23 August 2009

Don Hewitt

The Big Cats: Hewitt (right) with a few tigers

Don Hewitt was a short, scrappy guy who looked far younger than his years. Part of this was due to his heavy-duty suntan, in all seasons, but mostly his energy made him young. The spring in his catlike step, the eagerness for another hot story or a down’n’dirty fight (and forget about playing fair), these things defined him. Yet nothing can explain to my satisfaction how he became the biggest cat in a cage full of tigers: Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Diane Sawyer, Ed Bradley, and the rest, to say nothing of the CBS News presidents who cowered before him. For Hewitt was not only a tiger but a tamer, and the ringmaster, too, and 60 Minutes was very often the greatest show on earth — exactly what he believed it to be. When things were going right for him, as they usually were, you felt it throughout the News Division.

My direct contact with him was limited, during my years at CBS; in our few interactions, I found him as cagey as he was pugnacious, willing to listen (at least for a minute or two) to Rather’s assistant but generally already made-up in his mind and impatient with any need to persuade others of the rightness of his opinions. I was in no position to argue with him: you don’t argue with success, particularly not success on the scale that he achieved at CBS.

However, the misgivings he admitted about what he wrought — above all the surprise that became the requirement, namely that television news be profitable — were magnified in my vision. Sure, Hewitt himself did a great job, but lesser talents did lesser work, made more significant compromises. The line between entertainment and news began to blur the minute that Hewitt and his cohort first referred to interview subjects as “characters,” a telling word choice that provoked tremendous discomfort in me. In those days, I was writing novels in my spare time, and the distinctions between truth and fiction seemed important to me. Others around the News Division must have felt something similar: Dan Rather would bristle if you described a report as a “story,” or his newscast as a “show.”

Yet these people were, on their best days, among the most conscientious practitioners that American journalism has ever known. The danger lay not so much with them as with those outside and higher up, and in other shops, who didn’t share the core values. And because even Hewitt and Rather, Wallace and Safer, Bradley and Sawyer, Murrow and Cronkite were human, and capable of error, each misstep seemed to be taken as an excuse for greater laxity among others.

Over time, the very notions of broadcasting as a public trust, and of news as a public service, were lost. The people who still cling to those ideals are mocked, shoved aside, forgotten. It’s just a business now, and a great deal of it is show business.

I’ve groused before about the shabby state of journalism, but for now let this much be said: to whatever degree Don Hewitt was responsible for the decline in values, that wasn’t what he intended.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I admire Don Hewitt, and I couldn't agree with you more that professionals of his stripe should do news -- with a strict understanding of what that entails -- and those with talents in other areas should respect the distinctions involved here.

As W.H. Auden said, when asked what he thought about the Vietnam War, "Why writers should be canvassed for their opinions about politics I have no idea."

But in our day, it's not just writers, with no experience and training such as Hewitt possessed, who feel qualified to share their opinions about foreign relations, global economic development, or the correct approach to criminal justice: It's actors and actresses, musicians, playwrights, poets, etc., etc. I'll agree that many people find Angelina Jolie more photogenic than some newspeople, but I hope I've made my point.

-- Rick