Wednesday, September 29, 2004

60 Minutes Creator Admits 'Terrible Goofs'

TV pioneer: 'Terrible goofs made' at CBS
Steve Young
Argus Leader
published: 9/29/2004
Creator of '60 Minutes' in Vermillion this week to receive Neuharth honor

Don Hewitt, the man who created "60 Minutes," says he doesn't doubt that CBS erred in its controversial report on President Bush's National Guard service.

But Hewitt, who will be in Vermillion on Thursday to receive the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in Journalism, stopped short of saying he thinks CBS News anchor Dan Rather should lose his job over the gaffe.

"I'm 99 percent sure that there were some terrible goofs made," Hewitt said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "Whether somebody should pay for them, and how that should be determined, I'm glad that's not my job."

CBS and Rather have been at the center of a public firestorm since their Sept. 8 story on "60 Minutes" that suggested Bush received preferential treatment while in the National Guard.

Last week, Rather publicly apologized on behalf of CBS News because it could not authenticate documents it used in its story. But that hasn't diminished calls for the anchor's resignation or firing by those who insist that he exemplifies liberal bias in the media.

Hewitt, 82, said he preferred to hold his thoughts on the issue until the award presentation Thursday evening in Vermillion.

"I will say that I don't join parades to get on bandwagons," he said in response to calls for Rather's removal. "I think about things carefully, and give them the thought they deserve.

"I'll just say in this case that I wish it hadn't happened."

Hewitt, who stepped aside in June as executive producer of "60 Minutes" after 36 years, said he had not been a proponent of the Bush National Guard story, believing it to be old news.

Besides, having done broadcasts with Gen. William Westmoreland during the Vietnam War, "I think I'd have done anything not to be there," Hewitt said. "I mean, there wasn't a father in America that didn't try to get his kid out of going to Vietnam. Bill Clinton went to Oxford. I just can't get too exercised about anyone who tried to duck Vietnam."

As the 17th recipient of the Neuharth award, created in 1989, Hewitt is being recognized for his achievements during a 56-year career in broadcast news.

Along with creating "60 Minutes," he is credited with producing the first televised presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960.

He said he looks on that experience "as maybe the worst night that ever happened in American politics."

"That was the night that politicians looked at us in television and said, 'Those guys are the only way to run for office.' And we looked at them and said, 'Those guys are a bottomless pit of advertising dollars,' " Hewitt said. "I think the marriage of television and politics ushered in the age of big-money campaigning, and I think we're all the poorer for it."

Hewitt began his broadcast career in 1948 as associate director of "Douglas Edwards with the News." He later became producer-director of that broadcast for 14 years, then moved into the role of executive producer of the "CBS News with Walter Cronkite."

That was in an era when America had to wait until 7 each night for Cronkite or David Brinkley or Chet Huntley to appear on their television screens and deliver the news of the day, Hewitt said.

Now with all-news radio and television stations going 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Hewitt said he wouldn't be surprised to see the networks move their news coverage to all-news cable affiliates some day. That of course could bring an end to the roles of network news anchors like Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, Hewitt said.

"I think that's not out of the realm of possibility," he said. Having helped to create the role of network news anchors, "I'm enough of a realist to realize that those days are numbered," he said.

He also wonders about the future of "60 Minutes," which he created in 1968. The highest rated public news program for more than 30 years, it was the first news program to break into the Neilsen ratings' Top Ten.

But many of its stars - Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Lesley Stahl and Ed Bradley - are in their 60s, 70s, even 80s now. Whether they can connect with and remain relevant to audiences much younger than them remains to be seen, Hewitt said.

"I found a crew that is as close to an all-star team as you can get," he said. "But whether they're all out there still 10 years from now, who knows? And whether the public's taste, now that we have a younger demographic, still has an appetite for them remains to be seen, too."

The program succeeded because he insisted on telling good stories as much as he did on having hard-hitting investigative pieces, Hewitt said.

"I've always said there are four words that every child in the world knows, and those are, 'Tell me a story,' " he said. "Even the people who wrote the Bible knew that. They told stories, like the story of Noah.

"That's how you capture the interest of the public, with stories. I'm not all that interested in terror; I'm interested in terrorists. I don't want to tell a story about acid rain. I want to tell stories about people who are victims of acid rain."

It's all about people and the tales that define their lives, which is why "60 Minutes" has been so successful, he said. And that's a big reason why Hewitt will be honored yet again this Thursday evening in Vermillion.