Don Hewitt knows a good story when he hears one. Thanks in large part to the 78-year-old executive producer’s expert ability to choose compelling segments, 60 Minutes has ranked in Nielsen’s top 10 for 22 straight years. Which makes it even more disappointing to discover in his new autobiography, Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television, that Hewitt has trouble telling a good story. Many of his tales begin promisingly, but rarely do they pay off. While covering Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 Iowa visit for CBS, Hewitt starts to steal NBC’s truck, intending to hide it in a cornfield, then decides against it (he terms this nonevent ”perhaps my wildest stunt”). Other anecdotes fall into the categories of secondhand news (LBJ’s temper is documented in two incidents told to Hewitt by others) and how-I-didn’t-get-that-story (when Hewitt meets Charles Lindbergh and requests an interview, he is turned down).
A few choice morsels can be found: Frank Sinatra threatens the producer’s life after Walter Cronkite asks him about the Mafia in a CBS documentary, and JFK grumbles to Hewitt about his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower’s habit of practicing his putts in the Oval Office (”Look what that sonofabitch did with his golf cleats,” Kennedy complains about the torn-up flooring). But too many of the stories, like Hewitt’s aborted plan to buy CBS News in the 1980s, merely peter out.
Tell Me does benefit from blunt, punchy prose; it reads like TV copy. ”Short is usually better than long,” Hewitt advises potential scribes. ”Don’t be afraid to write the way people talk.” Thankfully, he heeds his own wisdom in these breezily conversational 255 pages. ”My family was just barely middle class,” he recalls of his childhood in New Rochelle, N.Y. ”If a strong wind had come up, it would have blown us back into the lower class.” Instead, the winds of World War II carried Hewitt overseas as he joined the Merchant Marine and reported for Stars & Stripes (along with future 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney).
Returning Stateside, Hewitt helped create TV’s first nighttime newscast, the CBS Evening News. He also claims credit for the invention of cue cards (although he initially suggested anchorman Douglas Edwards learn braille so he could maintain eye contact with viewers while reading) and chyrons (superimposed TV captions). And, as he repeatedly reminds us, Hewitt produced and directed the 1960 presidential debates (we’re treated to the millionth discussion of how Nixon lost because Kennedy wore better makeup). His accounts of the JFK assassination and the space program are equally familiar.
Hewitt gave birth to 60 Minutes, TV’s first newsmagazine, in 1968, but he offers precious little insight into the show’s inner workings. Maybe that’s because he already wrote a history of the program nearly 20 years ago. Still, it would be nice to learn a bit more about the correspondents than the boilerplate praise Hewitt provides. ”Mike [Wallace] is, quite frankly, the best thing that ever happened to a television set,” he gushes, soon adding ”I’d better stop right now before someone accuses me of ass-kissing.” Too late.
The author is slightly more forthcoming when it comes to himself. He proudly reveals his bipartisan voting record — he’s cast ballots for Stevenson, Kennedy, Humphrey, Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Gore, and doesn’t think George W. Bush won the White House ”fair and square.” Yet he draws the line at home, devoting only a few sentences to each of his three marriages.
Just when you’re ready to write the book off as a fuzzy exercise in TV-news nostalgia, it snaps into focus. A lifelong fan of the movies — ”it’s where you learned how to hold a cigarette, how to hold a girl, even how to hold a conversation” — Hewitt gets burned by a film about smoking.
He dedicates 20 withering pages to the case of Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco-company whistle-blower whose dealings with 60 Minutes inspired the 1999 docudrama The Insider. Hewitt’s tone alternates between aggression and defensiveness. He criticizes the initial decision by network execs to spike an interview with Wigand, who’d signed a confidentiality agreement with ex-employer Brown & Williamson. He attacks segment producer Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino in the movie) as a ”so-called journalist” who allowed untruths to filter into the script. Most of all, he objects to his portrayal as a CBS yes-man. ”If they had gotten Paul Newman or Robert Redford to play me, I would have forgiven them anything,” he then adds with surprising humor. ”When I found out I was going to be played by an actor named Philip Baker Hall, I said, ‘That’s not an actor, that’s a dormitory!”’ If only Tell Me were filled with such good stories.