NEW YORK (Reuters) - Don Hewitt, creator of CBS News’ groundbreaking “60 Minutes” program and one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in U.S. television journalism, died of pancreatic cancer on Wednesday, CBS News said.
He was 86.
Hewitt worked as producer or director for CBS legends Edward R. Murrow, Douglas Edwards and Walter Cronkite, but his greatest legacy was the television news magazine format on “60 Minutes” starting in 1968.
He died about a month after Cronkite, the towering news anchor who was known as the “most trusted man in America” in opinion polls. Cronkite was 92.
“60 Minutes” featured mini-documentary segments based on investigative reporting by seasoned journalists like Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, Morley Safer and Harry Reasoner. “60 Minutes” proved to be a profitable and steady ratings winner for CBS and the magazine format was widely copied by other networks.
The show developed a reputation for exposes, aggressive reporting and use of hidden cameras, but Hewitt said the philosophy behind the show was simple.
“It’s four words every child knows — tell me a story,” he said.
Hewitt’s career spanned 60 years, most of them at CBS. He reluctantly stepped down as executive producer of “60 Minutes” in 2003 after having repeatedly said he would have preferred to have died at his desk.
Television news was in its infancy when Hewitt started at CBS in 1948. Besides working as producer and director of the network’s evening news broadcast during the tenures of Edwards and Cronkite, he contributed to the coverage of the first televised political conventions in Philadelphia in 1948 and Chicago in 1952.
Hewitt also produced and directed the first televised debate between presidential candidates — the 1960 meeting of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.
Both candidates had turned down Hewitt’s offer of makeup and the tanned, youthful Kennedy came off much better on television than the pale, perspiring Nixon. Images from the debate were seen as crucial in Kennedy’s electoral victory and such debates became a staple of U.S. presidential campaigns.
It was a contribution to the political process that Hewitt came to rue.
“That’s the night that ruined American politics,” he once said. “That’s the night that TV and politics got engaged.”
Hewitt directed CBS’s coverage of major news events through 1964 when he was taken out of the prestigious evening news producer’s job and put in charge of special projects. It was then that he came up with the idea for “60 Minutes,” which made its debut in 1968.
“I was doing documentaries,” he told the network. “And I was kind of bored silly and I said, ‘Why can’t television do what Life magazine did?’”
The highly opinionated Hewitt did not like the way his TV news magazine format was copied and diluted by competitors — even the “60 Minutes II” spin-off that his own network started. The copycat shows began focusing on more sensational and fluffy subject matter, crime stories and disease-of-the-week trends in the race for ratings and advertising dollars.
Hewitt, who was born in New York City and grew up in the suburb of New Rochelle, attended New York University for a year before becoming a correspondent for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes during World War Two. Before CBS he worked for the Associated Press, the Pelham, New York, Sun, and Acme News Pictures.
Reporting and writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Vicki Allen