60 Minutes … With Don Hewitt, Part I

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Don Hewitt
Title: ”60 Minutes with Don Hewitt” Part I
VTR: 11/13/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today is the indomitable Creator/Producer of a now quarter century old venture in television journalism at once informative and entertaining – and therefore so extraordinarily popular that when Rolling Stone entitled in an article on him “The 60 Minute Man”, just about everyone who ever thought seriously about the role of television in American life – thought good things are bad things – knew that front and center would be, in the article’s own descriptive, that “whirling dervish of madcap energy who created the show in 1968 and remains its central animating force today”: none other than Don Hewitt of CBS News.

Well, as Rolling Stone wrote, “Journalism that sells is, of course, not the same thing as journalism that matters, yet what has distinguished ’60 Minutes’ over the years is precisely how often its journalism has done both”.

Now, few thoughtful viewers would disagree. Heck, even when “60 Minutes” gets me so incredibly hot under the collar – sore as I can be at what I think is unfairness by selective editing – I still struggle each week never to miss it, though the little black box generally holds less and less attraction for me, at least, each year.

But, being perfectly ecumenical about it, I do enormously respect the McNeil/Lehrer Report on public broadcasting. I much enjoy Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” on ABC, and I certainly can think of few things on the air recently as astute as some of Tom Brokaw’s NBC observations on the 1992 Presidential race. But my weekly television “fix” still comes best of all Sunday nights on CBS with “60 Minutes”.

Well let’s go on now to the man who has always made possible these golden, often infuriating 60 minutes. This Peck’s Bad Boy of broadcast news produced and directed the nation’s first televised Presidential debate in 1960, that initial clearly fateful exchange between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Associated with the long preeminent CBS News for many, many years, its everyone’s bet that Don Hewitt’ll just continue doing what comes so naturally to him ‘till the end of time.

But Don, you and I know that’s not true. And while I suppose I ought to begin by asking you what you’re going to do when you grow up, we’ve both reached that point where I think it’s better to ask what we want on the headstone there. What do you want said about you?” how do you want to be remembered?

Hewitt: You just said it. (Laughter)

Heffner: How?

Hewitt: I think I’ll go home now because I can’t…you know, where am I going to go from here…

Heffner; Can’t beat that?

Hewitt: No, no. you did it very well. You want to write my headstone?

Heffner: Yeah. I, I…

Hewitt: You want to deliver the eulogy at my funeral?

Heffner: What part is going to be played by what you did in 1960? What part is going to be played by the Nixon/Kennedy…

Hewitt See It Now and the Ed Murrow and the first show. I don’t…I, I don’t know. Of course, this year everybody comes running to me to say “Tell us about the first debate” because debates all of a sudden became the end all and be all of a political campaign. You know, it was strange, when that debate was over, that Nixon/Kennedy debate we’d elected a President, we didn’t have to wait for election day. Richard, there’s something wrong with that, that shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t pick our Presidents by who is the better television performer. And that’s how we picked one that night. I mean, I think it all worked out for the best. And the better television performer became what I would imagine, if he had lived, would have been the better President. But, that’s fortuitous, and…however, one of the things I’d heard for years is that one of the dangers of television is that some matinee idol is going to come along and, and get elected based on his, his looks and his demeanor and his presentation. And I said, “I don’t think so” because if there were ever two central casting politicians in America, it was John Connolly and Barry Goldwater. I mean they looked like Presidents. If Hollywood were going to devise a President, they looked like it, and they didn’t make it.

Heffner: You know, it’s funny, you mention big John Connolly. Friend of mine called me the Monday after you…may I put it this way…”did a job” on John Connolly, and said, “what did Hewitt and those guys do to this candidate”. My response was, “how could a responsible candidate, a guy who wanted the Republican nomination, appear on ’60 Minutes’ and let them edit what he has to say”. So, you mentioned John…big John…don’t you think you cut him down to size when he appeared on “60 Minutes”?

Hewitt: No. I think most people cut themselves down to size.

Heffner: With your help?

Hewitt: It, it’s not with…yeah, well first of all our job is to, you know, is to shine lights in dark corners, and if people are doing things in dark corners they shouldn’t be doing, all we did was turn the light on. I mean you just mentioned “selective editing”.

Heffner: Yeah.

Hewitt: I mean have you ever in your life ever known a newspaper that wasn’t edited? I mean do, do people just run complete transcripts, or do you get some reporter’s version of what he thought happened at some particular event?

Heffner: Well, well, wait a…

Hewitt: Maureen Dowd goes to work on George Bush (Laughter). I mean it’s, it’s not television, it’s, it’s journalism.

Heffner: Yeah but…

Hewitt: you know I keep hearing all this anti-Bush…right…that’s that’s a big cry now. I assume that most of the media…and, and, incidentally, I hate that word “media”…I mean I always thought it was pejorative…I like the word “press” much better. But, the media for the sake of this discussion…I think most of the media are honest people. If you tell the truth, and somebody perceives it as anti-Bush, that’s George Bush’s problem. That’s not my problem. I’m…I love the way we came out of this election year. We came out of this election year perceived as anti-Bush, anti-Clinton, and anti-Perot. That’s, that’s fine with m e. I mean I, I, I…the Clinton people think we, we did them in the Gennifer Flowers interview up in Boston, the bush people think we did him in by putting Henry Gonzales on and doing the story of the Banco Nazionale Lavoro, and a poor kid named Christopher Drogoul, who is a bit of a crook, but he sure as hell didn’t funnel $4 billion to Saddam Hussein with no one in the United States knowing it. That, that’s impossible.

Heffner: But, Don, look some day, at the Pearly Gates you’re going to have to account for the fact that if there is some truth to the notion that you did, momentarily, did Clinton in with the Flowers story…

Hewitt: Oh…

Heffner: …that was a long, long time ago…what about the Perot story nine days before the election, and the story you’re talking about two days before the election.

Hewitt: Just wait, wait a minute…on the Perot story. On the third debate Perot announced to 83 million Americans with George Bush standing at his side, that there were Republican dirty tricks and then he added, “and all you people in the media know exactly what I’m talking about”. They didn’t. I did. I’ve been talking to Ross…I talked to Ross Perot every day during the campaign. There wasn’t a day that Ross didn’t call me. We got to be pretty good friends. He was…you know, he’s “hepped” on MIAs and he figured “I’ll use ’60 Minutes’ to go look for MIAs in the jungle”. And, we, we were pretty good friends. And he kept telling me about these dirty tricks. Now the first time I heard about the dirty tricks in his family, I thought it had to do with his daughter and some professor at Vanderbilt, and, and Newsweek was about to blow a story that he put a tail on a Jewish professor at Vanderbilt who left his wife and kids to go move in with Nancy Perot. And that’s about all. I didn’t know about the so-called “doctored” pictured. I didn’t know about the disrupting Carolyn’s wedding plans. When I found out about that, I called him. I said, “You can’t just toss this stuff around and not talk about it”. He said, “well, I really don’t want to do a big formal interview. I won’t do it. I won’t do it in my office, because it looks like I’m, you know, I’m really cooperating in this thing”. I said, “well, you gotta do it in your office”. “No, why don’t you just kinda come across me on the street, and…”. I said, “oh, come on Ross, that’s ridiculous”. He said, “I won’t do it in my office”. And that, on a Wednesday morning…Leslie called me at 10 o’clock in the morning, she said, “Guess where I am?”. And I said “where?”. And she said, “I’m at Perot’s office with two cameras”. Ross Perot is the strangest combination of good sense and nonsense of anybody I’ve ever known in my life. And I think a lot of what he says about what’s wrong with America may…is right on the money. Then he lapses into stories about a guy named Scott Barnes who the FBI’s been looking for for years. He starts to to talk about a guy named David Taylor, who made secret videotape of meetings between Scott Barnes and a guy named Overwetter, who ran the Republican…ran Bush/Quayle in Texas…and then, then you kinda…you kinda lose him. But he’s a pretty good guy. He’s he’s (laughter) get rid of…I used to say “if you get rid of those guys you’re you know, home free”.

Heffner: Don, whatever you say about it, don’t you have to add though, that nine days before the election, doing that story, in his office (Laughter) or out of his office…you contributed…no other judgment…you contributed in part to his downfall?

Hewitt: Did I walk up to him somewhere? Did I ambush him in his car? Was I waiting out in front of his house? He invited us into his office. Now, obviously, he wanted to tell that story.

Heffner: Okay.

Hewitt: Okay. Wait a minute. Should we wait ‘til after the election to tell the story? Should we wait ‘till…if, if, if there’s a guy facing 300 years in jail for sending money to Saddam Hussein, and we know that you can’t do that without somebody in the CIA knowing it. If a Judge Shube who is the Judge SIrica of this Banco Nazionale Lavoro thing is telling us, “come on down, I’ll let you talk to Drogoul in jail and we get the whole story”. What do you do? You wait ‘til after the election to tell that story? Why? They’re having…truth is truth, and you deal with it. And you…and you’re not…I’m not in the political business. I’m in the business of informing the American people about what’s going on. And if that had been a Bill Clinton thing, I’d have done the same thing. If it had been a Ross Perot thing, I…well, we did, we did Ross Perot with his charge about dirty tricks. Incidentally, he, he picked the wrong dirty trick. I mean if he’d gone into the passport stuff, that would have stood up pretty good. They were messing around with, with…they were messing around with Clinton’s passport, and they were looking at a file they shouldn’t be looked into. And the other day, Larry Eagleburger fired the person that was doing that.

Heffner: Okay, now…

Hewitt: The person who was doing it was…you know who she was hired by?

Heffner: Sununu.

Hewitt: Right. You got it. Now that’s the context in which America goes to the polls.

Heffner: Yes, but the context in which you present something, not even 48 hours…

Hewitt: What is the…

Heffner: …before the election…

Hewitt: …what should you do? If you know something, and you think that this is the truth and the American people ought to know this, why…I’m not anti-Bush, I voted for George Bush…I’m not proud of that…listen, you know, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life…voting for George Bush was one of them. But I’m not anti-Bush…

Heffner: You’re not talking about 1992.

Hewitt: No, I didn’t vote for him in 1992.

Heffner: Okay. Okay.

Hewitt: But I voted for George…I voted twice for Ronald Reagan…I mean, you know, how stupid can you get?

Heffner: This is “True Confessions”?

Hewitt: “True Confessions”, and then I voted for George Bush, and I figured “gee, that’s a kind of nutty thing to do”. Well, I don’t know, against Michael Dukakis, it wasn’t so nutty. But, I’m not anti-Bush, I’m pro-letting people know what’s happening in their world.

Heffner: So, in a sense, there’s no one in here but us chickens. Us, journalistic chickens…

Hewitt: Not us “journalistic chickens”…

Heffner: …let the chips fall where they may…

Hewitt: No, I kind of…yeah, sure…I mean if, if, if, if you know something to be the truth. If you know that a guy facing 300 years in jail could not possibly have done what they’ve accused him of, nor does the judge believe it, without somebody like Gates of the CIA, or Brent Scowcroft, or maybe the President of the united states knowing…and they’re going to put this guy away…I should hold that ‘til after Election Day…when now the guy’s re-elected…

Heffner: Wait a minute…wait a minute…

Hewitt: …he’s going to put the guy away?

Heffner: Wait a minute, Don. We’re not talking about the first, only original revelation. This was information that had been in the press…

Hewitt: No.

Heffner: No?

Hewitt: No sir. We, we, we did more…we’re the first guys to get Drogoul. Drogoul was on “50 Minutes” two weeks before Henry Gonzales was on. Listen, I don’t want to shape elections. I mean I…what I want to do…I, you know, I, I think that Bill Clinton…

Heffner: Do you think you did…

Hewitt: …may be a pretty good President…

Heffner: Good.

Hewitt: …but I’m not out there to get Bill Clinton elected.

Heffner: Do you think you did play a role in shaping that election. That program. Those two programs…come on, honest…just between the two of us. (Laughter)

Hewitt: Yeah. I think the New York Times endorsing Bill Clinton helped to shape the election.

Heffner: Were you endorsing someone…

Hewitt: I’m not endorsing anybody. What I’m saying is that when you make statements and you cover stories, and when the New York Times reports the story of Cap Weinberger, and Iran-Contra…are they shaping an election, or should they not do that. You see, “listen, we, we’d better not report that because we may be shaping an election”.

Heffner: Don, what about the power that you have though. I’m not, I’m not changing subjects…I’m saying your…

Hewitt: I don’t have any subpoena power…that’s the power. The power to subpoena, is power. This is not power.

Heffner: So, like Bill Safire, you’re saying the real power is in the State, with the police…

Hewitt: Sure.

Heffner: …with the government…

Hewitt: Absolutely.

Heffner: …and that the kinds of power you have…

Hewitt: That’s, that’s not power…that’s, that’s a big window. That’s the guy in, in, in “Broadcast News” saying “throw open the window and say, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore’”. Well, we got a big window, and, you know, and, and, and we got big lungs and, and we reach a lot of people and we…and ideologically we don’t stand anywhere. We don’t stand Left…I couldn’t care less who the next President of the united states is, I only hope he’s good. But I don’t care whether he’s a Communist, or a Socialist, or a Republican, or a Democrat. I just want him to be a good President. But I really don’t…I don’t have any ideological bent, I’m not Left-wing, I’m not Right-wing…I mean I would just as soon…if that’s, if there was a story that the American people should know at a certain point, whether it’s three days before an election, or three days after an election…tell it.

Heffner: It doesn’t bother you at all that this was less than two days before people went to the polls.

Hewitt: Not in the least.

Heffner: Okay. But, you know, a moment ago you were talking about the , the printed press…

Hewitt: Yes.

Heffner: And you were saying, “listen, everybody edits, right?”.

Hewitt: Yes.

Heffner: There’s this interesting thing that Safire, Bill Safire…talking about Mike Wallace…he says, “It’s hard to tell whether Mike’s a great interviewer. All you see is bits and pieces”. Now you and I know he’s a great interviewer. But he goes on to say, “anyone who submits himself to an interview in which a producer can select portions, picking and choosing the most damning things, has got to be crazy. The assumption in print, when someone reads…

Hewitt: Safire was on that story.

Heffner: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. When…

Hewitt: But Safire was on “60 Minutes”…

Heffner: Alright…

Hewitt: …talking about the Banco Lavoro story…

Heffner: Let, let, let me just finish. Okay?

Hewitt: Sure.

Heffner: What he’s saying that when you read something gin print…

Hewitt: Yeah.

Heffner: …the assumption is that the words are being filtered by the writer. You know, “Safire wrote this, he had two million words he could have chosen, eh chose these 750”. Whereas when you sit in front of your television set and look at a person speaking, the natural assumption is that you’re watching a verbatim interview, that you’re getting reality. Which is not the cast”. What’s your comment on that?

Hewitt: What would you do, if you did…what would you do?

Heffner: I’d do the same thing you did.

Hewitt: Okay.

Heffner: but what I’m asking us really is to examine what that power is, not to deny it, not to say, “no one’s in here, but us chickens”.

Hewitt: I’m not. I’m not denying anything. What I’m telling you is that, that’s the nature of the beast. If, if you…

Heffner: Aren’t you afraid of that beast?

Hewitt: No, because I think we have used it with great responsibility. I, as I say, I don’t use it to push Left-wing or Right-wing, or Black or White causes. I am as interested in stories about rich people ripping off poor people, as poor people ripping off rich people. I really don’t give a damn, and you know, I, I…as I say, you shine lights in dark corners. Now, what Safire says is probably true. You probably do think, it sounds like Henry Kissinger…Henry’s always on that…there, there’s a winner…there’s a “piece of work”…

Heffner: Now, wait a minute…either he’s right, or he’s wrong. Whether he sounds like Henry Kissinger or not.

Hewitt: No. he’s not either right, or he’s wrong. Nothing is either right or wrong.

Heffner: No, I mean about this point…

Hewitt: There’s a modicum of truth in that…sure, there’s some truth in there. Sure, you sit there and you watch, and you, and you make the assumption that that is how this guy said it. One of the things we do make sure is that you never use an answer that goes with another question. That, that if you’re asked a question, you use the answer to that question, and not take him to somewhere else…unless you use a narrative bridge like, “he went on to say later in the interview”. I think our editing is about as fair as you can get, knowing that there is this perception out there, so you bend over backwards to edit fairly. You know, you, you, you pride yourself on a friendship with Ed Murrow. I mean when Ed Murrow did Joe McCarthy, you don’t think he selectively found something that Annie Lee Moss said, and something that Joe McCarthy said, and something that Roy Cohen said. Of course, you do.

Heffner: But, Don, what happens when I show my students each year…

Hewitt: Yeah.

Heffner: ..the Murrow broadcast on McCarthy, I then hand out Gilbert Seldes column the following week, and Gilbert…there was no greater friend that Ed had…

Hewitt: Mm hmm.

Heffner: …than Gilbert Seldes, who said, “when I watched that program, I saw the specter of Hitler”. Ad I ask my students what that means, “Well, McCarthy was the specter of Hitler”. That isn’t what he meant…what he was afraid of, even back…my god, a century ago, it seems…

Hewitt: Mm hmm.

Heffner: ..afraid of the power of the medium, afraid of the power that his fried…our friend Ed Murrow had…

Hewitt: How many years ago was that?

Heffner: Fifty-what…mid-fifties.

Hewitt: Right.

Heffner: ’54, ’55.

Hewitt: Has that happened? Has, has the specter of Hitler risen in the united states since that day, if that’s what he was afraid of?

Heffner: well I tell you…when I watch Gonzales on your program two days before the election, less than two days, I said to my wife, “Great…Bill Clinton will be elected. Awful…that they have the power…that we have the power to do this at almost any time”. Aren’t you just a teensy wit…little bit afraid that someone who has ideas that are somewhat different than your own would do that? Would do that with a Flowers?

Hewitt: sure. Sure. But that is why I think…excuse me…we’re the longest running show in the Top Ten…that after 25 years, we’re still on top because I think people trust us. I don’t think the American public perceives “60 Minutes” as being Repu8blican, Democrat, pro-poor people, pro-rich people, Left, Right…I just think that we have…I think we surprise them all the time. I think we would just as soon take on a sacred cow…that they think is a sacred cow of ours, as not.

Heffner: When I see that smile on your face, as you say that, I know that that’s the Peck’s Bad Boy…

Hewitt: Damn right. Sure. Why not?

Heffner: Sure. That’s what you want to do.

Hewitt: Yeah. Sure. Yeah.

Heffner: Okay. That’s fine. I’m delighted that you do it. But I think you’ve got a lot of power there that sometimes is scary.

Hewitt: What should I do? Walk away from it?

Heffner: No, I…

Hewitt: Retire? What, what would you want me to do?

Heffner: Well, you’re not going to walk away from it. You’re going to retire.

Hewitt: No.

Heffner: No, but I’d like you to deal with it and say, “God, we do…”

Hewitt: I think about it all the time…I think about it all the time…every time we edit something I say, “I don’t think we were fair to this guy”.

Heffner: I thought you’re always fair?

Hewitt: Before…when it gets on the air, we’re always fair.

Heffner: I see.

Hewitt: When I sit in an editing room, and I will turn to a Producer and say, “wait a minute, he must have said more than that. I mean…that, he didn’t end right there. What did he say next? Well, you know, he said ‘what I really mean to say…’. I say ‘whoa, give him that’”. You, you’ve got to be fair to the people on your broadcast when you reach as many people as we do. And we bend over backwards to be fair. You know, we’ve had about forty lawsuits…we’ve never lost one. We have never lost a lawsuit where somebody thought that we had done something unfairly to them.

Heffner: Westmoreland…not…

Hewitt: Westmoreland was not on “60 Minutes”, you’re making the same mistake…

Heffner: Alright…

Hewitt: …that everybody else…

Heffner: No, no, no, no, no. I understand…

Hewitt: …makes…

Heffner: …perfectly what you’re saying.

Hewitt: Westmoreland was a broadcast that Mike Wallace had done, and had I done that broadcast, it wouldn’t have been that way.

Heffner: Okay. That’s, that’s a fair statement. It wouldn’t have been that way.

Hewitt: I think Westmoreland maybe had, had a, had, you know …there’s something to be said for the Westmoreland side of that.

Heffner: Then, then, Don, let’s talk about power itself. Let’s not…let me not continue to focus it on “60 Minutes”…

Hewitt: Atta boy.

Heffner: …in other words, you’re saying…

Hewitt: I knew you’d come around. (Laughter)

Heffner: …you’re saying that there is that kind of power.

Hewitt: There is…

Heffner: Misused at times.

Hewitt: There is power in giving anything, or anybody that big a soap box. What you do is you, you have taken what is the dinner table conversation in this little tiny arena, and all of a sudden, you’ve knocked the walls out and now you’re having a conversation, you know, with 30 million people listening in. sure there’s power in that. Today I think there’s probably as much power with Oprah Winfrey and Donahue and Larry king and Arsenio Hall…

Heffner: Does it make you uneasy?

Hewitt: No.

Heffner: No?

Hewitt: No. no.

Heffner: Would you be made uneasy by power concentrated in government, in labor, in big business?

Hewitt: Well, power is…I’ve lived through…

Heffner: Are you uncomfortable at that?

Hewitt: Am I uncomfortable with that? No, those are facts of life. There were…I’ve lived through times when labor had an awful lot of power in this country. When business had a lot of power in this country. When government had too much power in this country. You know, I…I don’t want to sound like some pedantic damn fool about, you know, Jefferson said, “If you have a choice between a government with no newspapers and a newspaper with no government, which would you take”, and, you know, he said, “it’s no contest”. Somebody responsible has to be sort of a watchdog on a democratic society. Maybe I overstated when I said the Arsenio Halls, and the Oprah Winfreys and the Phil Donahues, and things…maybe, maybe they’re not exactly the people who should be the watchdogs. You know, you practice this craft a lot of years and you’ve done the same thing…and you begin to learn…you, you know where the pitfalls are. You know what is fair and unfair…you, you know it in your bones, you feel it, you get it in your finger tips.

Heffner: You know what’s unfairest of all?

Hewitt: What?

Heffner: When you’re just going now, and I get the sign to “cut”. So, I have to observe that sign, but I know you’re going to stay where you are and we’ll do a second program. Okay, Don Hewitt?

Hewitt: You got it.

Heffner: Okay. Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Thomas and Theresa Mullarky Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

  • Scott

    Interesting interview, since I’m mentioned in the Perot Presidential 60 minutes matter, let me set the record straight now that i can reveal it all. As a former member of the US Government (several agencies) one known as USAISA or ISA.

    I was asked by certain officials of the US Government Clandestine Operations to assist them in making sure Bush is NOT re-elected and get Perot to drop out thus the most would learn towards Clinton. Later I met with Hillary in Kauai, HI after she came to visit the people after hurricane Iniki hit the Island, we briefly talked about the ” 60 Minutes CBS piece that got her husband elected.

    It was ” Buck” Revel who orchestrated the affair along with elements of the Political arm of one of the US Intelligence Agencies. First on the Perot Dirty Tricks segment that was the FBI’s idea to set up the GOP, and use CBS 60 Minutes to air just prior to the election so NO ONE could fully investigate it on time for the election.
    So as my handlers wanted we did as ordered, as for the FBI looking for me for years, that is a first they paid me so they knew and know where I am 24/7 as was revealed in a 1995 story in Seattle Times with a story about the NSA and me signing a NSA letter to a member of congress, FBI was in on that as well. I sure wish i could tell you more, since the evils done by our own Government is really interesting. Interesting story but a little wrong.

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