My Crazy Conversation with Don Hewitt

One of the strangest conversations I have ever had on the telephone was with Don Hewitt, the great CBS News producer who just died of pancreatic cancer, and whose most important, lasting journalistic achievement was the creation of 60 Minutes.

Hewitt called me one day after my book Arrogance came out (in 2003) and to put it mildly he was furious.  I had written about how the 60 Minutes curmudgeon Andy Rooney had gone on the Larry King Show and dropped a bombshell.  Rooney said that Dan Rather “is transparently liberal.  Now he may not like to hear me say that, I always agree with him, too.  But I think he should be more careful.”

Then I wrote, “Had I heard right?  Did Andy Rooney … just go where no newsman had gone before?  Did he really say that Dan Rather was ‘transparently liberal?’”  And I concluded with this: “Andy Rooney had just acknowledged that conservatives had been right all these years, after all.”

But as anyone who’s over the age of three can attest, telling the truth can get you in a lot of trouble — so Andy felt the need to become a weasel and slink away from his courageous statement.  And that’s where Don Hewitt comes in.  The phone conversation I had with him took place many years ago and since I wasn’t taking notes, I’ll re-create it as best I can.

“On page 24 of your book,” he said, you wrote the following…”  Then he read a paragraph from my book that quoted a newspaper column Rooney had written a full year before Arrogance came out.  This is the paragraph in which Rooney backs away from his observation about liberal bias:  “As a guest on the Larry King show a few weeks ago, I said some things, in answer to his questions, that I would have been better off lying about or avoiding.  It was not that the people who objected to what I said necessarily thought I was wrong.  They thought I shouldn’t have said it.  In my own defense, I told a boss of mine that I thought if all the truth were known by everyone it would be a better world.  He scoffed.  I think ‘scoff’ is what he did.  I know he rejected the idea.”

The next sentence in the book summed up Andy’s cowardly retraction following the conversation he had with his boss.  “Let’s see if I understood this, I wrote.  “Andy Rooney thinks that when it comes to liberal bias in the news, dishonesty is the best policy?”

Hewitt was ballistic.  I could feel the smoke coming out of his ears. “I never told Rooney to lie,” he spit out.  There was more than a hint in that conversation that I had slandered his good name.

“I didn’t say you told Andy Rooney to lie, Don.  It was your guy, Andy Rooney, who wrote the newspaper column – not me!  It was your guy who wrote “a boss of mine” “rejected the idea” of telling the truth.”

I no longer worked at CBS News and I wasn’t about to take this guff from anyone over there, not even Don Hewitt.

I told Don that I wrote –in the very next paragraph — that Rooney’s “boss” in question was either Don Hewitt or Andrew Heyward, then the president of CBS News.

But it wasn’t me,” Hewitt shouted, and you had no business saying it was.”

“But Don,” a page later I reveal to the reader that the villain wasn’t you – it was Heyward [the president of CBS News] who told Rooney that telling the truth wasn’t always a good idea, not even for a newsman.”

I am convinced that Don hadn’t read that part.  He got to page 24, read the section that infuriated him and stopped reading.  He went on and on about how he had been thinking about doing a 60 Minutes piece about me and my book and liberal bias in the news, but now he’d never have me on his show.  As I recall, we exchanged F-Bombs and hung up.

I tell you this story not to belittle Don Hewitt.  Despite the temper and ego, he was a rare visionary.  He not only created the best news magazine program on television but he made sure the program  never stooped to the tawdry, tabloid ways of other magazine shows like Dateline on NBC and 48 Hours which had become a “murder mystery” show on his own CBS.  No, I tell the story because Don is a perfect example of how hyper-sensitive so many journalists can be – a very odd trait for people in the business of looking down everybody else’s throat.

I later wrote Don a note reminding him that he puts people in the crosshairs every week on his show.  He’s the one who perfected the technique of having the camera go in tight on some poor bastard so you can see the sweat dripping off his face as Mike Wallace grills him.  Now, I wrote a few harmless words about Don and he was sputtering like a loon at me.  He called me after he got my note, didn’t back down an inch, but this time we said our good byes in a more pleasant way.

But the fact is that nothing I said on the phone or in my note would appease Don.  Absolutely nothing!  That I didn’t write so much as a word that was untrue, meant nothing.  That it was Andy Rooney – not me — who hinted it was Hewitt who encouraged him to lie about liberal bias, meant nothing.  That I was the one who cleared Don’s good name, meant nothing either. All that mattered to Don – was Don.

I haven’t thought about that crazy phone conversation in many years.  But it came back to me when the sad news of Don’s death became known.  And I started thinking that as screwy as that chat was, it tells us something important about journalists and journalism.  It tells us that Don’s old friend and colleague Ed Murrow got it right many years ago when he is alleged to have said, “Journalists don’t have thin skins, they have no skins.”

RIP, Don.

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  • Ted Kalal

    This is to compare and contrast (something we all did in Freshman English) a happening that today has submerged into oblivion. In the mid seventies, Stansfield Turner became the new Director of the CIA. I was taking journalism 101 while attending evening classes at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. At that time the journalism professor gave the class the assignment of comparing and contrasting the cover articles of Time and Newsweek of the same week. That week the cover topic was Stansfield Turner.
    Both articles discusses his mediocre grade point average at Annapolis, his rise in the military, and a lot of what he had accomplished up to then. The main take away from the two readings was that each magazine had referred to some thirty five sources that went into the articles. Each had references that were directly traceable, i.e., the president said, the chairman of the arms committee, senator XYZ said, etc. The remaining thirty information sources were untraceable, i.e., a noted White House insider, on the capitol steps I learned that, in the capital’s cloakroom, etc.
    The next journalism lecture met where the professor asked about the contents, any biases, and the sources of the article information. The class as a whole had much the same overall thoughts; one magazine was pro Turner and the other was not (I forget which was which). Then the professor surprised the class with the reason he assigned this writing task. It was to show each of us how much is written by what are considered accurate journalist publications where the sources of the information was almost completely missing. He advised the class to pay great attention to what we read and to be alert to the information sources traceability. That was thirty five years ago, and that’s what I remember from Journalism 101.

  • Ken

    Dear Bernie:

    I apologize if this is something you have already written about.

    Regarding Don Hewitt and 60 Minutes . . .

    You might remember this. If I recall correctly, some sort of 60 Minutes anniversary show was broadcast back in the mid-nineties. The program included a number of their most popular and/or important interviews. Of course, this included Steve Croft’s interview of Bill and Hillary Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign.

    This is the interview where Bill and Hillary more or less put to rest voter concerns regarding their marriage and Bill’s philandering. Hillary had her arm around Bill, and appeared as his biggest defender, standing by her man as he was being unfairly attacked.

    What really struck me about the anniversary show wasn’t the interview itself, but rather the outtakes from the interview they chose to broadcast. In these, we could see Hewitt coaching Bill and Hillary in how to answer the questions. He was passionate and forceful as he told both not just what to say, but how to say it, and how they needed to come off to the public. He was acting as a campaign aide to the Clintons.

    I recall thinking that were it not for Hewitt, the Clintons might not have succeeded in getting to the White House. I also recall being surprised that the producers would include these coaching sessions in the anniversary program. As a supposedly objective and unbiased news organization, shouldn’t they have been embarrassed by this blatant partisanship? Perhaps they were too ignorant to understand that they should have been embarrassed, or perhaps they were so arrogant, they just assumed all right-thinking people would be happy and grateful for the assistance Hewitt provided.

    I had pretty much sworn-off 60 Minutes long before that piece, but seeing it really confirmed for me that my suspicions about that program and CBS News in general were well-founded. I wouldn’t watch anything produced by CBS News if someone paid me.

    One other item: around the time of the George Clooney film “Good Night and Good Luck,” lionizing Edward R. Murrow, I read a column on Bloomberg (by Andrew Ferguson, I believe). Some people who point out CBS News’ blatant bias today still pay at least lip-service tribute to the legacy of Murrow. However, according to Ferguson’s column, Murrow was awfully partisan himself, and it showed in his work. In addition, Ferguson charged that Murrow had falsified his resume. I remember wondering whether CBS News was ever the great paragon of virtue and objectivity they like to claim it is. It all seems like a self-serving myth.

    Thank you, Bernie. I hope you continue to “speak truth to power,” as Dan Rather likes to say.

    Sincerely,
    Ken B.

    • Ralph Hahn

      Ken: Perhaps Hewitt had done the coaching thing with JFK in 1960? Including advice what most people may think is the obvious: “Oh, Jack. Make sure you shave closely just before the broadcast.” Even though Dan Rather anchored the “CBS Evening News” for five more years than Walter Cronkite had, Uncle Walter must have been a good poker player. From Cronkite’s book, a woman called him directly, maybe hours after JFK was killed saying “You always hated the Kennedys.” I think it was the infamous time when Walter answered the woman that she was a “goddamned idiot.” When Cronkite retired, he revealed his true liberal leanings. I was trained that a journalist can’t really be ‘objective’. However, they must be fair. The greatest compliment from politicians I had covered was “you were always fair to us.”

  • http://www.officemagic.com Patrick Wahl

    Dear Bernie,

    Just wanted to write to you to tell you how much you have affected my life.

    When I first heard that the news was “biased,” the concept did not make sense to me. How can news — the day’s events — be biased? It’s just news, not opinion!

    I have now read all of your books, along with dozens of others, and what you have taught me remains top of mind whenever I hear the news!

    I love your appearances with Sean Hannity. Keep fighting the good fight, and keep speaking truth to power. Liberals love people who speak truth to power, right??

    Warmly,

    Pat
    Patrick Wahl
    Wilmington, DE

  • Danny K.

    Bernie, thanks for bringing back memories. One of the rare occasions I watched Larry King was that very interview with Andy Rooney. After he said what he said about Dan Rather, it was if the world had stopped. As a news/talk junkie, it was one of the rare moments I stopped and said to myself, “Did he just say what I think he said?” I also remember the deafening silence from the usual sources that came afterwards, as if those words were never uttered. That said, I don’t have a lot of use these days for either conservatives or liberals these days, as neither really fit the definition of those words. To me, a true liberal looks for new ways to tackle problems. Instead, we have big government statists peddling their shopworn plans that have already bankrupted this country.

    A journalists’ job shouldn’t be to cozy up to the statist status quo, whether conservative or liberal. It should be to put people touting failed policies on the hot seat and do to them what Mike Wallace used to do to some unwitting scammer featured on 60 Minutes. There is a lot of gutlessness that has occured over the last 40 or 50 years and we have a $9 trillion debt to show for it, plus untold trillions of entitlement obligations. Both parties have been complicit in turning this country into a national version of General Motors and I think journalists need to start putting these people on the hot seat.

  • http://www.benevolentgrammarian.blogspot.com bmmg39

    My condolences on the loss of your former colleague.

  • Jon

    Wow, Captain Ahab is alive and well!

    I am extremely disappointed that you would use the opportunity of one man’s death to take a cheap potshot at that person. A person with class would have said nothing at all rather than tell some unflattering anecdote as you have–ESPECIALLY someone who makes the claim that our modern culture is in the grips of an epidemic of crass, coarse behavior. I think kicking a dead guy around qualifies as a symptom of that epidemic.

    Way to go harpooning that whale, Cap’n.

    • http://www.bernardgoldberg.com Bernie

      Did you miss the many well-deserved compliments I gave Don throughout the piece? I was making a serious point about journalists and journalism. I’m guessing most reasonable people saw it that way.

      • Tiffany

        You’d guess right. :)

  • Alan

    Anyone capable of objectivity has known that Rather was blatantly liberal for years. As far as I can tell, his liberalism cost Kerry the 2004 Presidential election. It was Rather’s failure to research the papers “proving” Bush’s lack of military record (and Kerry’s running with it) that gave way to the swift boaters.

  • Lee

    B, you captured one aspect of the man’s personality to perfection. Don Hewitt was one of the great characters of 20th Century TV. It’s no cliche to say he was one of a kind.

    I was lucky enough to work for Don Hewitt in the mid-90’s, if only briefly. I was already in the business almost 20 years when I went for the interview. I’m not ashamed to admit that being judged for a job by a living legend created some anxious moments. He never asked a question. Instead, he gave a simple command, “tell me a story.” That was my interview. I guess my story was good enough to get in the door.

    Don Hewitt had already forgotten more about TV news than I’d ever know … and he reminded me of it in every conversation. But I didn’t mind, because it was true! When it came to crafting stories his instincts were always right. He was an uncanny editor. A master of simplicity.

    • Bernie

      I worked with Lee at CBS … and I’m here to tell you he’s one of the best.

  • patrick

    mr.goldberg,thanks for your integerity,I,ve readall of your books except Slobbering keep up the good and honest we are out here for you.

  • http://www.rubegonia.net RuBegonia

    “If all the truth were known by everyone it would be a better world”. Parallel universe, unfortunately. Your columns are a respite from this oxymoronic chapter of our “Non-Fiction Sci-Fi Nightmare”.

  • BillyR

    Thanks for this column, Mr. Goldberg. I’m glad there is someone like you, who was a part of the news business for so long and knows whereof he speaks, is providing these valuable insights on a culture that was once in the business of providing information and now seems intent on spreading disinformation.

  • Tim Brauer

    Hi Bernie,

    I love your columns and try to catch your appearances whenever possible. This is another great column about the media. I believe our nation’s greatest threat comes from within and our greatest defense is an objective media. Sadly, our defense has been greatly compromised. Keep fighting the good fight.

    Sincerely,

    Tim Brauer
    Deerfield, IL

    • http://www.bernardgoldberg.com Bernie

      This is a reply to all of you who have said such nice things about this latest Between Manhattan and Malibu:

      A heartfelt thanks to all of you. Your comments and support mean a lot.