Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Don Hewitt's 59th Minute

This will be the first season of 60 Minutes without its legendary creator and executive producer. A look at the last days of a network-news King Lear.

ShareThis

Hewitt and his 60 Minutes team at a surprise going-away party.  

On the morning of October 7, 2001—the day the United States began a rigorous bombing campaign in Afghanistan—Don Hewitt woke up in the hospital. He was there for an angioplasty. Nothing serious—just a tune-up to keep the old man moving.

It was less than a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Looking back on the previous four weeks of 9/11 coverage from his hospital bed, Hewitt had to admit to himself that the 60 Minutes crew didn’t do crash reporting as well as they used to. Sure, he could still count on Steve Kroft for a great hard-hitting story. And Lesley Stahl knew Washington better than any of them. But his top guys weren’t what they used to be. Any way you looked at it, Mike Wallace was too old to cover a story as aggressively as a decade ago. Same with Morley Safer.

Hewitt needed to figure out how to distinguish himself and his show—not only for the show’s benefit but also for his own. He knew that sooner or later, CBS News president Andrew Heyward wanted to replace him at 60 Minutes. No one had yet raised the issue directly, but he’d heard the rumblings. Was Les Moonves gunning for him? It probably wasn’t Mel Karmazin, then the No. 2 at parent company Viacom. Karmazin was a pal. Still, Hewitt realized he had to put together some classic 60 Minutes broadcasts fast, and prove to everyone that it wasn’t yet time for him to leave.

That night’s show would probably go smoothly enough. If any last-minute emergencies arose, Phil Scheffler would be around, as always. For 50 years, that had been a big part of Scheffler’s job: to be around. Hewitt and Scheffler had a working relationship resembling that of a blind man and a seeing-eye dog. Scheffler’s only purpose was to serve his master. If for some reason Scheffler couldn’t handle that night’s show by himself, there was always Josh Howard, a senior producer. In this news shop, the 46-year-old Howard was the equivalent of a baby-faced teenager. But fortunately for Hewitt, Howard had way more tenacity and drive than Scheffler—and that would come in handy for Hewitt in the dark days ahead.

The previous afternoon, senior vice-president Betsy West had gotten word from CBS News reporters covering the Defense Department that the war would begin the next day. She and Heyward had spoken immediately about plans for coverage. Heyward’s initial plan had been to broadcast that night’s 60 Minutes episode (already geared to the topic of terrorism) with a news opening to report on the latest developments. Knowing that Hewitt was in the hospital, West had phoned Scheffler to explain the situation.

“What do you expect me to do about it?” Scheffler had responded in what colleagues described as a typically downbeat response—“Doctor No” had lately become Scheffler’s nickname around the 60 Minutes office. “Let the special-events unit handle it,” he said.

“This is wrong!” Hewitt yelled at the busy producers.“You shouldn’t be doing this. Everybody ought to walk out right now.”

So CBS News management moved ahead on its own, acknowledging that Scheffler was neither ready nor willing to tear up the next day’s 60 Minutes to reflect the breaking-news development of imminent war. On Sunday morning, management turned the task of producing that night’s 60 Minutes—now extended at Heyward’s request to a two-hour special—over to Jim Murphy, the executive producer of CBS Evening News With Dan Rather.

“We’ll do it,” Hewitt said to West when he arrived at CBS from the hospital. “We’ll do all the things you want to do, but let us package.”

Hewitt’s argument came too late. By the time he’d reached the CBS Broadcast Center, the CBS crew had already started putting together that night’s episode of 60 Minutes. It would feature reports from various CBS News correspondents with no connection to the Sunday-night show. Hewitt was helpless to stop it and furious that his show had been taken away.

In the late afternoon, Hewitt was standing around the “fishbowl”—the central area of the CBS Evening News, where news writers and producers gathered to work on the special that would emanate from the nearby anchor desk. It was in the fishbowl, a generation ago, that Hewitt had once been the first man to executive-produce the Evening News. Now Murphy and his producers were working feverishly, and Don Hewitt was a bystander.

“This is wrong!” he yelled at the busy producers, according to an eyewitness. “You shouldn’t be doing this! Everyone ought to walk out right now!” Hewitt genuinely wanted—in fact, expected—everyone to stop what they were doing and get up and leave. Finally, Hewitt had to be asked to leave, to allow the Evening News team to proceed with the broadcast as planned.

The show aired that night under the 60 Minutes logo, complete with the ticking stopwatch, but to Hewitt, it was, in his words, not 60 Minutes but “a fucking abortion.”

The drama with CBS News over 9/11 coverage reprised themes that had defined Hewitt’s career for half a century. He had long been notorious for barking orders, shouting at underlings, and intimidating colleagues with his famously foul language. More important, he’d built his show and reputation in opposition to CBS News, using techniques and exploring subject matter that the mandarins of TV news felt were beneath them. It was Hewitt who produced the 1960 debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Hewitt asked Nixon if he wanted makeup, and Nixon declined, thus arguably changing the course of history. More than anyone else, Hewitt was responsible for blurring the line between news and entertainment, for making news that people wanted to watch. “Don Hewitt’s idea of news is an elephant on water skis in Cypress Gardens,” said Fred Friendly, Hewitt’s boss at CBS News. Friendly put Hewitt out to pasture in 1964, giving him the opportunity to start 60 Minutes four years later.

The rowdy boys’ club that was the original 60 Minutes had evolved, over more than three decades, into the highly respected newsmagazine gold standard—and then into what some critics saw as a kind of TV-news Jurassic Park. But Hewitt, though he was nearly 80, didn’t see himself as a dinosaur at all.


Advertising
Current Issue
Subscribe to New York
Subscribe

Give a Gift

Advertising