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'60 Minutes' Creator Don Hewitt, 86, Dies; CBS Veteran Turned TV News Profitable
Donald Shepard Hewitt was born Dec. 14, 1922, in Manhattan and raised in New Rochelle, N.Y. His father was an advertising salesman for the Hearst newspaper company. After nearly flunking out of New York University in 1942, he left school and used his father's connections to find work briefly as a $15-a-week copy boy at the New York Herald Tribune.
He wrote for the Army publication Stars and Stripes later in World War II and said he hoped his experience would lead to a full-time Herald Tribune reporting job. He was bitterly disappointed when it didn't, and he was working as a wire service photo editor when a friend told him of an opening at CBS News that required "picture experience."
As a young director, he worked on the public affairs program "See It Now" hosted by Murrow as well as the evening newscast. He advanced rapidly at the network, later telling the New Yorker: "I am not an intellectual. I operate by my guts and my fingertips. Television is successful when you have a gut feeling about a show. It's not what your eyes and your ears digest that counts. It's the impact of your gut. I have a kind of sixth sense for seeing a piece of film and knowing what's wrong about it and what's right."
At "60 Minutes," Mr. Hewitt was at times thrust into the public spotlight, including a controversy over not promoting women. In 1979, he offered People magazine an explanation of why the show had so few female producers: "A lot of things get talked about in the men's room standing at the urinals, which puts them at a disadvantage."
The profitability of "60 Minutes" had long ensured Mr. Hewitt editorial independence, but he grew increasingly frustrated by what he considered painful cost-cutting measures and setbacks in editorial freedom under new CBS chief executive Laurence Tisch in the 1980s and 1990s.
At one point, he sent word that he, Wallace, Rather and others wanted to pool their money and buy the news division. The offer was declined, but Mr. Hewitt stayed on, largely, he said, because of his enormous salary.
What is often seen as the greatest blow to Mr. Hewitt and his show's prestige was the network's interference with a "60 Minutes" report about a tobacco industry whistleblower who said he could prove cigarette executives were lying when they publicly declared they knew of no evidence to prove the addictive nature of nicotine.
When the whistleblower, Jeffrey S. Wigand, came to Mr. Hewitt's attention in 1994, CBS was in the middle of a takeover by the conglomerate Westinghouse, and the network feared that Wigand's confidentiality agreement with his old employer would make CBS susceptible to a multibillion-dollar lawsuit.
In the end, "60 Minutes" aired in 1995 only a small portion of Wigand's interview and hid his identity and face. Wallace, who conducted the interview, noted the limitations imposed by CBS management.
Segment producer Lowell Bergman, a respected investigative reporter, was furious about what he regarded as a cowardly act by the network and leaked word of what he called "self-censorship in major media" to media outlets. "60 Minutes" broadcast a fuller Wigand interview many months later, after a deposition Wigand had given in a tobacco lawsuit was reported in the Wall Street Journal.
Communications scholar Richard Campbell, author of a book about "60 Minutes," told the Baltimore Sun that "to have the major investigative journalism symbol of our times back down from big business was a real low point in television news history."
The controversy over Wigand was revived in the 1999 Hollywood film "The Insider," in which Bergman was portrayed as a lonely crusader, while Mr. Hewitt and Wallace were shown as unduly deferential to CBS brass.
Mr. Hewitt frequently impugned the film and Bergman. He told The Washington Post: "This was a corporate blunder. Nobody here at '60 Minutes' was in agreement with the corporation. Short of a bunch of guerrillas with guns taking over the CBS transmitters, there was no way for us to put it on the air the first time. CBS owns the means of getting that story to the public."
He later said Benjamin C. Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Post, advised him to "go back to the dugout, sit down and shut up." Mr. Hewitt called it "the best advice anybody ever gave me."
He was married three times. He and his first wife, Mary Weaver, divorced in 1962. His second marriage, to Frankie Childers Hewitt, who organized the revival of Ford's Theatre into a cultural institution, also ended in divorce. Since 1979, he had been married to Marilyn Berger, a former Post and network television reporter.
Berger survives, along with two sons from his first marriage; two daughters from his second marriage; and three grandchildren.