Thursday, August 27, 2009
This week’s 60 Minutes was entirely devoted to recounting the contributions of its founding producer, Don Hewitt, who died Aug. 19 at 86.
The eulogies for Hewitt, a hard-charging, larger-than-life character who created the shape of television news as we now know it, were heavy on sentiment but happily larded with humorous accounts of his close encounters with equally two-fisted types like his old friend, Mike Wallace, and the corporate suits he butted heads with along the way.
In the newspaper business, there’s a saying that people die in threes. Hewitt’s death, along with the passings Walter Cronkite in July and Tim Russert last year, certainly marks the end of an era.
But to these eyes, at least, the hosannas of praise for Cronkite – whom Hewitt’s program once exposed for accepting junkets – was an example of confusing the message with the messenger. Although Uncle Walter distinguished himself for breaking with the Johnson Administration about the Vietnam war and for capturing the grief of a nation after the assassination of JFK,he was essentially a wire service reporter honored as much for his calming effect on the national nerve as for his chops.
Russert, a former aide to Mario Cuomo, was never really trained in old-school journalism, at least of the print variety, but earned his stripes by asking tough questions without fear or favor, to officials of every political stripe.
Of the trio, it was Hewitt, the behind-the-scenes guy, who made the biggest difference.
Asking tough questions of his correspondents and producers, he was a joyous example of the art of editing – creating the model for television news magazines with a combination of investigative pieces, ambush interviews and celebrity Q&As that somehow became newsworthy, too, for their surprising turns and insights into the lives of people we are all curious about.
It’s worth speculating what made 60 Minutes, founded over 40 years ago, so successful, and why it remains successful today. Why has it done so well when the rest of the news business – television and print alike – is in such a pickle?
After a spike from the Obama candidacy, TV news ratings are back down again and such vaunted print franchises like The Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer are potentially on the chopping block. (Even The New York Times’ stock is down.)
Part of the problem is the Internet, everyone’s favorite bogeyman. But before joining up with critics like Netscape co-founder Marc Andreesen, who in a fit of spectacular hubris started a site called New York Times DeathWatch to dance on the Paper of Record’s grave, we might be better off taking a look at the real reasons newspapers are failing, and the flaws in the arguments for embracing the latest electronic panaceas.
By and large, many daily newspapers – and I don’t include the Times, Inquirer or Globe – are dying because they’re dull. They read as though they were put together by a committee, probably because they are. Despite Internet proselytizing, almost no one but porn and outcall service merchants, gamblers and sports junkies have been able to “monetize’’ electronic content yet.
Alternative papers have our problems, too, heightened by the recession. But ironically, we long ago figured out a model for what everyone else is now trying to achieve: free editorial content, with enough advertising support to stay in business.
But make no mistake: If coverage is doctrinaire or predictable; if it’s driven by past results, focus groups or preconceived ideas of what readers want – rather than a hunger for passionate stories, fearlessly reported and written with style, humor and taste – then we, too, will risk extinction.
On the 60 Minutes tribute, Hewitt was asked the secret of his success. He replied in four words: “Tell me a story.’’
He didn’t care if it was an exposé, a political piece or a revealing celebrity profile: If it held your attention, it made the cut.
I suspect he would not have been a great on-air correspondent – maybe even a lousy one. But the ability to encourage other people’s talents, encourage them to do the work they are capable of, and force them to challenge their own assumptions, is underrated.
That’s not just true for journalism but also for politics, where an exceptional candidate like Obama can succeed, despite his current difficulties, not just because he’s got the right set of ideas, but because he has the right temperament to put those ideas in place.
The changes we need will take more than 60 Minutes to achieve. But we could do worse than imitate Don Hewitt’s example. Take it one story at a time, keep it simple and tell the truth.