Tell Me A Story … In 60 Minutes, Part II
VTR Date: May 22, 2001
Guest: Hewitt, Don
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Don Hewitt
Title: “Tell Me A Story” … In 60 Minutes, Part II
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And just on the outside chance that when I tell you that, like last time, my guest today is Don Hewitt, someone in the audience should say, “Who the hell is Don Hewitt?”
HEFFNER: I can tell you that that’s an inside joke that requires going back to our last program together and/or reading my guest’s wonderful new Public Affairs book, so appropriately titled, “Tell Me A Story”. For “Tell Me A Story” is largely, though not only the thoroughly entertaining and informative story of television’s top rated 60 Minutes. By so many standards, professional and financial alike, the most successful news program ever. Of which, for more than 30 something years now, Don Hewitt has been its whirling dervish of madcap energy. Creator, executive producer, and constant tough-minded source of direction.
Don, in our last program you came up with a number of modest proposals. Television …
HEWITT: [Laughter] I never did a modest proposal in my life.
HEFFNER: [Laughter] Well, I know that. I’m trusting that my audience doesn’t.
HEFFNER: But will find out.
HEFFNER: Politics. Shouldn’t … political calls or… election calls shouldn’t be made by news people, but you were telling me, telling our audience about this modest little proposal of putting together ABC, CBS, NBC nightly news.
HEFFNER: Go on about that, just a bit.
HEWITT: Yeah, I think that the three networks would continue to do … CBS would continue to do 60 Minutes, ABC would continue to do Nightline, and NBC would continue to do Meet The Press. I’m not saying amalgamate the news divisions in their entirety. But their evening news, as a service to America, and as a service to their bosses who can’t afford to do this much longer … I think you may come up with the ultimate news entity, as good as any newspaper and as good as radio was in its hey-day.
HEFFNER: That’s a nice way to put it.
HEWITT: It was. I mean it was … oh, it was … you know when you realize that bunch of guys … Murrow … they were all scholar journalists. Most of them came out of Oxford. They … you know, the Howard K. Smiths and the Eric Severids and the Charles Collingwoods. And, and, if we’re any good, I’ve always said it’s because we come from good stock. You know we were brought up at their knee. And we learned. But we learned how to make it commercially viable as well as newsworthy.
And the time has come, I think, to take the next step. And what I see is the next step, and that is to join forces and cover the world like it’s never been covered before. And make money like it’s never been made before. Because you’re going to do the broadcast for one-third the cost, when you put the three of them together. You’re going to sell it for the same amount of money. And you … you know … the commercials can be different on ABC, NBC and CBS. But the cost to each one of them is one-third what it was before.
Now you can do the kind of things you didn’t do. You can go have a guy spend three weeks in Africa looking at the AIDS epidemic. You can go to find out why Singapore doesn’t work as well as it used. There are things out there that … you know, you don’t the things that Tom Friedman does. Now Tom Friedman packs his bag and he goes … he doesn’t take a camera crew with him. He doesn’t have a lighting man. He doesn’t need any make up. And television … we’re mobile now. We have little teeny cameras. We have wireless microphones. We can go anywhere. Except when it costs too much. So, bring the cost down. And get into where you can start competing with the Tom Friedmans, and the Maureen Dowds and the Jim Hoagland.
HEFFNER: And you think that, Bill Paley, for instance, would have gone along with this.
HEWITT: Ah … no. Paley got sore at me once. We were best friends. I was in the room with him the night he died. Bill and my wife Marilyn and I saw each other every weekend. And once I proposed that we have a wire service to cover things for the … and Paley got mad at me. He said, “That’s a foolish, stupid thing. God damn you’ll make an ass of yourself with that.” And I got scared. I figured the friendship was over. And I wrote him a note, and I said, “Gee, I feel awful. And I thought you knew I was proposing this. And I guess this is the end of our friendship.” And an hour later the phone rings; it’s Paley and he said, “You’re still a God damn fool, but what’s that got to do with our friendship?” So he was that kind of guy. Now he wouldn’t let … he wouldn’t let … these guys … they weren’t living up on Cloud 9. They were for a reason, they owned the business. Today they would realize, “hey, we don’t own this business anymore.” There are Viacoms and there are Disneys and there are General Electrics and, and, you know, these guys were once the three Emperors.
HEFFNER: Paley, Goldenson(CHECK SPELLING, Sarnoff.
HEFFNER: Now, what happens, Don, at a time when you don’t have Paley, Sarnoff, Goldenson?
HEWITT: You don’t now.
HEFFNER: I know. And you have boards, and you have stock markets, and you have all of those bottom line concerns, not that those men weren’t concerned with the bottom line.
HEWITT: Right. Okay.
HEFFNER: What happens when ..
HEWITT: What do you do?
HEWITT: You make life easier for them.
HEWITT: And they, in turn, make life easier for you. You know, these guys are all hard nosed businessmen. They have treated 60 Minutes with the same care, consideration, hands-off, kid glove treatment that Paley and Frank Stanton afforded to Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Do they love us? They love us. You know why? Because we make money. And that’s why publishers all over the world love some of their reporters because they make money for them. They’re not in the public service business. You know, there used to be a thing about … we used the airwaves so we owed certain things to the public. We don’t use the airwaves. We’re on cable. Nobody gets television over the air. People keep saying to me, “You guys should provide free commercial time for politicians because you use the airwaves.” I said, “No, no, no. The cell phones use the airwaves, why don’t they give 30 second messages from politicians in return for their use of the airwaves.
HEFFNER: What should broadcasters do for politics in America? Or with politics in America?
HEWITT: One, as I’ve said last time we talked, we ought to get out of their stupid conventions. Now let me tell you what I think about their debates. I did the first debate, but I really didn’t. It never has been a debate. They’ve never debated. These have been joint news conferences, masquerading as debates. And they go nowhere. Mostly because I know all the guys who participate in them. And every night, or the night before they’re going on, they sit down and they say to themselves, “What can I say that’s going to make me look smart, but not make me look partisan?” That’s the problem, nobody who’s non-partisan, should be in the debate. Debate is about partisan. It’s not a joint news conference.
This … Teddy White, the late Theodore White … who wrote “Making The President”, Teddy and I once came up with an idea and we couldn’t sell it to anybody. Said we think these debates should be a real debate. Each guy … hypothetically … Bush and Gore … each bring two great debaters with them from their party. And they go before a joint session of Congress for two hours. And for the first hour, it’s a real debate with a moderator, the same rules, the Oxford Debating Society … proposition that proposed that George Bush be the next President of the United States … pro and con. And they debate that issue. Real debate, no stupid news guy’s questions. Second hour, you do what they do in Britain on the back bench in Parliament … question time. The Republicans in Congress have at Al Gore and the Democrats in Congress have at George Bush. And they ask the kind of questions that really make sense. You’ll never get that program … why are you proposing that, because that didn’t work … it was proposed 12 years ago. And now you have a real night of political debate and not this … what happened in 1960 when I did the Nixon/Kennedy debate … which in hindsight turns out to be, maybe, the worst night television ever had. Or the American people ever had. That’s the night that television and politics realized they couldn’t live without each other. They looked at us as the way to campaign. We don’t need whistle stop trains. We don’t need campaign buttons. We don’t need bumper stickers. We don’t need the speech on the courthouse steps. Television is the way we’ll reach the American people.
HEFFNER: They were right.
HEWITT: And we looked at them and said, “These guys are a bottomless pit of advertising dollars.” And because of that night and what happened after that night, today in the greatest democracy on earth, the number one qualification to hold office, is an ability to raise money. If you can’t raise money, don’t even think about running. It cost Franklin Roosevelt $2.6 million dollars (in today’s money $26 million dollars) to get elected President of the United States. Rick Lasio and Hilary Clinton spent more than that on television commercials for one Senate seat. It is so out of hand that … it has become such a money game. Now you get these Constitutional scholars who would have you believe that the First Amendment protects your right to buy as much television time as you can afford.
The Founding Fathers would turn over in their graves if they knew they were citing the First Amendment as the reason why television has taken over politics and it’s become a money game. You cannot get elected without television time. You can’t buy television time without a war chest. You can’t amass a war chest unless you’re beholden to lobbyists, and you’re putting the arm on people. One of the ways I, I … I told John McCain once, I said, “You know why you get no where with campaign reform. Because you’re not calling it what it is. It’s bribery. If you do business with the government and you make contributions to politicians, that’s bribery. You want favors and you get favors. If television is so concerned with America’s health that it doesn’t carry cigarette commercials, I think that carrying political commercials is just as great of a danger to our health as a nation because … Bill Clinton sells a pardon to Denise Rich for her estranged husband. And we are shocked and yelling, “Oh, this is awful. How can the guy do this?” At that same moment there are lobbyists up on Capital Hill buying and selling half of America to legislators. There are more lobbyists on Capital Hill than there are legislators.
HEFFNER: Don, you made a comment a moment ago that sounded almost disparaging about the First Amendment. And you’ll say, “No”, you’ll say you had good reason to say …
HEFFNER: … what you’ve said …
HEFFNER: But I was fascinated in the book … the number of times Don Hewitt says things about First Amendment claims that I never expected to hear …
HEWITT: We’ve run it into the ground. We’ve run it into the ground.
HEFFNER: you write,.”What makes … which makes me wonder if we, the Press, have an exaggerated idea of what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they gave us the First Amendment.”
HEWITT: Yeah, because …
HEFFNER: … and so on.
HEWITT: Because I think there are moments when journalist, me, my guys, get a little too big for their britches. And assume that they have rights that other people don’t have. That the First Amendment gives them the right to run roughshod over people, that we shouldn’t be doing. You know the question that’s frequently asked of people like me, “Who died and left you in charge?” is not necessarily an invalid question. We are a little big for our britches. And, and I think our … first of all, a lot of things we do right. This business …first of all, do you know in the Constitution there’s no “right of privacy”. That doesn’t exist. Nobody ever heard … there’s no phrase about a ‘right to privacy”. But people always thought to counter us by their “right to privacy”. And I claim you do have a right to privacy, but you don’t have a right to privacy when you’re committing a crime. If you’re committing a crime and you know … and we know they’re committing a crime … that’s … when you’re not really sure what they’re doing. And you trample on people … yeah … I think, I think sometimes journalists do get a little big for their britches.
HEFFNER: Don, you were here almost a decade ago …
HEWITT: More than a decade ago.
HEFFNER: … I think you’ve changed your mind about that.
HEWITT: Yeah. I’ve lived.
HEFFNER: Tell me.
HEWITT: I mean I’ve been, I’ve been in this business a long time, I’ve seen it happen. I, I kind of know that that our job is to chronicle the society in which we live. We’re not the high priests of this society. We’ve assumed a lot of things. Journalists assume that if their is a high priest of our society today, it’s the geneticists. It’s the professors. It’s the doctors who are about to cure cancer and do some of these amazing things. And we’re there to chronicle what they’re doing. And it is not up to us to take on the mantle of protectors of the, of the society. You know, we’re pretty good, but we’re not … we’re not as bad as people say we are [laughter] and we’re not as good as we think we are.
HEFFNER: Well, it is a source of amazement to me that several times here you, you say as much.
HEFFNER: What happens to your colleagues? What do they do to you?
HEWITT: Ah …
HEFFNER: Are they going to run you out of town?
HEWITT: No. No. They … they’re all realistic, they realize that, that there are times when we …
HEFFNER: Even though the phrase, as you’ve just suggested does not appear in the Constitution. “I think there is such a thing as a ‘right to privacy’.” And then you go on to say, “exercising our freedom to publish or broadcast should further the cause of something worthwhile.” So you want to make some judgments about what you do before you claim the privilege. As I understand it.
HEWITT: I think that everybody in any profession makes some judgments before they do what they do.
HEFFNER: “And then who gives us the authority to trample on other people’s rights while we claim we’re exercising our own?” Don, do you mean to say that your colleagues don’t get up and howl …
HEFFNER: at …
HEWITT: No. No. No. They’re all real … we all realize that we’re a … we’ve done a pretty good job. We’ve been on the air a long time. We’ve done it well. We haven’t shamed ourselves. And we realize that there are people out there who run around screaming First Amendment all the time to kind of justify going off in 85 different directions and doing things that other people don’t have the right to do. Because we’re journalist? I don’t think we have the right to exercise willy-nilly what we believe because we’re journalists.
HEFFNER: You know darn well that you’re one of the few people … I think you are the only major journalist I’ve known on this program who hasn’t said basically, “There’s no one in here but us chickens. We don’t have any power, we don’t have any strength. Don’t fence us in”. You concede the power, don’t you?
HEWITT: I figure share it with other people. I don’t think that … I, I just don’t believe that you advance the cause of democracy by always going around claiming, it’s our First Amendment “right” to do this, or our First Amendment “right” to do that. There are a lot of things where you should exercise the First Amendment “right”. But it’s not a blank check.
HEFFNER: What about the power that has resided in 60 Minutes? Have you, do you think, influenced major events in this country, perhaps even national elections?
HEWITT: I would think probably “yes”, but I don’t think we set out to do that. I think we set out, again, “tell me a story” about something or other. I mean, if it’s, you know, came down to a Governor from Arkansas nobody ever heard of named Bill Clinton, arives with a wife name Hilary that nobody had ever heard of … and they want to tell us a story about a lady named Gennifer Flowers [laughter] and they call, they say they “want to set the record straight”. And, you know, for an hour they set the record crooked. So, you know, all we were there … in many ways we’re there as a sounding board and …
HEFFNER: Were you duped?
HEWITT: I think the country was duped. They … first of all, you know something, he was a pretty good President. Was I very upset about the whole Monica Lewinsky thing … and oh, come on, Jack Kennedy was doing that. But he was doing it in hotel rooms. But, you know, that wasn’t … he did two things that got me: “I did not have …” and I’m thinking, “Oh, don’t do that” because everybody knows “I did have”. And it all goes according to what the meaning of “is” is. [Laughter] Now, come on, that … that I think did more to chip away the reputation he’d had which was pretty good. It was a pretty good time. You know, it … getting down to George Bush today. He’s not as good as I … I thought he was going to be pretty good. [Laughter] I think I might have gotten fooled. But he’s doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and … I think this country, they may not miss Monica Lewinsky, but they may miss Bill Clinton. And I wasn’t a big Clinton fan, but I’m willing to say that now.
HEFFNER: But now I go back to the question of 60 Minutes … you gave him the time, you gave those two the time …
HEWITT: That’s right.
HEFFNER: Was the country duped because of 60 Minutes?
HEWITT: Not because of 60 Minutes …
HEFFNER: … in your estimation.
HEWITT: They were duped because of Bill Clinton. [Laughter]
HEFFNER: Who gave him the time?
HEWITT: No. No, the time is not. You go back and you look at that transcript. Steve Croft came at them every which way but Sunday. I mean, and they, you know, ducked and weaved and bobbed and it was like a heavyweight fight. And, and, you couldn’t lay a glove on them because they kept dancing around the ring and … you know the Right Wing, to this day, thinks that I’m an ogre, that I gave the country Bill Clinton. And …
HEFFNER: And you took Ross Perot away from them.
HEWITT: Oh, Ross … for … Ross Perot. My God … listen. I got mixed … I liked Ross Perot. I thought … hey … I really fell for this guy …
HEFFNER: I shouldn’t misunderstand you … you liked him.
HEWITT: I really liked him. I really thought this guy’s saying things that interest me. And then I found out one day, good God, if he weren’t a billionaire, he may be in a straight jacket. But, when he told Leslie … he told me on the phone that they … that they … call it the “Bush people” were, were …
HEWITT: …. they were …
HEWITT: Yeah, Bush senior … that they were bugging his office, and they had dirty pictures of his daughter and I figured “Ugh oh,”. So I said, “You want to talk about that?”. “No, I’m not going to talk about it”. I said, “Yeah, you’ve gotta talk about it. And you tell it to me on the phone, I know about it … you, you didn’t tell me its confidential”. So Leslie Stahl goes down there, and he says to me “All right I’ll do it one on condition, I don’t want to do it in my office.” “Why doesn’t she …”, there’s a rib joint he went to all the time. He said, “Why doesn’t she set up a camera there, and I’ll just happen to walk in for some ribs.” And I figured, “this is craziness, right?”. But the next morning Leslie called me and she said, “Guess where I am? I’m in Ross Perot’s office.” And he told the story of … that the Bush senior people were trying to embarrass him with phony pictures of his daughter and stuff before her wedding. And he lost … he told David Frost … on BBC in London that I lost the election for him.
HEFFNER: I thought you did because I watched that program.
HEWITT: [Laughter} You figure “Uhhh ohh, what’s the matter with this guy?”.
HEFFNER: Where have you, would you concede, had an enormous amount of influence. Looking for it or not. I’m not saying Hewitt went out to make a President or to break one. John Connolly?
HEWITT: John Connolly was his own worst enemy. No one had to break John Connolly. John Connolly broke himself.
HEFFNER: By doing an edited interview on 60 Minutes. Right?
HEWITT: Yeah. When he … when Mike Wallace asked him about something and he said, “Never happened” and Mike said, “What would you say if I told you we had tape of it?”. And he said, “I would say you’ve got take of something you shouldn’t have tape of”. And that was the end of John Connolly. As I say, we chronicle the times in which we live. [Laughter] I don’t go out there to either hurt or help. I’m not in the business of hurting anybody politician or helping any politician. I’m in the business of … I love what they say in the masthead of Scripps Howard newspapers … “Give light and the people will find their way”. And if people are doing things in dark corners they shouldn’t be doing, we turn the light on. I don’t think that’s a crime … turn the light on.
HEFFNER: Look, we have three minutes left. I’m just getting that signal. I want to know what you meant before when you said that broadcasters have no business predicting elections. Or saying what the results are.
HEWITT: No, I didn’t say “predicting”. “Calling” the elections.
HEFFNER: “Calling” them.
HEWITT: Predicting is fine.
HEWITT: I have no problem with anybody predicting an election. “We … ABC is calling Florida for Bush.” I said, “No, no, no. The Secretary of State calls the state”. We have assumed this mantle of invincibility that we can call elections. That’s not our job. What we should say is, “According to our reporting, at this moment it looks very much like George Bush will end up winning Florida, but the votes aren’t counted yet, and when they are we will tell … when they declare a winner in Florida, we’ll be the first to tell it to you.”
HEFFNER: No projections.
HEWITT: But as projections. Don’t call them … say, “it looks very much like”.
HEFFNER: What about projections?
HEWITT: Yeah, but, but it’s the language of how you, how you project your projection. You say … the language mixes up the projection and the result. And you don’t want to give the impression that you’ve projected a winner. You want to say, “Our reporting, at this moment, is indicative of the fact that Minnesota will probably end up in the Bush column the way…from the votes we’ve been able to look at”. But the minute you go with absolutes, you’re doing something you shouldn’t do.
HEFFNER: Don … question … cameras in the courts. Got about a minute, minute and a half left.
HEFFNER: What’s you fix?
HEWITT: Because they turn them into soap operas. I think C-Span could put cameras in courtrooms and do it as a C-SPAN. I once had this big fight with Brill, when Brill had his cameras in the …
HEFFNER: Steve Brill …
HEWITT: Steve Brill … in, in the O.J. courtroom. And he said, “That’s our First Amendment right.” And I said, “Okay. Let’s assume the judge said to you, you have a First Amendment right to put a camera in here. Got no problem with that. But you’re not going to sell commercials out of my courtroom. Whata do? You go or you stay?” He said, “That’s illegal.” He said, “No, it’s not. The judge can do anything he wants to do.” I have no problem with a camera in a courtroom, the way C-SPAN covers Congress or anything else. When it becomes, let’s pause now for toilet tissue or toothpaste, or shaving cream, and you don’t know where the soap opera ended and the trial began and it falls into … and it becomes a television show. That’s what I object to. I don’t object to the camera in the courtroom.
HEFFNER: When it becomes a show. Don Hewitt, you’re terrific. You’ve got to come back again and again and again. Maybe another ten years from now. Thank you for joining me on The Open Mind today.
HEWITT: Thank you for having me.
HEFFNER: 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.