WALTER AND DON

August 19th, 2009

WALTER AND DON

First, Walter Cronkite, dead last month at 92. Now Don Hewitt, gone today at 86. It is being described as the end of an era at CBS News.

Of course, the Cronkite-Hewitt era at CBS ended years ago.

In their day, CBS News was truly a world-wide news-gathering organization, with correspondents in bureaus around the globe. The news division was a prestigious loss-leader that fulfilled the network’s public affairs commitment and kept the FCC at bay. Founder William Paley was happy to pay the division’s bills because it gave him license to run the advertising-rich entertainment shows that brought in the dough.

Don Hewitt ruined all that. By doing news in an entertaining fashion, he established 60 Minutes as a run-away ratings winner and cash cow. The conglomerates who took over CBS after Paley — Westinghouse, Loewes and Viacom — realized that news broadcasts didn’t have to lose money. So, they 1.) cut costs; and 2.) converted each news broadcast into a profit center. The shows that made money survived. Those that didn’t disappeared.

“It’s all my fault,” Don Hewitt told me in an interview I did with him five years ago for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. “60 Minutes was such a success that management decided that all news broadcasts could and should make money.”

To that end, the bean counters closed foreign and national bureaus, dismissed staff and let go half the correspondent corps. The news division that survives still has outstanding producers and correspondents, it still does good work, but more and more it is a news-packaging, rather than news-gathering, organization.

No one relished television news more than Don Hewitt. His enthusiasm was boundless and infectious. He was one of those producers who had 35 ideas a day, 34 of which were impractical, silly or outlandish. But one good idea a day is an enviable record.

He built a terrific repertory company of correspondents and made them into stars and millionaires. A few from the Hewitt era continue — Mike Wallace, Morley Safer and Andy Rooney — but the era, the Cronkite-Hewitt era, if you like, is long gone.


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