Don Hewitt

Tell Me A Story … In 60 Minutes, Part I

VTR Date: May 22, 2001

Guest: Hewitt, Don


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Don Hewitt
Title: “Tell Me A Story” … In 60 Minutes, Part I
VTR: 5/22/01

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I thought we had touched nearly all the bases possible, when today’s guest joined me here nearly a decade ago. That we hadn’t, however, is made abundantly clear in his quite compelling new PublicAffairs book, so appropriately titled, “Tell Me A Story”.

For Don Hewitt’s story is that of television news itself. Beginning with the first telecasts of political conventions in 1948, when so few Americans had sets, through the nightly television news programs he did 15 minutes at the beginning, the a half hour. The first Nixon/Kennedy Presidential debate that he directed in 1960, and ultimately, for more than 30-something years now, as the creator, executive producer and driving force of 60 Minutes , by so many standards, professional and financial alike, the most successful news program ever.

Journalism that sells is, of course, not the same thing as journalism that matters, one comment has it. Yet, what has distinguished 60 Minutes over the years is precisely how often its journalism has done both. And always at its center is that whirling dervish of madcap energy, as well as its constant tough-minded source of direction, Don Hewitt.

And so since “Tell Me A Story” tells so many good ones, I’m going to ask my guest today to let me simply go through and ask him about some of the news and show business issues they raise. But first, a Don Hewitt story about Fred W. Friendly, Edward R. Murrow’s bigger than life, long-time behind-the-screen partner, who was a major player in broadcasting even before he became President of CBS News.

I’m quoting Don now in this wonderful book, “Remember that Fred became a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism after leaving CBS News in 1966. The first day he showed up, one of his students came to class wearing a button that said ‘Make love, not war’. Fred said to her, ‘I don’t think that’s an appropriate button to wear to class’. ‘Oh, Mr. Friendly, she said, you’re so square, you think making love is making out’. Well, that day at lunch Friendly told Walter Lippmann about the student who had told him ‘you’re so square you think making love is making out’, to which Lippmann replied, ‘What the hell is ‘making out’.’ The next day Fred told his class he’d had lunch with Lippmann who asked him ‘What the hell is making out?’, and Friendly thought that pretty well summed up the generation gap, until a student got up and said, “Who the hell is Walter Lippmann?’.” My guest today goes on … “I always thought nobody could top that until I told the story a few years ago to a group of journalism students. When I got to the punch line, ‘Who the hell is Walter Lippmann?’, one of them stood up and said, “Who the hell is Fred Friendly?’. And to be true, truthful totally, I guess that one day, Don, somebody’s going to get up and say, “who the hell is Don Hewitt?”. And I wonder what the answer should be?

HEWITT: [Laughter] Well, I hope it’s not too soon. But it could happen … sure it happens. I mean I go back through some of the great names … when I was growing up, and most people never heard of them before. Sometimes Mike Wallace and I sit down and he’s got a script and he’s got a phrase, I said, “Mike there’s nobody on earth but you and I who know what … ever heard that phrase”. What he wrote recently about somebody “going to hell in a hand basket” … now that’s from my youth, so you’ve got to constantly remind yourself that you come from a different time and a different place, and you’ve got to adapt yourself to the times in which you live. I resist electronically adapting myself to all that. I maybe the only male on earth who has never received or sent E-mail. I, I, I’m perfectly prepared for the fact that there’s a day coming when everything you need, from a pair of socks, to a college education will come on the Internet. But until it does I prefer to go to the store and go to school, and if I need an appendectomy, I’d just as soon go to the hospital and not have to …


HEFFNER: Not on E-mail?

HEWITT: … on the Internet. No. That’s going to happen.

HEFFNER: Listen, Don, you still have identified yourself in “Tell Me A Story”, and I think it’s quite intriguing that right here at the beginning, and this is what I was driving at, you say that sometimes when immodesty gets the better of me (you) …


HEFFNER: … I flatter myself into thinking that there might be in me a small bit of the intuitive grasp of America that was in the Hollywood moguls, like Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zucker. You were sort of defining yourself. What did you mean?

HEWITT: Oh, yeah. What I mean is … I know what I know, I think, from my fingertips, as I think a lot of early guys did. Look, I flunked out of college. I had lousy marks in high school. I used to think that if television had never been invented, I may have ended up working the gas station. But, I, I took to it, and it took to me and it was kind of a meeting of minds, because I … somehow, I don’t know why, but I had a feel for that guy at home, and it’s what it’s all about. And that’s where “Tell Me A Story” comes from. The secret of 60 Minutes is four words that every child in the world knows … “tell me a story.” And I realized that there are television producers who get all involved in camera angles and the lighting and pan here and pan there … it’s all about ‘tell me a story”. And I look at fantastic stuff sometimes, and I say to the guy, “Hey, this is great, what’s the story? What are you trying to tell me?” And the best kind of stories are the stories that I call the “I didn’t know that” story. It’s the one where, when it’s all over, the guy says to his wife, “I didn’t know that”. And, speaking of guys talking to their wives in front of the television set, I sometimes sit in a screening room, and I … why I know this I don’t know, but I do … and I say to the producer, “This is the point where that guy turns to his wife — I call this ‘hey, Mildred’ — this is ‘hey, Mildred’. This is where the guy says, “hey Mildred, do you know what these guys are talking about?”. She says, “No, I don’t know”. “Why don’t we go watch the basketball game? The minute they reach for that remote, you’re dead.

Television is a very strange animal. I figured this out years ago. It’s the only thing I know where you make absolutely no commitment. You go to the theater, you make a commitment. You buy a ticket, you get out the car, you find a babysitter, you get dressed, you find a parking place, you stand in line, you’ve got to give somebody a ticket, and you don’t walk out because you’re committed. You’ve made a commitment, and no matter … Richard, I’ll bet you can’t name five movies in your whole life that you walked out off. You can name a hundred that you thought were terrible. But you don’t walk out. You walk out of a hundred television shows every night. It’s very easy to walk out. You don’t have to climb over anybody, you know, you just get up and leave. And, television has to be compelling because everyone is sitting there, in this power trip called “the remote”. Zap, you’re dead. Zap. Right now there’s somebody doing that to us. You realize that.

HEFFNER: Oh, no.

HEWITT: Right.


HEWITT: Right this minute.


HEWITT: … there’s somebody saying, “I don’t believe this guy”, and click, they’re going somewhere else. Or they went to see what the score is in the Mets game. Or, you know, they want to see if that re-run of “I Love Lucy” is still on.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but Don, what’s the seat of the pants judgment? How do you have that judgment …

HEWITT: I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been put in positions where I can exercise that thing. I’ve been surrounded by talent like Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner and Ed Bradley and Morley Safer, and for a while, Diane Sawyer, and now Leslie Stahl and Andy Rooney, and Steve Kroft, who writes about as well as anybody I’ve every worked with. So, I’ve had all this great talent around me. Now, how did I get to that point in a very competitive business?

I came to CBS in 1948. And there were these young kids working around the place. There was a kid names Sidney Lumet …


HEWITT: [Laughter] You know one day, Sidney said, “You know this place doesn’t pay enough money, I’m going to Hollywood”. This unknown Sidney Lumet went to Hollywood. Bobby Mulligan’s left, so Bobby Mulligan says he’s going out there, too. And he goes out and he directs, “To Kill A Mocking Bird”. Frank Schaffner is working with me and he decides this ain’t the place for him. And he goes to Hollywood and he makes “Patton” and “Nicholas and Alexandra” and “Papillon”. And then by God, another guy that I broke in decides that he’s not going to say, and he goes to Hollywood and becomes the King of Siam. Yul Brynner. So I was left there and I had some imagination and I realized that this medium could be better than it is, and I hung around, with little or no competition to work against, I kind of got where I got. And I couldn’t be happier.


HEFFNER: Whatever did happen to Don Hewitt who stayed there?

HEWITT: Ah … well, first of all one of things that happened to me, I got fired by Fred Friendly. One day Friendly calls me in [laughter] and he says, “Don, the Cronkite News is not big enough for you. You’re so much bigger than that”.

HEFFNER: And you believed it.

HEWITT: Oh, yeah. Fell for it lock, stock and barrel. He said “I’m going to give you a special unit, and you’re going to run it, and you don’t even have to check with me, and any story breaks out anywhere in the world, I want you to go, your own tape” … and I’m, like, euphoric. I’m … like “Wow”. Okay, so I go into Bill Lennon, who was a Vice President, and I say, “Bill, you won’t believe this. Friendly says [laughter] the Cronkite News is not big enough for me and he’s going to …”. And Bill says, “Don, you just got fired”. And I said, “No, no, you don’t understand”. And he said, “No, YOU don’t understand”. And he canned me off the evening news.

So I ended up doing something called … I did a lot of documentaries … and I realized halfway through the documentary season that about eight percent of the audience watched them. And there was … had to be a better way to move information because nobody was watching them. Mostly because of their name. People don’t read “documents”. The last thing in the world anybody wants to read is a “document.” Why would they want to watch something called a “documentary”. And they were good. But nobody watched them. And I said there’s got to be a better way to do this. To move this information. And at the same time I was doing documentaries, I was doing a series called “Town Meeting of the World” in which we put Statesmen together and, you know, people like Harold Wilson. You want to listen to Harold Wilson? I didn’t want to listen to Harold Wilson. Harold Wilson was one of those forgettable Prime Ministers between Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. And … but we did have two pretty good guys with the show … and I always figured “these guys are going to amount to something”. We had a German-accented Professor from Harvard named Kissinger. And I had a politician from California named Reagan. I said, “These guys are pretty good. They may go somewhere”. The rest of the thing was a bomb.

So I was bored silly doing that. And me, before I started “60 Minutes”, I was thinking, “why don’t we do things that interest people? Like … you know, I was always a fan of Life magazine. Life magazine would put a story inside on Robert Oppenheimer and the birth of the bomb, but Marilyn Monroe was on the cover. They knew enough how to get people’s attention.

So I went to Friendly one day and I said, “You know an American that everybody talks about and nobody knows much about … Frank Sinatra”. Now, up to this point we’d only done [laughter] very serious Statesmen, etc. And I said, “I want to do a show biz personality, who everybody in America’s curious about.” So he said, “Well, see if he’ll do it.” So I go out … I call his press agent and he said, “Nah, I don’t think he’s interested. Forget it.” Three days later I get a call and he said, “I’m coming to New York, and I’m bringing a guy named Mickey Rudin …” (who was Sinatra’s lawyer), knew CBS because he was the lawyer for Desilu, the “Lucy” show. Came to New York. Friendly and I had lunch with him in the CBS cafeteria. Fred loved to do that. He’d take you to the cafeteria to show you he was a man of the people. He wasn’t going to take you to “21″ for lunch. And, it was to put a Hollywood mogul in his place. So we’re in the CBS cafeteria, and he says, “Sinatra will do it. There are three conditions. No questions about the mafia, gambling or Calneva Lodge” {which was the place, I think, in Tahoe, if I remember it, that he was trying to get a gambling license). And we said, “No, forget it. Either he does it or he doesn’t do it. But no ground rules”. And they left, and I figured that that was the end of it.

And three days later, Mahoney, the press agent calls me and says, “Come on out here,” he said, “Sinatra wants to meet you.” So I go out, I walk in this office, and his office is twice as big as this studio. You can’t believe … and he’s sitting, he’s waiting for his tailor to measure him for suits. And I guess while he’s waiting, he figures he’s going to measure me. And he said, “What do you want?”. Kinda snotty, “What’aya want?”. So I said, “I want to do a documentary about you.” “Yeah, why?”. I said, “Because you know, like Jonas Salk, and Hubert Humphrey and Willie Mays. You know you’re part of the times we live in.” And he warmed up … maybe that much. And I said, I figured I’m going to start really selling here. You know, I had a line of baloney you can’t believe …


HEFFNER: I can believe.

HEWITT: You can believe. [Laughter] You were the only one who could actually believe. So I said to him, “You know, people in my generation remember who they were and where they were by what Frank Sinatra song was popular at the time.” Now I get maybe another degree of heat …

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

HEWITT: … and he says, “What’ll you pay me?” I said, “Let’s face it. You don’t have enough money to buy a documentary about yourself. CBS doesn’t have enough money to pay you what you’re worth. Why don’t we call it a wash.” He said, “All right. How do I know I can trust you?” I figured right here I’m going to make this sale or I’m going to get thrown through this plate glass window. And I said “Frank”, and I shouldn’t have called him Frank, I didn’t even know him … I said, “Frank, I’m going to ask you to sit in a seat opposite Walter Cronkite. That’s the same seat that Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson sat in. If you’re not big enough to sit in that seat, I wouldn’t do it if I were you.” Big grin. And he said, “I’m recording tomorrow night at United. You want to start then?” I said, “We’ll be there.” I rushed down the hall, I found a phone booth, I called the cameraman, and I said, “What in the hell is a United?”. He said, “It’s a big recording studio.” I said, “well, light it. Tomorrow night we’re going to … And we recorded, we filmed … filmed, it was before tape. We filmed Frank Sinatra the night he recorded the “September of My Years” album. And he arrived at the studio in this … one of those … what’s standard in Hollywood today … the big limo. But then I’d never seen [laughter] one before. Big stretch. Comes up, Mia Farrow’s in the car with him. Gets out, hats on the back of the head. The coat’s over his shoulder, and I take one look and I said, “Oh my God, he’s going to play ‘man on the album cover’.” And he did. Until we had a fight in, of all places, your home town … Palm Springs.

We had a fight in his house in Palm Springs because when Cronkite asked him about the Mafia, and gambling and Calneva Lodge, he went ape. And he stopped and he said to me, “You. Come. Here.” And we walk into his bedroom and he said, “You broke all of Mickey’s rules … all the rules.” I said, “What rules?”. He said, “Mickey’s rules.” I said, “We never agreed to Mickey’s rules.” He said, “You agreed to them”. He said, “You know I ought to kill you.” I said …

HEFFNER: You thought he meant it.

HEWITT: I said, “You know, with anyone else that’s a figure of speech. You probably mean it.” He said, “I mean it.” I said, “Well, if I have a choice, I’d rather you didn’t”. And I left and he never talked to me again. Now Tina loved the show … Tina Sinatra. So she would write me all the time, “Why is my father angry at you.” And I would say, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him.” And, about a year before he died, I got a letter from Sinatra. Glowing. How great the show was, and how wonderful it was working with me … blah, blah ….on, on, on. Richard, I think Tina wrote the letter and I think she forged his signature. Because I don’t think he ever …

HEFFNER: Keep it. Frame it.

HEWITT: Oh, I got it. I’ve got it framed in my office. Anyway …

HEFFNER: Why … why didn’t you go to Hollywood?

HEWITT: I don’t … you know something, I was afraid. I don’t know “stage left” from “stage …” … to this day I can’t tell you “stage left” from “stage right’. So, I, I didn’t want to get mixed up with actors and stuff. So I stayed here, and, and it hasn’t been a bad life.

HEFFNER: Don, a few years ago … well, not just a few … more than that. You were talking about buying a network, or a network news operation.

HEWITT: No, buying the news division. Because they were selling everything. It was a moment … they were selling the record division. They were selling the magazine section.


HEWITT: CBS. So, I said “Hey, if you’re going to sell the new division, sell it to us”. And “us” was me, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Diane Sawyer, Bill Moyers and Dan Rather. And, it upset them very much that anybody would even think they were going to sell it. I said, “Well, you’re selling everything else.” So, during that time I’d had lunch with Lew Wasserman, who was then Chairman of MCA Universal … biggest name in Hollywood. And I said to Lew … I told him I want to buy CBS News. And he said, “You’re out of your mind”. I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You’re crazy they wouldn’t sell you CBS News.” I said, “Well, I’m going to keep at it. I think maybe …”. He said, “Will you just believe me. There is no way in the world they’re going to sell you CBS News”. So I said, “Well, I’m going to keep at it.” He said, “Well, you’re just being stupid and you’re making an ass of yourself. And forget it.” And as we’re leaving the restaurant [laughter], he grabs me and says, “If they say ‘Yes’, call me.”

HEFFNER: [Laughter] He wanted in.


HEFFNER: What would have happened, Don? What would have happened?


HEWITT: First of all, I’m happy that it didn’t happen because I would be sitting around all day long worrying about budgets and how I was going to give Dan Rather a raise, and how I was going … so I really don’t want to run anything. I want to run a broadcast and worry about what I’m putting on the air this week, but I don’t want to be involved in the business of television. It’s a tough business.

HEFFNER: Yet, you’ve made all these dollars for television.

HEWITT: We made about $2 billion dollars profit … 60 Minutes. And the reason it worked and the reason they were happy with us … it’s the first time, ever, a broadcast did something for their pocketbook as well as their soul. Up to that point news was for brownie points. News was to impress the FCC that you were involved in public service and you deserved to get licenses for stations. And that’s why in this book I’ve made a sort of radical proposal. I came into television at a time when news was a service, not a business. “I Love Lucy” was a business. Jackie Gleason was a business. “Gunsmoke”, “Have Gun, Will Travel”. Those were the businesses, and we were the public service end. And, all of a sudden we’re in the Top Ten, four times we’re the number one show in America. And we’re making money like it’s going out of style. And now, nobody sees it as a service anymore, now it’s a business, there’s money to be made in this thing.

Here’s one of the big fears. Having helped to create the evening news as a tradition, a staple of television, I think it may be on its last legs for this reason. One of these days some local station is going to say to itself, “Look, they feed us this stuff all day long because they have to feed it to us so we can stay competitive with CNN, and MSNBC. Why are we giving away a half hour every night to the network. Why don’t we do the national news?”. And they won’t do it very well, but they’ll … but they’ll keep the revenue. That’s going to happen. I fear. The first time one major market does that the rest of them are going to fold.

HEFFNER: So what’s your modest proposal?

HEWITT: Here’s the way to solve it. If the three networks can pool a White House news conference, if they can pool a Presidential debate, if they can pool the coverage of a space shot somewhere. Pool the evening news. The highest rated show in television, over the years, has been the evening news. Some people watch it on NBC, some people watch it on ABC, some people watch it on CBS. It is the same broadcast with three different faces. Now, if they got together and they ran an organization where they said, “We’re going to use Rather, Brokaw and Jennings. One at the desk in the studio. (I’m reluctant to call it the anchor desk. And we’ll talk about that later). One in the studio, two out on stories .. next week one comes in and the other guys go out. Now, because it’s one-third the cost, but the same revenue coming in, you can re-open all those bureaus you closed. You can become both the service and business that you’re not now. You’re a business now. And then people say to me, “But you’re taking the competition out of it.” I know one vital fact about television. Competition makes you worse, not better. Competition in television is where you go for the lowest common denominator.

Perfect example … election night … debacle … three anchormen, all sitting in front of ostensibly the same map, with the same figures … calling elections they shouldn’t have been calling. Why? Because God forbid, Dan Rather should call an election before Jennings and Jennings is competing with Brokaw. And they’re all in competition to see who’s going to make this call first. First of all, it’s nervy of television to “call” elections. They shouldn’t “call” elections anyway. They should tell you “Our reporting indicates that … thus and so.” Who are they to “call” and election? And we’ll talk more about politics and television also. And therefore, you take the competition out of it … you’ll be better.

Now you can say, “We’re going to do the story of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, and we’re not going to worry about our competition doing a Hollywood story at the same moment. Because there is nothing going to be competing with us. We are it. The three of us are it at this hour and we can now do what … we can exercise the news judgment that you can’t exercise when you’re under the gun and you have to keep a rating going against somebody else.


HEFFNER: But isn’t Don Hewitt the guy who made that impossible because he made news something other than a loss leader …

HEWITT: Well, I … I want to re-trench … I want to go back …

HEFFNER: [Laughter} You want to re-trench?

HEWITT: Yeah. I want, I want … I would like to see an American institution go on forever … that’s the evening news. And it ain’t going to happen because it’s going to die because they’re all killing each other and they’re getting nowhere. And, there are a lot of things we do that I’d like to change. We cover the political conventions that used to be where you nominated a candidate. Today it’s like covering the pep rally, instead of covering the game. There’s no game. It’s a pep rally. It’s like a good sports writer going out and saying, “I’m not covering the football games. I want to go to the pep rally.” And I think that Rather, Brokaw and Jennings become the ring masters of the Republicans and Democrats circus. Now, the networks don’t have the nerve to tell the political parties “we’re not covering your convention.” So I say give them the time and let them do it. Let them use Barbara Streisand to anchor the Democrats and Charlton Heston can anchor the Republicans, and we get the hell out of there because we don’t belong there.

HEFFNER: You’re mean.


HEFFNER: You’re mean, mean, mean.

HEWITT: No, no, not me..

HEFFNER: But, we’re out of time. So I want you to either stay there and we’ll do another program or come back. Don Hewitt, thank you for joining me tonight on The Open Mind.

HEWITT: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thank you, too. And I’ll try to make my friend here do that And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.