The program, with its trademark ticking stopwatch, was one of the highest-rated prime-time series ever, and its weekly viewership reached 40 million at the peak of network TV audiences in the early 1980s. It spawned many imitators and won the top honors of the profession.
Mr. Hewitt, who left college to pursue a journalism career, modeled himself on the hard-boiled, anything-for-a-story reporters portrayed in 1930s Hollywood films such as "The Front Page." When he joined CBS as an associate director in 1948, radio was still the dominant broadcast medium and television news was little more than a person on camera for 15 minutes reading headlines from a piece of paper.