When Don Hewitt, the longtime producer of 60 Minutes, died this week at the age of 86, I remembered the time we were both invited to a conference organized by a journalism foundation to explore differences between television and newspaper reporting.
At the first session, a publisher who was head of the Knight-Ridder Corp. held up a mock newspaper front page containing the transcript of the CBS Evening News. It filled barely half of the page.
"See?" he said. "Take out the corn flake and hemorrhoid cream commercials, and this is all of the actual content you get on TV. But we give you this," he said, and thwacked a thick copy of his own daily paper triumphantly onto the table.
When Don Hewitt took his turn, he showed a video: local news anchors joshing and joking, weathermen clowning across cold fronts, and assorted local reporters riding tricycles and putting on fright wigs.
"You know who those people are?" Don asked. He let a pause of silence and scattered nervous laughter build before he thundered, "They all work for television stations owned by Knight-Ridder. They are your journalists. So, get off your high horse," he told the publisher. "You get the chance to show us how to do something better every day — and you don't."
A little later, when we were having a drink, Don said he liked the newspaper people. "But they can be so sanctimonious," he said. "Like they're different than us money-grubbers in TV. Well," he said, "I'm not ashamed to say that if I made shoes, I'd do it to make money, but I'd also make great shoes. I make a lot of money in television. But I also think I make some great TV."
He sure did. Don Hewitt didn't try to disguise himself as a pillar of integrity. He was proud to be a master showman — and sometimes, to be sure, cast real, complex human beings as artificial heroes or villains for dramatic effect.
But in a medium that is so often shrunk into sound bites, images and half-sentences, he emphasized the power of narrative and good prose.
Michael Gartner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and publisher — who now owns the Iowa Cubs — was also at that conference and said, "We run a newspaper to make money, but we make money to run a newspaper."
Of course today, running any kind of news operation is not a promising way to make money. Audiences are in decline. Deficits are on the rise. Publications that used to mock TV and tabloids as cheesy, unserious and sensational now routinely put celebrity news and UFOs on their covers — and still don't sell.
But so many new media Web sites seem polemical and shrill. New media could often use some old storytelling talents — like Don Hewitt.