“Tell me a story, kid.” —Don Hewitt
I was Don Hewitt’s disciple from afar for twenty-five years. Let’s face it, all of us in television news are Don’s disciples, even if we don’t recognize it.
As a pioneer at CBS News, Don invented many of the TV conventions we take for granted—camera angles, graphic techniques, even cue cards. He made history directing the Kennedy-Nixon debates, and launched Walter Cronkite as America’s anchorman.
Then, while briefly on the outs with CBS management, Don transformed television news with the creation of 60 Minutes, the most popular television program ever. His oft-repeated formula for success, “Tell me a story,” became the mantra for every reporter and producer who ever dreamed of walking into the legendary 60 Minutes screening room to show Don his or her work.
I never experienced the privilege—some might say the terror—of screening one of my own stories for Don. But after I joined CBS in 1998 as a vice president for primetime news, I got to screen with him, to work with him and observe him in action for six years.
I do not use the word “action” lightly. Don, then in his seventies, would regularly beat people half his age into the office. I would often arrive at 9 a.m. to find the message light blinking on my phone, usually signaling Don’s call several hours earlier to inform me of a conflict brewing on the show. Both Mike Wallace and Dan Rather wanted to go to Tehran to interview the new Iranian president, for example.
Or there might be an envelope on my desk with my name scrawled on it—a hand-delivered stream-of-consciousness memo, banged out that morning on Don’s electric typewriter, outlining his take on how to fix the ratings-challenged CBS Evening News.
Don was very opinionated about the state of the television news business. He felt that many programs had sold out to ratings with tawdry, sensationalized stories. And yet he acknowledged his role in opening the floodgates with the stupendous success of 60 Minutes, which he estimated had earned CBS as much as 2 billion dollars over thirty-plus years. Before then, the news was a loss leader, its production mandated by the FCC. That all changed when Don decided to marry “the news biz to show biz” and “reap the benefits of being both prestigious and popular….a television show to feed the network’s soul, and simultaneously, its pocketbook,” he wrote in his memoir.
He didn’t apologize for bringing entertainment into news. But he maintained his own standards for what was and was not acceptable. “We could make the news entertaining without compromising our integrity,” he wrote.
Don was deeply proud of creating 60 Minutes, and conscious of his legacy. But he had a sense of humor about himself and loved telling stories at his own expense. A favorite was how he advised a young Barbara Walters, then a producer at the Today Show, that she would never make it in broadcasting.
He was a lot of fun to work with when he wasn’t yelling at you—though, in my case, it was a badge of honor the first time Don yelled at me as enthusiastically as he did at Mike Wallace.
I was surprised to discover that Don, although prodigiously energetic, did not micro-manage the stories themselves. Of course he would approve all the story ideas, which had to pass his famous “Gee-I-didn’t-know-that” test, as well as his mandate for “strong characters.”
But after that, his management philosophy seemed to be that he’d hired the best correspondents and producers in the business, so he would give them a lot of leeway. Stories would often be in the works for months before he would pay too much attention. Then came the screening.
Screenings at 60 Minutes occur in a low-ceilinged, windowless conference room outfitted with a table and a few theater seats, all assigned. In Don’s day, the correspondent and producer would be there, along with Don’s senior team—longtime executive editor Phil Scheffler and senior producers Josh Howard, Merri Lieberthal, Esther Kartiganer—and, if it was a potentially controversial story, a few network lawyers. When Don walked in, the lights went down and the editor pushed the play button.
Don had a legendarily short attention span. He bragged about it. He said he was as easily bored as the audience. So if Don yelled “Stop” in the middle of the screening, it was not a good sign—but not necessarily a disaster. He was bored, or annoyed, or more likely had a brilliant idea about how to drop one interview, expand another, and rearrange the structure to make the story interesting to him and the audience. Everyone who went through the process concurred: Don was a story-fixing genius.
If, on the other hand, he watched the story all the way through and the lights went up and he paused for a second and then said, “That is the best damn story I’ve seen all year,” I imagine the producer and correspondent slept well that night receiving high praise from the man who reinvented television news.Betsy West is an associate professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and an independent documentary film producer. She was a producer at ABC News for twenty-three years, where she worked for Nightline and PrimeTime Live, and was executive producer of the documentary program Turning Point. She was a vice president at CBS News from 1998 to 2005.