60 Minutes devoted its entire hour on Sunday to its progenitor and long-time executive producer Don Hewitt, who died a week ago today. In typical 60 Minutes style, the program was informative, provocative, and entertaining.
Hewitt always said that his editorial criterion could be reduced to four simple words: Tell Me A Story. And that’s what he named his 2002 memoir which was, not surprisingly, informative, provocative, and entertaining.
He devoted two pages of his book to CBS’ 1984 broadcast of ninety minutes of the thirty-eight hours of interviews I had conducted with RN the year before. My interviews, unlike those conducted by David Frost in 1978 —which were adversarial in nature and which had been taped before RN finished writing his memoirs— captured a more analytical, reflective, and, generally, accessible Nixon. Although he didn’t know what the questions would be, the project was intended to be part of a video encyclopedia of biography, and the template involved talking him through his memoirs.
Hewitt felt that the result represented a hitherto unseen Nixon —at least at such length and breadth— so he bought the broadcast rights for CBS. Thirty minutes of the material, introduced by Morley Safer, was aired on each of two subsequent editions of 60 Minutes, and the remaining thirty minutes were shown of American Parade, a Tuesday night news magazine program hosted by Charles Kuralt.
Hewitt took the thousands of pages of typed transcript to his weekend home at Sag Harbor and did the editing personally. Several times that weekend my phone would ring, and he would say, without any salutation, “This is great. Listen to this…” and he would then read an entire exchange. An hour later: “Now listen to these…we can put them together to explain that….,” and then he was gone again.
This was, of course, very flattering; but it was also very instructive. On his first reading of that mass of material, and with broadcast deadlines looming, he unfailingly picked out the best excerpts (or, as I liked to think of it, the best of the best….) and instinctively saw the ways to organize and relate them. And his enthusiasm was invigorating. From even this very limited exposure I sensed how he could inspire, improve, and, at least occasionally drive crazy, the people with whom he worked.
In the end, the three 30-minute segments he produced, which seemed so seamless to the viewers, in fact each represented the hundreds of cuts he made. I finally got to meet him, for the first time, after the shows were broadcast, when he invited me to his office to talk about Nixon — a subject he found fascinating and frustrating.
Unfortunately, what had been intended to be a coup was turned into a contretemps by the widespread liberal outrage that CBS was paying RN to talk —that he was benefitting from checkbook journalism— and that, to add insult to injury, he was talking with me. The controversy even reached the level of an unfriendly editorial in The New York Times.
Hewitt was surprised and offended by the onslaught; he was certainly unused to being attacked from his left flank. He considered many of the critics to be hypocrites; and in Tell Me a Story he addressed both charges in typically direct style:
The first issue is nonsense. Print journalism pays for book excerpts and other writings by political figures all the time. In a letter to The New York Times on March 14 that year, I mentioned its own purchase of the rights to something Winston Churchill wrote — and even the Times’s acquisition of serial rights to an earlier Nixon memoir. More recently, Newsweek published an excerpt of a book by George Stephanopoulos, the former top aide to President Clinton. The truth is that reputable newspapers and reputable news broadcasts pay for interviews all the time, not in cash but in something more valuable — newspaper space and airtime for an author to plug a book or a movie star to plug a movie or a politician to plug a pet cause. Who in his right mind sits down to be interviewed without getting something in return? And let’s face it, “getting something in return” is the equivalent of “getting paid.” And we all willingly go along with it, because if we don’t, 20/20 will, and if The New York Times won’t, The Washington Post will. Is there something wrong with it? No! Just stop all this “holier than thou” jazz that we don’t pay for interviews because everybody does, all the time.
The second issue: Gannon was not a newsman and didn’t pretend to be, so the tape we bought was not a journalistic interview. It was an effort to get from Nixon some things he’d never said before publicly, or quite so frankly. We made sure our viewers knew exactly what the tape was and what it was not, and that Gannon was not a reporter, but someone close to Nixon who got him to say more than anyone else had up to that point. We also weren’t restricted to any portion of the thirty-eight hours. It was our choice to select from that tape anything we wanted to.
One of RN’s conditions for doing the interviews with me was that all the material would be available for use in the Nixon Library — which then still lay several years in the future. The interviews became the basis of what was, when the Library opened in 1991, a state of the art interactive exhibition —the Presidential Forum— in which visitors could choose from an extensive menu of questions and then watch RN’s answers (with the interviewer mercifully edited out) in the comfort of a theater setting.
On Politico last Wednesday, Roger Simon wrote “The birth of political television” — an excellent appreciation of Don Hewitt’s unique contribution to the development of broadcast journalism back in the day when events (like conventions) still contained some element of authenticity, before they became choreographed commercials.