The tick-tick-ticking at the beginning of 60 Minutes is the sound of a stopwatch, but it may as well be a time bomb. It’s not that television news in America wouldn’t have become entertainment without Don Hewitt’s brainchild, this season marking its fiftieth year on the air, but the show played an outsize role in that transformation, proving that the news division could be a prime-time ratings winner and a money maker, even if it needed to create pseudo-events on a regular basis to do so. You could say it was one of the three factors that most enabled where we are now, along with the Reagan Administration dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine and the Murdoch-Ailes establishment of Fox, the proto-Fake News.
That Hewitt dreamed of a career in show biz and Mike Wallace essentially had his start in that world doesn’t seem incidental to what they created on Sunday nights, with the journalist often battering a patsy opponent and villain in a way that was reminiscent of professional wrestling, while his boss edited the piece for maximum impact. It was so much fun, but should it have been? Fred Friendly, Hewitt’s original boss at CBS, didn’t think so, and he was probably right. The program has turned out plenty of good content and isn’t directly responsible for the Glenn Becks, Ann Coulters and Alex Joneses, but the slope it was built upon was surely a slippery one.
Fifty years is an eternity in the television world. The average show lasts about two and a half. But this fall 60 Minutes kicks off a half-century on-air. Many factors have helped sustain the broadcast over five decades, but a lot of them can be traced all the way back to the program’s conception. It’s an unlikely story because there never would have been a 60 Minutes if its creator, Don Hewitt, hadn’t been fired back in 1965.
In 1948 when Hewitt joined CBS, then largely a radio network, he was in awe of the people around him, particularly “the Murrow Boys”—the gentlemen correspondents who filed World War II dispatches under the watchful eye of Edward R. Murrow, the man who would become the dean of broadcast news and the paragon of journalistic integrity. The Murrow Boys were elegant and battle-tested and knew how to write a story and deliver it on the radio.
Don wasn’t one of them, and he knew it. He was a feisty kid from New Rochelle, New York, who never got a college degree. Growing up, he had always wanted to be in show business. His two childhood heroes were fictional characters from Broadway: Julian Marsh, the theater director in the musical 42nd Street,and Hildy Johnson, the star police-beat reporter in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s classic newspaper comedy, The Front Page.
Even so, Don joined CBS with some journalistic cred. During the war, he’d written for Stars and Stripes, the daily paper of the U.S. military. But it wasn’t reporting that got him most excited; it was lights and action.•