'60 Minutes' Creator Hewitt: A Lifetime Of News
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Terry Gross spoke to Don Hewitt in 2001, when his memoir, called "Tell Me A Story," was published. They talked about some of his earlier days in television, including his work producing and directing the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960. The conventional wisdom is that Nixon fared poorly not because of what he said but how he looked on television. Terry asked Don Hewitt how Nixon ended up looking the way he did.
Mr. DON HEWITT (Creator, "60 Minutes"): Well, first of all, Kennedy took it very seriously. Jack Kennedy and I had a meeting in a hangar in Chicago a week before the debate. He stopped there on a campaign trip, and I briefed him on all the things that we expected of him and what we were going to do and what we wanted him to do.
I never saw Nixon until he walked in the studio that night, and he did not take it as seriously as Kennedy did. He spent that afternoon speaking to the plumbers union. Kennedy rested up for the debate. Nixon thought it was just another campaign appearance, had no idea what a splash it was going to make in America.
He was ill. He'd had a staphylococcus infection. He arrived at the studio, at WBBM in Chicago, smacked his knee on the door of the car as he was getting out, was in pain. But what I remember most about that night was, over and above the fact - well, first of all, I brought a make-up person from New York. He needed it. Kennedy didn't.
I said to the both of them: Do you want to be made up? Kennedy said no. Nixon heard him say no and figured if I get made up, everybody the next day will say, well, Nixon was wearing make-up and Kennedy wasn't, so he refused it but had some of his own guys smear him with something called shave stick, and he looked like the wrath of God. He really looked terrible.
GROSS: What was shave stick?
Mr. HEWITT: It's some dopey thing that guys use to cover their beard if you're going out for the night, in the old days before there were electric razors. I mean, what you did is you smeared some of this stuff on, and it covered the beard.
He looked awful. Now, the day after Kennedy was assassinated, we did a special broadcast in New York, and Nixon was on it, and the same make-up person whose services he had refused in Chicago was making him up, and I said to him, you know, Mr. Nixon, if Frannie here had made you up at the first debate, you'd have been president now.
Without a beat, I mean it happened so fast it spun me, he whirled around and he said to me, yeah? I would have been dead now too. I mean it was eerie. It was strange. He really believed that whoever killed Jack Kennedy, and I'm not going to say it was Lee Harvey Oswald because I'm not even sure it was, whoever killed Jack Kennedy, he wanted to convince me was out to get a president, not that president. And it was a strange, strange conversation.
GROSS: Let me get to the Kennedy assassination. In your book, you say that after Kennedy was assassinated and you found out about the Zapruder film, you told Dan Rather to go to Zapruder's house, punch him in the nose, get the film, bring it to CBS, make a copy, then return it to Zapruder. What were you thinking?
Mr. HEWITT: I was one of these, you know, Hildy Johnson, hell-for-leather - it was stupid. I did things in the early days that if someone who worked for me did them today, I'd fire them. I said we've got to get a hold of the Zapruder film. Maybe it's public domain, but we'll never find out unless we get it. I would like to see it.
So I said, Dan, hit him, grab the film, take it to the studio, we'll copy it, then let the CBS lawyers decide what to do with it. Meanwhile, return the film. All they can get you for is an assault. You've returned his stolen property. And he said great, I'll do it.
And then all of a sudden I thought to myself, are you crazy? Why did you do that? And I thank God when I called him back, he hadn't left yet, and I said, Dan, don't do that. That's stupid. I think the whole day got to me, and you know, we were all kind of limp at the end of that day.
GROSS: But I think this says something about you, which is that you really have that competitive thing real strong.
Mr. HEWITT: Yeah, really. You know, I guess I am a strong competitor, but sometimes this competitive zeal causes you to do things that, when you look back on them, you're kind of ashamed that you even thought of them.
GROSS: Great, how about another example?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HEWITT: Oh my God. You know, once an airplane went down in the East River off LaGuardia Airport in New York, and there was one tugboat out on the river that you could go out on and go to the wreck because there was a tugboat strike, but this boat had come from New Haven. And I went down with everybody else, and all the television crews were there, and the captain was telling this story of what it was like out on the river and the floating wreckage and the bodies, and he was going on and on. And I don't know why, but I kind of said, well, who owns this boat?
And he said New Haven Tugboat Company, and all the reporters turned to me like, what are you, crazy? Who cares who owns the boat? This guy's telling us a great story and you ask a stupid question. And they said, Captain, go on. Please go on with your story, and Hewitt, will you shut up with your dumb questions?
And as they said that, I sneaked out of the door, went down to the dock, called the CBS newsroom and said call the New Haven Tugboat Company and charter their boat.
So I got back, all the guys saw me come back, and they were all kind of going, don't ask any dumb questions. And at this point the phone rings, the captain goes to the phone, he says yes, sir, and then he looks around. He says who's Hewitt? I said I am. He said, well, the boat's now under charter to you. What do you want to do? I said, well, the first thing I want to do is throw all these guys off my boat.
So I was very competitive, and you know, in fact, the only way "The Today Show" could get any pictures of the wreck was to come out in a rowboat with an outboard motor in the morning, and by mistake we rammed them. I mean, we really didn't mean to hit them, but we did, and the next thing I know, I come back and I get hell because there was a formal complaint from NBC to CBS that I tried to sink their boat in the East River, and all I could think to say was crybabies.
GROSS: Hmm. Now, you say when you started "60 Minutes" you also wanted to create a more personal form of journalism. You write: The documentaries on TV all seem to be the voice of the corporation. What do you mean by that? And what do you mean by a more personal form?
Mr. HEWITT: Okay, editorials were the voice of the newspaper, which nobody really cared about. They cared about columnists. And documentaries were sort of the voice of the corporation. You know, "NBC White Paper," "CBS Reports," "ABC Close-Up." And I said, there's nothing personal. And I wanted personal journalism. I don't mean advocacy journalism. I don't think I wanted to advocate anything.
I wanted to take people along on the story, and a lot of it came out of a broadcast that was very popular in CBS in the early days - actually, it wasn't on CBS, I think it was on NBC - called "Four Star Theater," in which Dick Powell, Charles Boyer, Ida Lupino and David Niven had a repertory company which each week all - they played different parts and there was no star. There were just four great actors playing parts. And I said, wow, I'd like to do a repertory company of reporters. I don't want any stars. I don't want an Ed Sullivan out front introducing the acts. I want them to be my version of a repertory company, only these are reporters, not actors. And it caught on.
You know, people essentially bought that television set to be entertained. They didn't buy the set to be informed, and I said if you can entertain them while you're informing them, you're ahead of the game. And it was a concept that caught on.
DAVIES: CBS producer Don Hewitt, speaking with Terry Gross in 2001. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 2001 interview with TV producer and director Don Hewitt, who died this week at the age of 86. Hewitt created the CBS news magazine "60 Minutes."
GROSS: You always hear rumors about shows. The rumor that I've heard about "60 Minutes," and you can tell me if this is true, is that sometimes the producer of a segment actually does the interview, and then the reporter comes in and is filmed asking those questions, even though they didn't really ask those questions to the person that's being interviewed.
Mr. HEWITT: Never, never, never - never ever happened.
GROSS: Have you ever heard that one?
Mr. HEWITT: Oh, we hear - listen, Hillary Clinton, for Christ's sake, after we did the famous Gennifer Flowers thing, she told the Associated Press that we changed all the questions between the time they did it and the time we put it on the air. And I called her up, and I said - you've got to realize, she was just another woman, wife of a candidate - and I said that's libelous, that's defamatory. And she said, well, it appeared to me to be that way. And I figured, sure, it appeared to be that way. She was shell-shocked. I mean, she couldn't believe what - you know, they had to sit there and defend that night.
So that has never ever happened. Nobody has ever changed a question or had a producer ask a question and then later filmed a correspondent asking it.
GROSS: Well, I'm glad you brought up that Clinton interview. What were the - how did the Clintons end up on "60 Minutes" that night, and what were they expecting? What did they think was in it for them?
Mr. HEWITT: What did they think? Oh my God, they got - they were in trouble. He was about to disappear into the snow in New Hampshire, and they called up and they said they wanted to go on the air and set the record straight about Gennifer Flowers. And for all the time we taped, all they did was set the record crooked.
They never set the record straight. And do you know that the right wing, the so-called right wing, because I don't believe in right wing, left wing, but the so-called right wing calls me responsible for his getting the nomination, which he did, after that show.
Do you know that I'm persona non grata in the - I was in the Clinton White House? I've been invited to every White House going back to Harry Truman. I was persona non grata with the Clintons.
What there was about that - I guess they didn't want to think about that night. But we didn't do anything but give them a chance to answer the questions, and they sat there and fudged everything.
GROSS: Well, what do you consider the lies that they told that you are referring to?
Mr. HEWITT: The lies? I mean, that there never was a Gennifer Flowers and it never happened. Later on he admitted it.
GROSS: So if the Clintons came on because they wanted to talk about Gennifer Flowers and deny that there was any truth to that story, what so upset them about the interview?
Mr. HEWITT: I don't know. I don't know. It's - they claim that I said we would also give you a chance to talk about your vision of America, and I said no, no, no, no. We thought we were going to do a long piece, and they gave me nine minutes that night for the whole show because it was after the Super Bowl, and I said there is no time to do anything but this one story, and if you want to give your vision of America, I'm sure they'll sell you commercial time to do it. But after all, you had to realize, at the time, Terry, he was one of five guys trying to get the nomination. He wasn't even the frontrunner. He was just another candidate trying to get the Democratic nomination.
GROSS: Let me ask you about one of the many "60 Minutes" stories that became very controversial, and this one particularly controversial because a movie was made about it, "The Insider." You know, this is the case of Jeffrey Wigand, the former vice president for research and development at Brown & Williamson tobacco, who blew the whistle on how the company had adjusted the levels of nicotine, keeping smokers addicted. And the story was killed at "60 Minutes" because of corporate fear of a lawsuit. What kind of lawsuit?
Mr. HEWITT: No, it was not killed at "60 Minutes" because of corporate fear of a lawsuit. It was killed by the corporation before we ever got a chance to put it on the air. But we did go on the air and tell everything we learned from Wigand without using his name. So it's not true that we ran away from that story.
GROSS: And the way…
Mr. HEWITT: The company didn't want us to use his name because they feared a lawsuit, and we actually went on the air, and Mike Wallace actually did something that no news organization has ever done before. He told the audience that we were prohibited from using Wigand's name because CBS had turned chicken and was afraid of a lawsuit, which wasn't even threatened. It was just the perception that it might be.
GROSS: Was this a very frustrating experience for you, watching the movie, because it was…
Mr. HEWITT: No. Let me tell you. Let me tell you the God's honest truth. If they'd gotten Paul Newman or Robert Redford to play me, I'd have forgiven them anything.
GROSS: Yeah, but who did play you?
Mr. HEWITT: Some guy named…
GROSS: Philip Baker Hall.
Mr. HEWITT: Phil Baker Hall. I said that's not a guy. That's a dormitory.
GROSS: Yeah, but you ought to retract that statement. He is a great actor. He's fantastic. Did you ever see…
Mr. HEWITT: To you he may be.
GROSS: Yeah, no, did you ever see "Magnolia" or "Hard Eight"?
Mr. HEWITT: Yeah, but I saw "The Insider," and I just - okay, I said if Paul Newman or Robert Redford had played me, I'd have forgiven them anything.
GROSS: Well, Philip Baker Hall can play me anytime.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HEWITT: Good. Good, I hope I - I hope he does, for your sake.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: Don Hewitt, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2001. Hewitt died this week. He was 86. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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