Walter Cronkite helped change how news was presented on television, but Don Hewitt shaped how it was produced. Hewitt died Wednesday and journalists and commentators remembered him as the inventor of the first presidential debate on TV (Kennedy-Nixon), the 30-minute newscast, and the original TV newsmagazine, "60 Minutes."
History Maker "He was a man who changed television news," said "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft "and in the process he affected in some ways some of the great events of the twentieth century by coming up with a broadcast that attracted millions and millions of people." The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz said Hewitt's insight about the show was that "news stories could be packaged like a morality play. The correspondents were the good guys chasing the villains and holding them accountable. Each tale built to a climax, with viewers rooting for their favorites."
Victor Neufeld at The Daily Beast competed against Hewitt and echoed Kurtz's take on the producer's critical insight:
Television is a “personality-driven” medium. There is no way around it. Viewers are drawn to people that touch them, connect to them. Don knew that. If there is a story to tell with a strong narrative, quality journalism, and individuals make an effort to reach out to you with intelligence, style, and distinctiveness, that is the key to success. We have evolved, sometimes too far, but there is a unique legacy that exists with us today. And that is part of Don Hewitt’s brilliance.
The Dallas Morning News said it's "hard to overstate" Hewitt's legacy, having directed the first newscast in 1948 and directed Cronkite and Edward Murrow. "60 Minutes" became the "gold standard of broadcast journalism...." It's power "save a presidential candidacy" in 1992 when Bill Clinton confessed to an affair on the program.
Early Adopter Hewitt changed news by employing technology too. CBS veteran Jeff Gralnick said Hewitt experimented with the "confines of the rudimentary technology we had back in the day." Hewitt didn't want to chose between video of a reporter's commentary of fighting in Vietnam or vivid pictures of the action itself, so he packaged the news so that the reporter's voice played as the images rolled.
Mistakes Along the Way The biggest mistake Hewitt made, said the New York Daily News, was when he and CBS lawyers quashed a "60 Minutes" story in the 1990s that exposed the tobacco industry's manipulations and lies about marketing cigarettes.
NewsBusters' Tim Graham pointed out Hewitt wasn't impartial with Clinton in 1992. "Before filming the segment, Mr. Hewitt leaned down to the future president with advice: 'I think, at some point, you should be as candid as you know how to be, and from then on, you say, 'I said it on "60 Minutes," and if you want to know what I think or have said on the subject, then go get a tape and run it again. I've said it all.' "