Don Hewitt’s 59th Minute

Hewitt and his 60 Minutes team at a surprise going-away party.Photo: Jeffrey Smith

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 busyproducers.“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.

Hewitt was a notoriously temperamental boss at 60 Minutes. Photo: Jeffrey Smith

One afternoon several months later, Andrew Heyward left the CBS Broadcast Center, crossed West 57th Street, entered the BMW car-dealership building where 60 Minutes had its headquarters, flashed his CBS News badge to front-desk security, rode the elevator to the ninth floor, and proceeded left past the dull-gray-carpeted reception area, with its facsimile of the 60 Minutes stopwatch on the wall across from a Ben Shahn drawing of TV antennas, toward Room 177, Hewitt’s corner office.

Heyward had picked this March day in 2002 to begin the delicate matter of removing from his job the man who had been running 60 Minutes for the previous 34 years. Heyward wanted to tell Hewitt his proposal for the future. It called for the next season to be Hewitt’s last as executive producer, and for Phil Scheffler to leave a year earlier—by June 2002. For several years, there had been a clause in Hewitt’s contract allowing CBS News to remove him as executive producer of 60 Minutes at the corporation’s discretion; Heyward now wanted to exercise that contractual right. Heyward’s plan was to replace Hewitt and Phil Scheffler with Jeff Fager of 60 Minutes II. This meeting was to begin that process.

However, this was not the plan Don Hewitt envisioned, at least not now. Not yet. When he’d signed his most recent contract with CBS, he told one correspondent that he would leave when it expired; at that point, he would be 79 years old. But now that he had passed his 79th birthday, he’d shown no inclination toward leaving anytime soon. Anyway, Hewitt had his own successor in mind—Josh Howard, who’d been the senior producer (the show’s third in command) since 1996. The genial Howard had begun at 60 Minutes as a producer for Mike Wallace, and had also worked on the CBS Evening News With Dan Rather and even served a stint at New York’s local WCBS affiliate. He had many friends throughout CBS News, in part because he was one of those people who always seemed on the verge of a chuckle.

Heyward believed he had a legitimate case for Hewitt’s removal. As a corporate manager, he needed to prepare responsibly for the transition of power that was inevitable, given Hewitt’s age. It was clear that Hewitt was slowing down in the afternoons. Knowing this, correspondents and producers vied to schedule screenings of their pieces earlier in the day; by 4 p.m., Hewitt was frequently yawning, if not asleep. On top of everything else, he remained as intractable and difficult as always, at least from management’s point of view. For example, he had never been willing to discuss in detail with CBS a clear and definitive plan for a handover of authority at 60 Minutes.

Making matters more complicated for Heyward was the astonishing longevity of everyone at 60 Minutes. As a group, they defied science with their amazing looks and health. Wallace, at 83, looked and acted like a man twenty years younger. Morley Safer drank and chain-smoked (Rothman Specials), but at 71 years old looked vital. Andy Rooney—born in 1920—in some ways looked better than any of them; his thick shock of white hair and his remarkable analytical mind continued to define his persona. Lesley Stahl and Ed Bradley (she of the leather miniskirt, he of the earring) had both just celebrated their 60th birthdays and still traveled the world with the energy of far younger reporters. Steve Kroft, at 56, remained the kid of the bunch, a fact that regularly amazed him as he approached retirement age. He too smoked—Merits—and sometimes enjoyed a glass of wine with lunch. But the median age of a 60 Minutes viewer hovered near 60. To a generation raised on journalists like Tabitha Soren and John Norris on MTV, the 60 Minutes crew looked like the guests at their parents’ 50th-anniversary party.

Like most of the American news media, television now focused its attention on finding and nurturing young talent; but at 60 Minutes, there had rarely been any attention paid to finding someone under the age of 50 (or 60, for that matter) who could one day lead the show after Hewitt died. “I want to die at my desk” was rapidly becoming his catchphrase.

With Hewitt’s new work schedule, though, that was starting to seem unlikely. He had always gone to his house in Bridgehampton for long weekends, but the weekends were getting even longer, and the workdays were getting shorter. It was rare to find Hewitt in his office on a Friday or a Monday, making the notion of dying at his desk at best a figure of speech.

On the day that Heyward came to finally hash out the 60 Minutes succession plans, he and West walked into Hewitt’s office and sat down in the overstuffed black leather armchairs that Hewitt kept directly opposite his large, immaculate glass desk. Heyward seemed ready, at last, to act for the sake of the show’s future—and his own.

There was no disputing that 60 Minutes had become less profitable in recent years, primarily because of the huge salaries paid to the show’s biggest stars. That included Hewitt’s own salary, close to $6 million a year by one estimate. Wallace’s salary reportedly hovered in that vicinity. Ed Bradley had reached the salary A-list after his 1993 flirtation with ABC News, and Safer’s salary was estimated at $3 million. Stahl and Kroft were believed to earn between $1 million and $2 million. Then, of course, there was the healthy expense account for each correspondent; this included first-class airfare (often on the Concorde) as well as high-end hotels and transportation. Add to these fixed costs the highly paid producers of 60 Minutes, who earn anywhere from $100,000 to $400,000 a year, depending on seniority and importance. Stories themselves typically cost a minimum of $70,000 to produce, and could cost as much as double that, depending on location. With 24 producers working behind the scenes, the total salary allotment for 60 Minutes amounted to an estimated two-thirds of the show’s annual budget—double that of other TV newsmagazines.

Heyward needed to recover at least some of that money. Because of 9/11, the news division had spent far more than could have been anticipated to deliver wall-to-wall coverage; now Heyward had to find a way to make up for those unexpected costs. In November 2001, two months after the attacks, CBS News had ordered each correspondent to cut one associate producer.

Now, four months later, Heyward was sitting in Hewitt’s office about to propose the most difficult cut of all.

“We need to start planning for the future of 60 Minutes after you leave,” Heyward told Hewitt. “And we need to start that process right now.”

The meeting did not go well. After it was over, Hewitt went to Wallace, Bradley, and other correspondents to tell them that Heyward was trying to fire him. (Heyward denies this but concedes, “He’d pass a lie-detector test; he truly believes it.”)The correspondents were conflicted about the future. They knew Hewitt was getting tired, and there were days they wanted him gone. But at other times, they reminded themselves that he’d created this show, their jobs, everything. They owed him for their huge salaries, their perks, their fame, their clout. He’d said vicious, hurtful things to all of them, but he’d always apologized, and there was no one quicker to credit their achievements or to defend their honor. They knew he would protect their secrets and their jobs and their livelihood for as long as humanly possible. Most of all, however, they didn’t like the idea of management—“the folks across the road,” as Safer referred to them—telling them what to do.Heyward and the correspondents agreed on this much: Hewitt couldn’t care less about an orderly transition and would probably be just as happy if 60 Minutes died the same day he did.

The oldest and most complicated relationship was between Hewitt and Wallace. After 35 years, it still defied explanation even by most of those who knew them well. One theory had it that Hewitt had always wanted to be Wallace’s friend and was chagrined by Wallace’s ongoing, tacit refusal. Another popular notion was that each one believed he was more responsible for the success of 60 Minutes than the other—and resented the other’s claims of credit. Others speculated that Hewitt and Wallace were competing to outlast each other at 60 Minutes, a battle to the finish line based on health and longevity. Certainly, they loved to point out each other’s medical infirmities. Wallace never lost that competitive streak and used it as a weapon against Hewitt whenever he felt like it. They had become, in the common parlance of those who worked at 60 Minutes, the quintessential “grumpy old men”—two elderly neighbors who seemed to thrive on endless battles and arguments and misunderstandings.

One night that winter in his office, Wallace was asked how he and Hewitt were getting along these days.

“I said to Don,‘You have it all. You have all themoney in the world. You have all the reputation in the world. Don’t get angry,’ ” Mike Wallace said. “For Christ’s sake, he’s a major figure in TV history. Isn’t that enough?”

“Better, these last couple of months,” he said. “Finally.”

“We were like brothers,” Wallace continued softly. “We were such good friends for such a long time. I said to Don, ‘You have it all. You have all the money in the world. You have all the reputation in the world. Don’t get angry. If people criticize you, the criticisms are like this’ ”—Wallace holds his hands close together—“ ‘and the accomplishments are like this’ ”—his hands spread wide apart. Wallace looks as though he’s about to cry. “For Christ’s sake,” Wallace says, “he’s a major figure in TV history. Isn’t that enough?”

A few weeks later, in early January, Andrew Heyward took Don Hewitt to lunch at Gabriel’s, a neighborhood favorite for CBS honchos, and told him, in amicable but definite terms, that the time had come for him to leave 60 Minutes.

It was clear to everyone, including the correspondents, that the time had come for change. And to most 60 Minutes insiders, the notion of Jeff Fager’s coming in as their new executive producer was not nearly so dangerous or destructive as Hewitt had tried to make it seem.

A year had passed since Heyward first suggested that Hewitt step aside. Scheffler had eventually agreed to retire a year later, in June 2003: That meant it was time for Hewitt to formally sign a new contract as well, spelling out the precise terms and timetable for his departure. After years of reluctance to do battle with an acknowledged giant of the TV news business, Heyward knew he must now act and accept the consequences, which would no doubt be acrimonious and ugly.

Heyward had made Hewitt a final offer: He could remain at CBS News as a well-paid consultant, but only if he agreed to cede total control of 60 Minutes to Fager at the end of the 2003–4 season. From CBS’s point of view, it was a generous arrangement; having pushed back the Scheffler retirement, the network was also giving Hewitt an extra year to make his exit. That extension also benefited CBS, in that it allowed Phil Scheffler’s successor, Josh Howard, a full year as Hewitt’s No. 2 man before his likely appointment to succeed Fager as executive producer of 60 Minutes II.

Unlike all the previous negotiations, however, this one offered no room for equivocation, no possibility for Hewitt to wangle another year at the helm of the show. The days of delicate maneuvering were over. A high-level 60 Minutes insider said he believed Heyward had threatened Hewitt with dismissal unless he agreed to CBS’s terms. In a matter of days, the tough postures were set aside: The deal was done. Hewitt would officially leave 60 Minutes in June 2004 and remain at CBS with the title of executive producer, CBS News, for ten years—at which point he’d be 90. His new contract (including an estimated $1 million salary) would retain all the perks of his current job, including health insurance, car service, and a liberal expense account.

After Heyward and Hewitt left Gabriel’s, they walked back to CBS together. Along the way, Hewitt told Heyward an amusing anecdote about Henry Kissinger and Walter Isaacson, Kissinger’s biographer and former head of CNN.

“Isaacson got a phone call from Dr. Kissinger’s assistant saying that he’d like him to come to Thanksgiving at his apartment,” Hewitt said. “Isaacson was kind of amazed. He said, ‘Let me talk to my wife.’ He was very flattered. Meanwhile, Kissinger comes back from lunch. The secretary tells him that Isaacson would be getting back to them about Thanksgiving. ‘I didn’t say Isaacson!’ Kissinger said. ‘I said Isaac Stern!’ ” The two chortled over that all the way back to the office, almost as though they hadn’t just battled over Hewitt’s future in a way that did neither of them proud.

Goddamn it! God-fucking-damnit!” Don Hewitt screams into the phone at producer Michael Radutzky. “Where the fuck is the piece?!” Hoarse from yelling, Hewitt starts banging the phone against the control-room table. “Don, how am I supposed to finish the story with you yelling at me?” Radutzky yells back, but to no avail—Hewitt is too enraged to listen.

The piece in question is an exclusive interview with Michael Jackson that has been the focus of feverish planning and negotiation for weeks. Hewitt has been obsessed with the piece. And in this, the last year of Hewitt’s stewardship of 60 Minutes, it’s come down to the last second. There is one bright spot amid the panic that has quickly enveloped the control room at CBS News. CBS is broadcasting a professional football game that is running late, and it now appears likely that 60 Minutes won’t go on the air much before 7:30 p.m., giving Radutzky and Bradley another half-hour. In the end, with not a minute to spare, the show goes on the air that Sunday night—as though nothing had happened.But clearly something has happened. The night has proved pivotal for Hewitt. Everything he loves and hates is on the table: Hollywood, news, drama, celebrity, sex, ratings, deadlines, and rules. It is a quintessential Hewitt moment, and one that has disrupted the smooth and uneventful final year at 60 Minutes he planned for himself. If Hewitt is lucky, good ratings will distract everybody from the problems facing the show itself.

The next morning, Hewitt gets the overnight numbers. The episode reached the highest number of the 18-49 audience in almost four years. It scored a 12.0/20 household rating and share and a total audience of 18.8 million viewers, making it the No. 1 show of the week. This marks the first time that 60 Minutes has been No. 1 on television during the regular season since the March 1998 broadcast that featured Bradley’s interview with the Clinton accuser Kathleen Willey—by coincidence, another Bradley-Radutzky collaboration that 60 Minutes had been accused of rushing onto the air without adequate reporting.

At 4 a.m. on December 31, Hewitt is back on the phone with Radutzky, yelling again.“What the fuck is this about?” Hewitt demands. In that morning’s edition, the New York Times is reporting that in addition to the $5 million that CBS had paid Michael Jackson for an entertainment special, the network kicked in $1 million for the 60 Minutes interview, and alleging that Ed Bradley promised Jackson money at their Neverland encounter the previous February. The sources for the Times story included a business associate of Jackson’s and a CBS executive, both anonymous.

Radutzky tries to calm Hewitt down. “I don’t have any idea,” he says. “We didn’t pay them anything.” Over the next several days, Hewitt launches an angry counterattack against the Times, insinuating a lack of ethical standards in its reporting.

The internal bruises from the Jackson story have been slow to heal, and questions about the broadcast and the alleged payments remain unanswered to the satisfaction of everyone at 60 Minutes. One correspondent, requesting anonymity, expressed uncertainty about Hewitt’s role. Like the rest of the tigers, this correspondent has an ongoing love-hate experience with Hewitt. “I’m not sure how much Don knew about this,” the correspondent said. “We were just on a roll, and Don wanted to get ratings, and I don’t think he even knew about most of this stuff. I don’t think he knew anything about deals. I don’t think anybody in the front office would have raised that with Don because his reaction would have been so unpredictable.”

The correspondent pauses for a moment and then adds: “I think that maybe I’m underestimating. Maybe Don was in it up to his ears, you know?”

On the Tuesday afternoon before his final 60 Minutes broadcast on May 30, 2004, Don Hewitt’s belongings are being removed, against his will, from his corner office. All of his possessions have been packed away: his Emmy statuettes, his framed autographed photographs with presidents from Truman to Bush, his Thomas Kent wall clock, even his huge glass-topped office desk—the one at which he’d lately been telling everyone he wanted to die. It has been a difficult winter and spring at 60 Minutes. Hewitt has alternated between accepting his fate and denying it, frequently complaining that he still doesn’t understand the reasons for his forced resignation.

After returning from lunch, the 81-year-old Hewitt had been summoned to Screening Room 164 for what he thinks will be his last look at a 60 Minutes segment. Instead, the correspondents and a few dozen staffers greet him for a champagne toast out of plastic glasses. When Hewitt enters the screening room, his eyes mist up as he recognizes the reporters he has alternately loved and loathed—a Mount Rushmore–like gathering of the 60 Minutes correspondents, lined up against the wall to say good-bye. There stands 86-year-old Mike Wallace, looking dapper in a gray business suit, flanked by Lesley Stahl in a pink leather jacket and Steve Kroft in an open-collar shirt. At the other side of the room stands Ed Bradley in his usual dark T-shirt.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Hewitt says, after a brief round of applause dies down. “I’m going downstairs.” He is referring to the spacious office directly below his current one that will be his new home as an executive producer of CBS News, the consulting gig the network gave him in return for letting go, at last, of 60 Minutes.

“You gonna put a spiral staircase in?” asks Bradley.

“I’m never coming up here again,” Hewitt says.

“No matter what happens in anybody else’s career,” Kroft predicts confidently, “I think at the end of it we’ll all remember when we worked with Don Hewitt.”

“Cheers!” Stahl says.

“Anybody want to go down and tell that to Heyward?” Hewitt asks, almost as though he hasn’t heard what anyone has been saying. “Frazier Moore of the AP asked me the other day, ‘Why are they doing this?’ I said, ‘Nobody ever explained it to me.’ I have never had an explanation. Never. But it happened.”

Hewitt’s evident bitterness—running on a seemingly endless loop in his brain—causes an anguished moment, until Stahl breaks the silence.

“So you have gotten over it,” Stahl deadpanned.

As the laughter dies down, the unmistakable voice of Mike Wallace returns the party to rapt attention. “Thirty-six years ago,” Wallace says, casting his eyes over the crowd of young assistants and producers, many of them barely born when 60 Minutes began. “Out of a job. In a room about a quarter the size of this room. With a good-looking assistant—what was her name?”

“Suzanne Davis,” Hewitt says.

“That’s right. Suzanne Davis. He effectively had been fired. Told, ‘Hey, come up with an idea.’ They’d already gotten rid of him because of some of his ideas. And on a Sunday he said, ‘Can I come over?’ And he came over to 74th Street. And we went upstairs… . He said, ‘Listen. I’ve got an idea. I’ve got an idea for a show.’

“I wanted to go to the White House,” Wallace goes on. “I hadn’t the slightest desire … but I figured, What the hell. I felt sorry for him.”

“Who was president then?” Stahl interjects. “Coolidge?”

Wallace continues, unamused. “Nixon,” he says. “Nixon. In any case, this man … somebody said it before. He put our kids through school. He made some of us much richer than we should be. But mainly, we had such a ball. For the first ten or fifteen years. We worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day. Everybody saw everybody else’s piece in the screening room. It was … Jesus, it was … ”

Wallace stops, his reverie finished in midthought. He has remembered enough. Hewitt doesn’t mind; he’s dying to repeat for the millionth time his own memory of the early days, when the two men who still call each other “kid” really were just kids, playing with the power of television.

Excerpted from the forthcoming book Tick…Tick…Tick…The Long Life & Turbulent Times of 60 Minutes, by David Blum. Copyright © 2004 by David Blum. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

Don Hewitt’s 59th Minute