Casting a Long Shadow

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009; 9:28 AM

I seem to be in the obit business these days, as one major media figure after another passes from the scene.

After Tim Russert and Walter Cronkite and Robert Novak, the latest to depart is Don Hewitt, who died yesterday at 86. (Throw in Michael Jackson, Ed McMahon and Farrah Fawcett and death seems to be on a winning streak lately.)

Few television producers gain a slice of fame, but Hewitt invented the televised presidential debate (with JFK-Nixon in 1960), the 30-minute evening newscast (in 1963) and the TV newsmagazine ("60 Minutes" in 1968). Not a bad career.

Hewitt's great insight in putting together the program with Mike, Morley, Ed and the gang was that news stories could be packaged like a morality play. The correspondents were the good guys chasing the villains and holding them accountable. Each tale built to a climax, with viewers rooting for their favorites.

Hewitt once sent Mike Wallace to Washington to interview me for a piece that Wallace thought was done. After we finished chatting in front of the cameras, Wallace shook his head. "Don was right," he said with grudging admiration. "The story needed one more voice."

But Hewitt also masterminded the ambush interviews and hidden-camera probes that were a "60" signature in the early years and have now fallen out of favor. By today's standards, chasing someone on the street just to create confrontation seems rather staged and hokey. And Hewitt went along with a CBS decision to kill a Wallace interview with a tobacco whistleblower because of the threat of litigation (later recounted in the film "The Insider"). But Hewitt had far more hits than errors.

Novak, who died Tuesday, was a far more public, and controversial, figure, and not just because of the Valerie Plame case. What he did in cultivating sources is what many journalists (and "60 Minutes" staffers) do -- promise people anonymity in exchange for information. But as a conservative commentator, Novak not only picked sides, he made, in my view, an implicit agreement to go easier on those who were feeding him the tidbits that he needed to churn out his column and pepper his TV appearances. If you were outside his circle of helpful contacts, you could feel his wrath. That, to me, is a very slippery slope.

In Slate, Jack Shafer touches on this but reaches a different conclusion:

"While he would be the first to admit that digging well after well after well might unleash an occasional gusher of news, the brand of insider journalism he practiced depended on building relationships with the powerful and the connected, and he makes no bones about it in his book. For a half-century, Novak worked like a wheat thresher, feeding and grooming his sources until they gave him the harvest of news--or he beat it out of them. . . .

"Karl Rove, friendly with Novak if not a friend of his, made light of the columnist's strong-armed news-gathering strategies by wearing a 'I'm a Source, Not a Target' button to a June 2003 Washington party celebrating Novak's 40th year as a syndicated columnist. . . .

"So hungry was Novak for scoops and even scooplets that he sometimes failed to understand the greater meaning of what ended up in his notebook. The most memorable example of Novak's rush-to-publish style is the July 14, 2003, column that blew Valerie Plame's cover. Novak detractors insist at the time that he deliberately exposed her to punish her husband for dissenting from Bush administration policies. But knowing what we now know about Novak's Plame conversation with source Richard Armitage, it's evident that he wasn't targeting anybody with his column -- at least, not this time. Viewed in a more generous context, the Plame piece reads like so much of his work -- a jumble of great reporting desperately in need of a smart editor.

"There was meanness and toughness in Novak's work and in his personal style, and depending on your sensibilities, this cruelty either drew you to the man or repulsed you. Novak didn't have a chip on his shoulder -- he was all chip, as willing to shred his friends as he was his enemies."

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