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Ed Driscoll

The Clock Runs Out On Don Hewitt

August 19th, 2009 - 9:36 am

Don Hewitt, the TV producer who created 60 Minutes, passes away at age 86, a month after fellow liberal CBS stalwart Walter Cronkite:

Hewitt joined CBS News in television’s infancy in 1948, and produced the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960.

He made his mark in the late 1960s when CBS agreed to try his idea of a one-hour broadcast that mixed hard news and feature stories. The television newsmagazine was born on Sept. 24, 1968, when the “60 Minutes” stopwatch began ticking.

He dreamed of a television version of Life, the dominant magazine of the mid-20th century, where interviews with entertainers could coexist with investigations that exposed corporate malfeasance.

“The formula is simple,” he wrote in a memoir in 2001, “and it’s reduced to four words every kid in the world knows: Tell me a story. It’s that easy.”

Of course, like Cronkite, Hewitt wasn’t afraid of telling a slanted story in an era of three TV channels that promised — and often failed to deliver — “objective” journalism:

That first modern Presidential debate in 1960 set the tone.

While the exchange offered insight into issues such as “the missile gap,” the disputed islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the China Sea, and striking steel workers, the decisive factor was Mr. Nixon’s sweaty upper lip and his five o’clock shadow.

Nixon had been feverish. He got to the studio late and looked ill and uncomfortable (he always looked uncomfortable). In contrast, the tanned and relaxed Kennedy could have just stepped off the cover of GQ magazine. The nation, worried about Eisenhower’s heart attacks while in office, wanted a leader with youth and vigor.

It also helped that Don Hewitt, the studio producer for the debate, was a Kennedy fan.

Hewitt convinced JFK to wear pancake make-up to soften the harsh glare of the studio klieg lights. During the broadcast, Hewitt instructed the camera operators to frame Kennedy in profile with a wide angle. For Nixon, Hewitt ordered straight-on extreme close-ups — the equivalent of a mug shot.

Don Hewitt, by the way, perfected his craft as founder and producer of CBS’ 60 Minutes. The “villain” of each 60 Minutes segment has always gotten the Nixonian treatment. (Welcome to the world of objective television journalism.)

Hewitt would boast:

A Sunday evening fixture, “60 Minutes” was television’s top-rated show four times, most recently in 1992-93. While no longer a regular in the top 10 in Hewitt’s later years, it was still TV’s most popular newsmagazine.

Upon the launch of “60 Minutes,” Hewitt recalled that news executive Bill Leonard told him to “make us proud.”

“Which may well be the last time anyone ever said `make us proud’ to anyone else in television,” he wrote in his memoir. “Because Leonard said `make us proud’ and not `make us money,’ we were able to do both, which I think makes us unique in the annals of television.”

At least until the Sixty-First Minute.

Update: James Lileks will be discussing the legacies of Don Hewitt and Bob Novak, on Saturday’s PJM Political, with Steve Green.

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