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TV News Pioneer Don Hewitt Dies At 86

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The creative force behind "60 Minutes" has died. Even viewers who'd never heard of Don Hewitt by name were influenced by his work. And even if you never watched "60 Minutes," he influenced what you watched. Don Hewitt has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 86. NPR's David Folkenflik has this report.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: In the early years, television news was pretty much defined by CBS. And you could say Don Hewitt was just about present at the creation. He had dropped out of college, become a cub reporter. He had served in the Merchant Marine during World War II, and then he took a job at CBS in 1948. Thus was unleashed what former "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman calls…

Mr. LOWELL BERGMAN (Former Producer, "60 Minutes"): Don the filmmaker, the director, the man who had the incredible insight into how to organize a story.

FOLKENFLIK: Hewitt was the director of the very first American television newscast, shaped early coverage of political conventions and presidential debates, and he worked with Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, too. You can credit or blame Don Hewitt for the visual grammar of TV news. He popularized the reporter stand up, onscreen captions, the ambush interview and the super-duper close up.

In creating a new show in the late 1960s, Hewitt took inspiration from a writer's critique of Murrow, who had been host of a serious documentary program, but also a second show focused on celebrities.

Mr. DON HEWITT (Creator, "60 Minutes"): High Murrow, and low Murrow. And I read it and I said, oh, my God. That's the answer. You put high Murrow and low Murrow in the same broadcast, you got a winner. And that's what "60 Minutes" has been.

FOLKENFLIK: That was Hewitt on NPR's MORNING EDITION back in 2001. The formula still holds, with interviews, say, of a former CIA chief fighting to save his reputation.

(Soundbite of TV show, "60 Minutes")

Mr. GEORGE TENET (Former CIA director): Men of honor don't do this.

Mr. SCOTT PELLEY (Correspondent, "60 Minutes"): Men of honor don't do this?

Mr. TENET: You don't do this. You don't throw people overboard.

FOLKENFLIK: Or an NFL star trying to overcome disgrace.

(Soundbite of TV show, "60 Minutes")

Mr. JAMES BROWN (Anchor, CBS Sports): Shooting them, electrocuting them, drowning them. Horrific things, Michael. What about the dogs?

FOLKENFLIK: "60 Minutes" executive producer Jeff Fager, Hewitt's protege and successor, spoke with me yesterday while sitting in Hewitt's old corner office.

Mr. JEFF FAGER (Executive producer, "60 Minutes"): He always said that "60 Minutes" ruined television, because that was the moment that people realized you could make money in news and that it had a very negative effect on news, because news before that had been a public service. And all of a sudden, "60 Minutes" showed, well, it's not just money you can make. You can make big money.

FOLKENFLIK: Hewitt was vigilant about the show's fortunes, perhaps to a fault. In the mid-1990s, amid threats of law suits, Hewitt acquiesced to demands from CBS executives that he withhold key elements of a story on a whistle-blower in the tobacco industry. CBS's controlling owners were in the midst of selling the network and also owned a tobacco company.

Mr. BERGMAN: You learn with any publication or broadcast what the limits are.

FOLKENFLIK: Lowell Bergman was the producer who had convinced the reluctant source to speak on the record. Bergman was aghast.

Mr. BERGMAN: He made the wrong decision. Don was, you know, ultimately, a company man.

FOLKENFLIK: Hewitt later said he regretted his decision, but kept leading the show until his retirement in 2004. Fager says it is a tribute to Hewitt that after four decades, his signature creation is still flying high.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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