CNN Special Investigations Unit
When I heard the news that “60 MINUTES” creator and long-time Executive Producer Don Hewitt had died, I have to say I wasn’t shocked. At Walter Cronkite’s funeral, he appeared weary and infirm.
But that is clearly not the Don Hewitt I remember. I was a producer for “60 MINUTES” in the mid-90s, working with Correspondent Morley Safer. Then, as now, each correspondent had a team of four, even five producers assigned to him or her. Each producer was expected to produce and deliver at least four segments for broadcast during each television season. Do the math and you come up with 20 to 25 stories apiece for Morley, Mike Wallace, the late Ed Bradley, Lesley Stahl and so on. Enough to fill up a season.
For a producer like me, the passion and the research and the storytelling leading up to a screening of what you and your correspondent engineered on a particular story was a captivating process. But the next step—screening the a draft version of the result before Don Hewitt and the other senior staff at 60 MINUTES was both satisfying and, I have to admit, terrifying.
Don was the first one to admit he wasn’t a great reporter. He knew that. He hired world class correspondents and top-flight producers and let THEM do the legwork. But Don was world class on many fronts—and the most important was as an editor. I remember trooping into to a screening room built to be a small scale movie theater. There were a dozen or so reclining movie-theater type seats, a big screen and when the appointed hour arrived for Don and his senior staff to look at the story you had poured all your professional life into for the past weeks or months, it was for me mostly agonizing. What if I had done something wrong? What if HE (Don) didn’t like it?
The verdict was usually swift and sure. The story would finish — each 60 MINUTES segment was anywhere from 10 to 13 minutes — and Don would take the floor as the lights went up in the screening room. He would either say the story was “terrific” (often laced with a mild, supportive profanity) or fire off a series of questions. What about this? Why isn’t this portion up higher? That particular paragraph doesn’t make any (profanity here again) sense to me!
Those latter moments were, in retrospect, a true test of character for the producer. If you answered quickly and with sure-footedness and said Don was right and the next screening would be wonderful, then you survived. If you hemmed and hawed and disagreed, the result was not so good.
Don, I think, was right on just about every single suggestion, correction, subtraction and addition he made to the stories I produced during my run on 60 MINUTES. I think most producers who served on the broadcast would probably agree when it came to their stories as well. Don had an abiding intellectual curiosity about practically everything. During a normal day at the office, he’d often spot me wandering by, call out my name and say something like: “Come here, kid. This is amazing. Can we do anything with this?” And you’d be off and running trying to track down a potential story. The track record on those ideas was often in the one in ten category — only one of about ten Don ideas would even make it to the point of investing 60 MINUTES time and money into researching. But that ONE story that did make it was mostly likely a winner.
Don Hewitt was a television news legend. He was full of himself, energized, passionate and eager with new ideas at every stage of his professional life. 60 MINUTES continues to be an overwhelming success. I think one of the many reasons is that Don Hewitt left a legacy and blueprint that will not be matched again.
Editor's Note: David Fitzpatrick was a producer for 60 MINUTES for two seasons in the mid-1990s. He has been nominated for a 2009 News Emmy for a segment on rogue internet pharmacies he produced for AC360°.
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