Guest: Hewitt, Don
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Don Hewitt
Title: ”60 Minutes with Don Hewitt” Part II
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And let me begin our program this time just as I did last…by indicating that my guest again today is the indomitable Creator/Producer of a new quarter century old venture in television journalism at once informative and entertaining – and therefore so extraordinarily popular that when Rolling Stone titled an article on him “The 60 Minute Man”, just about everyone who has ever thought seriously about the role of television in American life – thought good things or 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”.
Few thoughtful viewers would disagree. 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 each year.
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 Sunday nights on CBS with “60 Minutes”.
So 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 way back in 1960, that initial, clearly fateful exchange between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Associated with a long preeminent CBS News for many, many years, its everyone’s bet now that he’ll just continue doing what comes so naturally to him ‘til the end of time.
Well, that’s the way I began our last program, and then Don Hewitt and I just went at it. As we ended the program, Don was conceding that…I thought conceding that just as you believe, Don, that the nation needs a watchdog and you think of the watchdog as the press, print and electronic, thought maybe you were about to concede that the watchdog needs a watchdog.
Hewitt: Yeah, well first, let me comment on something you just said…
Hewitt: …if I didn’t get you hot under the collar once in a while, I wouldn’t be doing my job. You should get hot under the collar. I mean, I remember my father used to sit home and fume at Westbrook Pegler. You know, you need that, you need a place to vent your emotions, and you…everything is not black and white. And I’m sure there are things that drive people up the wall. Now, does the watchdog need a watchdog? I think if government weren’t involved in Iran-gates, and Iraq-gates, and Watergates, maybe they would be government…you know elected officials would be the preferred watchdog. But I don’t think the country feels that they can trust the government to be a watchdog in anything. And I’m not just talking about Republican things. I think the worst scandal of my lifetime was not Watergate, it was not Iran-contra, and it was not Iraq-gate, it wasn’t even Teapot Dome…it was the Gulf of Tonkin. Lyndon Johnson pulled a “fast one” on this country, and got us to go to war in Vietnam which maybe came as close as anything ever happened to being the undoing of this country. I mean we survived Watergate, we survived Iran, we survived Iraq-gate…we almost didn’t’ survive the Gulf of Tonkin. Never happened. You talk…the real watchdogs then were Moss and Fulbright, who…and if you go back and you read the cable traffic, you find…we probably were never attacked that night in the Gulf of Tonkin…we were looking for an excuse to bomb North Vietnam, and a lot of Americans have been screwed up ever since.
Heffner: So you’re being non-partisan in your approach to…
Hewitt: Oh, yeah…
Heffner: …the evils of government.
Hewitt: Oh yeah. Listen, I think Lyndon Johnson was…perpetrated the worst scandal of my lifetime. I mean I think that makes the rest of them look like nothing. But, if those things didn’t’ happen in government…the government would be the watchdog. I mean if, if half the members of Congress weren’t beholden to lobbies and PACs…I mean we say this country’s never been invaded. That’s not true, of course, we’ve been invaded. We’ve been invaded by lobbyists…they sit and they, they occupy Capitol Hill. We do a lot of stupid things in this country. You know, we went…we sent troops to Panama…to kidnap Manuel Noriega and bring him back and try him. That was not where we should have gone. We should have sent troops to California to capture Alan Cranston and bring him back to Washington and try him. He did more harm to this country with his S&L connections than Noriega ever did with his drug connections. Noriega worked for us. I mean we, we…I can’t say, you know, it for a fact, but from stories we’ve done, I am almost certain that Noriega was telling us the truth when he told us that Ollie North and Pierpont…ah, Poindexter…
Hewitt: …came to see him, and asked him if they could use Panama as a staging ground for an invasion of Nicaragua. And when he told them “no”, that’s when his troubles began. Up to that point, he was our pal, you know, he was our…I, I’ll show you letters of commendation to Noriega from the DEA…how wonderful he was…
Heffner: You know…
Hewitt: …so that…you can’t trust them to be a watchdog. If I have to trust somebody, I’d trust us. If there’s a better one around…maybe…you want to be the watchdog?
Heffner: No, I don’t trust me…
Heffner: …that much.
Hewitt: You know (Laughter), you know the great line…somebody said…you mentioned Tom Brokaw. Brokaw was being mentioned as a candidate for the Senate, and Tom said, “I love my country too much to trust it to me”. (Laughter)
Heffner: (Laughter) Okay.
Heffner: But what I really mean is that just as I would trust you, and just as I think I would trust me…not quite so far…
Hewitt: Mm hmm.
Heffner: …I don’t know about the other guy, across the street…
Heffner: …and that’s what makes me…
Hewitt: Nobody knows.
Hewitt:…you trust Al D’Amato?
Heffner: now why, why do you want…
Hewitt: He’s your Senator.
Heffner: …to draw me into politics…
Hewitt: (Laughter) No, I’m asking you. Who are you going to trust to sit and say that maybe you shouldn’t give housing funds (laughter) to your friends.
Heffner: But you see, the point is…you are a balance, or a controller, or a custodian, when it comes to him.
Hewitt: Mm hm.
Heffner: Who is the custodian, where are the custodians when it comes to us…when it comes to this beady red eye?
Hewitt: Well, I think that the problem is that there are no Bill Paleys or David Sarnoffs, and Leonard Goldensons around anymore, who…or Frank Stantons, or Bob Kintners…who believed very strongly that this was a public trust, and that the Ed Murrows and the Eric Sevareids were given the job, and the Howard Smiths, and the Charles Collingwoods…and the Walter Cronkites…of, of being the public watchdog because these guys felt like they were…they had an obligation in return for the airwaves they used. I think the problem is that the people up top may be not as interested in having an Ed Murrow, an Eric Sevareid, a Walter Cronkite as their watchdog as the guys we all knew and loved did.
Heffner: Okay. If, if there is some considerable degree of truth to that, you have to go back and say…and I think this is your instinct…”look, these fellows”…the big guys you were talking about…I don’t mean the journalists…I mean the owners…
Heffner: …the managers…
Hewitt: Mm hmm.
Heffner: …they lived in an atmosphere, in, in an environment of responsibility indicated by the government, by law, by FCC regulations…they lived within a regulated industry. Today, essentially, we don’t.
Heffner: De-regulation has…
Hewitt: The FCC’s a joke.
Heffner: Okay. Would you have it not be a joke any longer? Would you have the new President pick a Minow to be an FCC Chairman?
Hewitt: Yeah. But you see, it’s just like you said…who? Newt Minow…yes. You know, some political hack somewhere…who, who, you know…George bush has got his kid working for some cable outfit out in Denver (laughter). You know, and I got, got to wonder…well, how does he get influenced? No, I’d take newt Minow tomorrow.
Heffner: Okay. But first there has to be an effective agency, an agency that’s really charged with doing something. So, would you go back to the Fairness Doctrine?
Hewitt: No. No, I don’t think. I don’t think “fairness” is decreed by doctrine. I think “fairness” is a state of mind. You either know how to be “fair” or you don’t know how to be “fair”, and if you didn’t know how to be fair Bill Paley would have kicked you out of the building.
Heffner: But Bill Paley is dead.
Hewitt: Bill…Paley…is…dead. And…
Heffner: Now what do we do today?
Hewitt: Well, how, how do we insure…if, if you buy my line that I am responsible and I don’t have any axes to grind, what you want to know is how do we insure that when I go to…
Heffner: Your reward.
Hewitt: …the Old Producers’ Home…with Mike Wallace…we’ll be like the Sunshine Boys…that somebody is going to be a watchdog on this incredible power that television brings to bear on the society.
Heffner: That’s the question. What’s the answer?
Heffner: Your answer.
Hewitt: I don’t have an answer. I, I would hope that the nature of government would change to the point where people would begin to have faith in elected representatives. I mean guys like Tim Wirth and Tsongas and Warren Rudman…a guy…I would trust with anything. You know, they’re pretty good guys. I’m inclined to believe right now I’d, I’d trust Bill Clinton. Either he’s a hell of an actor, or he’s pretty good.
Heffner: Since you trust him, would you like him to beef up the FCC and pick someone he trusts, in turn, to re-regulate television, broadcasting?
Hewitt: Well, I got a feeling that as long as you, you don’t regulate cable, and satellite transmissions and things…regulating broadcasting is, is meaningless. I mean if, if you’re going to regulate what goes over the airwaves…I mean the New York Herald Tribune goes over the airwaves, that’s how they publish it all over the world. You got a lot of complications in the 1990s that you didn’t have when you and I first started pondering all these questions. You have electronics that nobody even dreamed of…when I came to television, it was black and white…there was no teleprompter, there was no videotape, there were no satellites. When we covered the Korean War you waited four, five days for the film to come in. today you can watch guys on the moon. You know, I remember you watched Anwar Sadat get assassinated. It’s, it’s a world that I’m not sure anyone really, in broadcasting, knows how to deal with except I’ ma very big fan of Ted Turners. I think CNN has been just great. I, I think it’s been made better by the inclusion, or the, the hiring of Tom Johnson from, from the LA Times, and the whole Times-Mirror group, who I think has done a great job. If there’s…if there is a publisher in television today, it ain’t Larry Tisch, and it ain’t jack Welch, and it ain’t even Dan Burkett or Tom Murphy…well, Murphy is now retired. It’s Ted Turner. I think Ed Murrow would have liked Ted Turner. I mean he’s, he’s another one…he’s like…he’s like Ross Perot (laughter)…he can go, you know, goes a little nutty occasionally…falls asleep at t ball games with Jane Fonda. But, but he…this guy has become the preeminent television news publisher.
Heffner: So it really comes down to the guy you trust.
Hewitt: Yeah. Yeah. It comes down to the guy…
Hewitt: …you trust. It always does. It comes down…well, how do you think we elect new Presidents?
Heffner: But you know that’s not really good enough. Essentially we’ve been…believed in a government of laws, not of man. Laws, and then you choose the men to administer them. Right? Stuffy, but right.
Hewitt: Yeah, it’s true, but then when you come down to it you pick a President of the guy you trust. I mean the…you know, Bush kept, you know, he kept saying, you know, “this is a matter of trust” and the…more people trusted Bozo than trusted bush. So, that’s what happened.
Heffner: So that what you’re suggesting now…if you’re going to go into re-regulation…stop me if I’m wrong…you’ve got to include cable…
Heffner: …and then if you regulate once again, and Clinton turns out to be what you believe he will be, and hope he will be, then his man at the FCC, or whatever we’re going to call it…he can really start regulating again. Right? Is that, is that a fair…
Hewitt: It always comes down to a guy…I would trust a Newt Minow to decide what is right and what is wrong for broadcasters. I, I don’t think I would trust many people to do that. And as I said there was once a time when the people who ran broadcasting, I don’t think they, they were honest because they were regulated, I think they were honest because they were honest…because they really believed this.
Heffner: You don’t think that the atmosphere, the culture in which…
Heffner: …they performed.
Hewitt: No, no, I think…I think it was Bill Paley who…and Bill and I were very close. I mean I was in the room with him when he died. We were very, very close friends at the end. And he was always horrified if he ever found out that…to this day…that anybody was messing around with the News Division, or was trying to “shape “anything. You know, he, he…it was hands-off.
Heffner: What about the pain in the belly, though…that presumably he pointed to when Ed Murrow was, and Fred Friendly were giving him troubles, and what they were putting on the air was paining him.
Hewitt: Yeah, and all he said to Fred was “Go give McCarthy equal time”. Pretty good.
Heffner: But they had already offered that to him?
Hewitt: No, they hadn’t.
Heffner: They hadn’t?
Hewitt: Nope. That was, that was…when, when Paley heard about the Murrow/McCarthy show…and I did that show with him…he said, “Give the guy equal time”, you know it was that simple. I mean I, I think that’s what you’ve been talking about here, I mean…
Heffner: Equal time.
Hewitt: Yeah. It, it was the specter of Hitler…Joe McCarthy was the specter of Hitler (laughter)…the fact that Ed Murrow could chop him into little bits in front of the whole country.
Heffner: Then what are you saying? That the pain in Paley’s belly…what a wonderful picture…
Heffner: …that the pain in Paley’s belly was the unfairness, the imbalance…
Heffner: …of what Murrow and Friendly had done.
Hewitt: Yeah. I think so. I think so. First of all…it’s, it’s a myth…you know, Paley and Murrow were not feuding. Paley and Murrow were very close. Stanton and Murrow were feuding. And most of it was about a show called “Person to Person”…it wasn’t about “See It Now” and it wasn’t about Joe McCarthy. It was when Stanton said “everything must be what it purports to be”, and they were rehearsing “Person to Person” so that what you saw was not live and unrehearsed, but had been…had a full dress rehearsal before they did it. And Stanton said, “That’s wrong”, and Ed went through the ceiling and, you know, and threatened to walk out and everything else.
Heffner: You think it was really just personalities? I was there at the time, and it hurt me so because…
Hewitt: Nah, no.
Heffner: …both men I, I adored so.
Hewitt: It was…sure…Frank Stanton was one of the giants, but Frank Stanton and Ed Murrow feuded. Paley…I…Paley’s pride and joy was Ed Murrow. I mean, you know, if Paley were to…if you were to, to build a William S. Paley monument you, you would have on it, you know, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan…at the top would be a statue of Ed Murrow.
Heffner: but they stayed, and he went.
Hewitt: Who stayed and they went? Murrow went.
Heffner: The entertainers…
Hewitt: …Murrow went…
Hewitt: …Murrow went…
Heffner: …Ed really didn’t stay on the…
Hewitt …yeah…yeah. Oh, Ed…first of all, you know there’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of myth about a lot of that baloney, you know.
Heffner: What’s the…
Hewitt: You know…what’s the myth? You know I know why “See It Now” went off the air, the first time. Because it couldn’t compete with Amos ‘N Andy. You know, not enough people watched it. I learned a valuable lesson there. You, you…you know, you work for these guys you better put some bread on the table.
Heffner: You put an awful lot of bread on the table.
Hewitt: More money…”60 Minutes” made more money than any broadcast in the history of television. And not by design, it just happened. I don’t know why it happened, it just happened. To this day I have no idea why. I don’t know why we’re still number one show in television. I really don’t.
Heffner: Okay, but let’s take this “bread on the table”…
Heffner: Don, I don’t understand what you’re saying, seriously, because I, I have the sense, either I’m not hearing…or you may be somewhat contradicting yourself. If Ed Murrow was Paley’s guy…
Hewitt: Mm hmm.
Heffner: …and Ed Murrow was out eventually, and you say you’ve got to put bread on the table. Then it was the need for television to feed itself…
Hewitt: Ed wasn’t fired. Ed left. Nobody ever fired Ed Murrow. Ed Murrow decided that maybe the atmosphere in which grew up at CBS had changed…he was mostly feuding with Frank Stanton, he was sore as hell about Stanton complaining about this “Person to Person” shows, and Ed left. And, and, and, and he, and he did some things that he shouldn’t have done. He went…appeared before a Congressional Committee and apologized for things he had done which I wish he’d never apologized for. Ed Murrow…you knew Ed, and I worked very closely with him…Ed Murrow was a marvelous, marvelous man who had the good fortune to look like Walter Pidgeon playing Ed Murrow (laughter). You don’t get that very often, right? And, you know, that, that was all part of, you know, it was…the Murrow gestures, the Murrow cigarettes that finally killed him…the “good night and good luck” which you stole lock, stock and barrel…(laughter)
Heffner: I say, “As an old friend used to say…”
Hewitt: (Laughter) I know, but you don’ t say which old friend. Anyway, I’m only kidding you.
Heffner: You know that bothers me because there are too many people who sit in that seat who don’t know who I’m referring to.
Hewitt: Anyway…great story about Murrow. Murrow is in the Middle East doing Dayan, when Dayan is the hero of the Israeli Army, and they’re riding in a jeep on the way to an airstrip, and Dayan says to Murrow, “You know, Ed, your broadcasts from London during World War II were the greatest service ever done to the Free World”. And Ed said, “Oh, gee, General, you know, Cecil Brown and Elmer Davis. I wasn’t the only one”. And Dayan shut up. And they went about another five miles down the road and he said, “I saw your Christmas in Korea documentary. Boy”, he said, “there never was a show that good”. He said, “that was Charlie Mack, and Marty Barnett, [they were cameramen]”. Dayan shut up. They get to the plane, and they’re shaking hands at the bottom of the plane, Murrow goes up the steps, he gets to the top and Dayan yells at him, “Murrow…”. He turns around, “Yes, sir?” He said, “don’t be so modest, you’re not that good”.
Hewitt: Isn’t that a great story?
Heffner: But, I come back…from all of those things that Dayan had to referred to, but he didn’t put bread on the table, and you’re saying then that what we’ve got here is a medium that depends first and foremost on the bread on the table. Right?
Hewitt: It’s a commercial venture.
Hewitt: It’s a business. It’s a business like the New York Times is a business and the Washington Post is a business and Time magazine is a business. And if the business is going to fail there’s no place for the Murrows to broadcast.
Heffner: I don’t know whether there’s an element of sadness in your voice when you say, “it’s a business, they’re all businesses”…
Hewitt: No, because it’s been very good to me.
Heffner: Ah, but, Don, you can rise above you.
Hewitt: (Laughter) I…
Hewitt: (Laughter) Try…right…rise above. What do you want me to rise above to? I’m in a commercial medium, I made my peace with that many years ago, and I said, “You know, if you’re very successful around here, you could do almost anything you want, they leave you alone”. And if you’re not they’re always messing , they’re always tinkering. And they haven’t messed with me. You know why? Because I’ve put a lot of bread on the table.
Heffner: Okay, that’s the point. The success is measured in the bread on the table, not on the kinds of achievements that Dayan ticked off…alone. That’s not it.
Hewitt: No, I would think that if CBS is more interested in money, the $60, $0 million dollar profit we make every year, then they are in the fact that we’ve won the Columbia DuPont Gold Baton and the University of Missouri Journalism Award and last week, the Walter Cronkite Journalism School in Arizona and Southern California, and the Lowell Thomas’ Award…I, I don’t think that…that means a lot to me, I’m not sure it means much to them.
Heffner: Okay, a minute and a half left…let me go back to the first question of the first program that I said I wouldn’t ask…what are you going to do when you grow up?
Hewitt: More of the same, I hope. I’m going of be 70 in a couple of weeks…my contract’s up when I’m 74…we’ve been talking about extending it. You know it’s like that great line of Satchel Paige, when Satchel Paige said, “how old would you be, if you didn’t know how old you was?”. Well, I don’t know how old I was, but…how old I am…but I always assume I’m somewhere in my 30s, and as long as I think I’m in the 30s, I…it’s going to end. I mean, you know, everything ends. Life is finite…it ends here, it ends here, it ends here. Who knows where it’s going to end. You just hope it ends at a good place. If it ended tomorrow, it would end at a good place. If it ends ten years from now, it’ll end at a good place…I hope.
Heffner: Between now and then…anything on the books? Once you spoke about buying a network, or buying a news division…in a minute.
Hewitt: Yeah, I, I…no, I have no more plans…I’m glad they never sold me CBS News…Jesus, terrible thing to own right now. No, but if I owned a news division, I wouldn’t put at a 15…1/2 hour newscast, you know, once a day, that’s ridiculous. I’d sell news. I mean look at how the, you know, the biggest fortunes in America…Hearst, Luce, Salzberger, Chandler, they made their money selling news. News is a very saleable commodity. I’d sell news, I’d sell news directly to people’s homes, I’d put out newsletters, I’d run out sporting news. We just don’t use the 1,50 or 1,600 people around the world as well as we could.
Heffner: See that sign over there…”Cut”…thank you Don Hewitt for joining me again on The Open Mind. And 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 of both of us 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 Mullarkey Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.