Television pioneer Don Hewitt, recipient of Neuharth Award, remembered in Vermillion By David Lias
Plain Talk Don Hewitt will best be known as the father of modern television news and the creator of one of the most successful television news programs, "60 Minutes." Hewitt will also always be remembered in Vermillion as a recipient of the prestigious Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in Journalism. He died of pancreatic cancer Wednesday, Aug. 19. He was 86 and had homes in Manhattan and Bridgehampton, NY, where was with family at the time of death. Hewitt traveled to Vermillion and took part in several activities on the University of South Dakota campus on Sept. 30, 2004. That evening, he was presented his excellence in journalism award by Neuharth during a special ceremony in Slagle Auditorium. "He had a wonderful visit here in Vermillion," Jack Marsh, executive director of the Al Neuharth Media Center said in a phone interview early Wednesday afternoon. "Of course, he was given the award at Al Neuharth's invitation, and I think he came out here maybe with a little trepidation, and quickly he was put at ease. He just had a wonderful time while he was here. "We took him down to Whimp's in Burbank and had dinner, and the next day was the presentation of the award," he said. "He just felt like he was a real celebrity, which he was. Neuharth told him afterwards that he was so warmly received here that he could have run for governor and won." According to an article posted on the Web site of CBS News Wednesday, Hewitt assisted in the birth of television news as young producer/director. He was usually behind the scenes directing legendary CBS News reporters like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, using a playbook he had to write himself. He played an integral role in all of CBS News' coverage of major news events from the late 1940s through the 1960s, putting him in the middle of some of history's biggest events, including one of politics' seminal moments: the first televised presidential debate in 1960. "Hewitt's accomplishments were enormous," Marsh said. "No single individual has had a greater impact on television journalism over the past half-century than Don Hewitt," said Neuharth in 2004. "He introduced great journalism and journalists to millions through innovation and a passion for depth, balance and great storytelling." One of his lasting legacies, Marsh said, is "60 Minutes," which first aired in September 1968 and remains to this day one of the most widely-watched television news programs. "He created what became the most popular television program of all time," Marsh said, "whether it's a news program or a program of any nature. I think this is still true – I think the program has had more consecutive weeks in the number one slot than any other show in television history." Marsh said the show's success can be credited to a simple, and always followed, instruction Hewitt gave to the "60 Minutes" staff: "Tell a story." "This idea of a magazine format on television was purely his creation, his doing, and it continues to be an extremely popular and tremendous news program," Marsh said. Hewitt's early innovations are now commonplace in the daily production of television. "He's the person who started what is now known as 'supers,' which is where you put text up on a television screen to identify people. He had a very simple idea, but it pre-dates computers and a lot of technology," Marsh said. Hewitt also introduced the use of cue cards for newsreaders, the electronic version of which, the TelePrompTer, is still used today. Another of his inventions was the film "double" – cutting back and forth between two projectors – an editing breakthrough that re-shaped television news. Hewitt also helped develop the positioning of cameras and reporters still used to cover news events, especially political conventions. Coincidentally, on the evening he received the Neuharth Award at Slagle Auditorium, Hewitt, the producer and director of the very first televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon, watched as President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry took part in their first scheduled debate. The 90-minute debate was shown live on a big screen and viewed by the capacity audience in the auditorium. It was followed by a post-debate panel discussion featuring Hewitt, former U.S. Sen. George McGovern and former South Dakota Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby. "As I recall, Hewitt was the person who offered Richard Nixon the opportunity to put make-up on, and Nixon, of course, declined, and that was seen as a major mistake because Nixon was naturally a very sweaty person," Marsh said. "He got under those hot lights and began sweating, and it looked like he had lost his cool." Hewitt began to pursue a career in print journalism in 1942 working as a copy boy for The New York Herald Tribune after attending New York University for one year. During World War II, he served as a war correspondent in the European and Pacific theaters (1943-44). He later worked as a night editor for the Associated Press' Memphis bureau (1943-45) and became an editor for the Pelham (NY) Sun in 1946. In 1948, Hewitt left print journalism for broadcast news and joined CBS News as an associate director of Douglas Edwards with the News. He continued with the show for 14 years as producer and director and later became executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. He is the author of Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television (Public Affairs, 2001), in which he recounts experiences with the all-star roster of journalists with whom he has worked, from Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite to Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Dan Rather, Ed Bradley, Diane Sawyer, Steve Kroft, Lesley Stahl, Bob Simon and Christiane Amanpour. "He was the producer of the Kennedy-Nixon debate, and creator of '60 Minutes.' I think those will be the two things he'll be known for the most," Marsh said.