Don Hewitt, who founded "60 Minutes" and changed the trajectory of journalism in America, died this week at the age of 86. Brooke spoke with him in 2001 and so this week we replay that interview.
Don Hewitt died last week. The CBS news veteran of six decades was the creator and, for 36 years, executive producer of the seminal TV news magazine, 60 Minutes. In that span, 60 Minutes won 73 Emmys, 13 DuPont-Columbia Awards and 9 Peabody Awards. It did so because Hewitt understood that important journalism could be dramatized by potent storytelling, without contaminating it with cheap populism, cheap sensationalism and cheap tricks. Eight years ago, marking the publication of Hewitt’s memoir, he spoke to Brooke about 60 Minutes and his mastery of the form.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mr. Hewitt, after you've exposed hundreds of cases of government malfeasance, dozens, if not hundreds, of cases of falsely accused convicts, hundreds of cases of illegal and unethical business practices, why does anyone sit down for a 60 Minutes interview anymore?
DON HEWITT: Ah-ha! Morley Safer and I were once in Philadelphia speaking at some meeting and one of the questions from the audience was your question: Why does a guy who is obviously a crook decide to go on 60 Minutes? And Morley said, because a crook doesn't believe he's made it as a crook until he's been on 60 Minutes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
Right at the beginning of your book you lay out your political positions on everything from race relations to same-sex marriage, to gun control, to God, not to mention your entire voting record over the last three decades.
DON HEWITT: Yeah, right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, I applaud that and I think it's really interesting because your colleague Dan Rather recently got into some hot water by appearing, accidentally, he said, at a Democratic fundraiser. Now, one ethicist we spoke to about that situation says it hurts press credibility to reveal your political stripes. I take it you don't agree?
DON HEWITT: No! I'm – listen, I'm an open book. Why shouldn't I be as open as the people we go after? But I have finally decided that there are two words that I would like to see expunged from the lexicon. It's “liberal” and “conservative.” I have no idea what they mean.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've said that behind every magazine show is a failed sit-com.
DON HEWITT: With one exception.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm?
DON HEWITT: ‘Cause we started it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] That's right.
DON HEWITT: But then the rest of them came along and they - if those sit-coms hadn't died, there wouldn't have been those magazines.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you've also said that there isn't enough news for the number of news magazines. Don, you're the father of the genre, shouldn't you be more nurturing?
DON HEWITT: I would if they were, if they were using them as news magazines and not as filler.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Summarize what you think is the problem with a lot of the news magazines that followed 60 Minutes.
DON HEWITT: Well it's the same thing that's wrong with most television. They're in a game. It's called Sweeps Week Roulette. My favorite sweeps week was the week that WCBS actually did Dangerous Dry Cleaners. I'm telling you, Saturday Night Live couldn't have dreamed up anything funnier than that. [LAUGHS]
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And it's all nonsense. And the problem really is you can't really compare us to newspapers. Newspaper publishers are in the newspaper business. Broadcast companies are in the entertainment business. And news is a very small part of what they think about, what they care about. And if a broadcast comes along like 60 Minutes and it makes them money like it's going out of style well, then they pay attention to you, and you become somebody around there. If you don't, you're filler. When I started 60 Minutes I worked for a marvelous man named Bill Leonard who said to me, make us proud. I don't think anybody in television has said to anyone else in television in the last 30, 40 years, make us proud. BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Have you made any concession to demographics to try and get a younger audience?
DON HEWITT: No. No, I don't know what the demographics are. I've never seen a demographic breakdown. I've never seen one of those one minute-by-minute Nielsen things that tells you where it peaks and where it goes up and down. I don't want to look at it. The trick in this business is to recognize that there is a line that separates news biz from show biz. And the trick is to walk up to that line and touch it with your toe but don't cross it. If you don't go anywhere near it you’re going to lose your audience, if you walk over it, you lose your soul. So you want to find out where is that line and how do you know where that line is. I don't know how I know where that line is. I just kind of know it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Andy Rooney are all in your late seventies and beyond. After you all retire, will the legitimate news magazine go with you?
DON HEWITT: It remains to be seen. Chairman -
I can't believe you said it remains to be seen. You should be ashamed of yourself.
DON HEWITT: You happen to be right. [LAUGHS] You absolutely happen to be right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you like Supreme Court justices? You have to keep working because who knows who they'll appoint after you're gone?
DON HEWITT: There may be some of that, but mostly it's to feed yourself. I don't want to – I don’t want to die in a rowboat. [LAUGHS] I don't want to die in a canoe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don Hewitt, executive producer of 60 Minutes and author of Tell Me a Story, thank you very much.
DON HEWITT: Thank you. This was fun.
BOB GARFIELD: Don Hewitt died Wednesday, on dry land at his home near the Long Island Sound. He was 86 years old.
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[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips and Nazanin Rafsanjani, with more help from Sarah Fidelibus and Kasia Gladki, and edited this week by our senior producer, Katya Rogers. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
John Keefe is our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts at Onthemedia.org. You can also post comments there, or email us at Onthemedia@wnyc.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. Brooke Gladstone will be back one of these days. I'm Bob Garfield.