Don Hewitt, who created the popular CBS news show “60 Minutes” and controlled it for 36 years, died Wednesday at age 86.
It is customary in our culture to speak no ill of the dead, but as William Shakespeare wrote: “The evil that men do lives after them.”
The specter of Don Hewitt continues to haunt both the network news he shaped and American politics.
Whatever part of Hewitt's soul was an honest journalist would want us to report his shortcomings and his liberal legacy truthfully.
Hewitt boasted that he elected two presidents.
The reporters and executives he put in charge of “60 Minutes” prior to his retirement in 2004 went on to help elect a third, President Barack Obama.
After serving as director for ultra-liberal CBS newslord Edward R. Murrow, Hewitt became producer-director of America's first televised presidential debate, which happened in 1960 between Republican Vice President Richard Nixon and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy.
Nixon won the debate handily, according to those listening on radio. Kennedy won among those who watched the slanted images Hewitt contrived to put on national television.
In his book "Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV," Northeastern University Journalism Professor Alan Schroeder described how Kennedy and Nixon together had refused makeup, but before the debate began, “unknown to Nixon, Kennedy got a touch-up [i.e., makeup] from his own people.”
Nixon, years later, recounted how he and his staff were misled about the debate stage lighting, the color of its background (lightened by repainting on debate day), and hence the color of suit, shirt, and necktie he should wear. On that set, wrote media historian Erik Barnouw, Nixon appeared “haggard; the lines on his face seemed like gashes and gave a fearful look.”
Kennedy's makeup and clothing somehow were perfectly coordinated to make him look like a star on Hewitt's suddenly-changed stage set.
Hewitt’s camera shots during the debate outraged a Nixon aide in the control room. Whenever Kennedy spoke, the camera tended to stay on him. When Nixon spoke, the cameras often cut away to show Kennedy’s reaction, distracting viewers from what the Republican was saying.
Hewitt gave Kennedy 39 percent more time in such reaction shots than he gave to Nixon’s reactions while Kennedy spoke, and this made Kennedy appear to dominate the debate.
In 1992, Hewitt helped another Democratic presidential candidate win. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was sinking when Hewitt offered him and his wife Hillary an interview to air moments after that year’s Super Bowl on CBS, the primest of prime airtime worth more than a million dollars per minute.
Then-Clinton hatchet man George Stephanopoulos, who now anchors ABC’s Sunday show “This Week,” recounted in his memoir "All Too Human: A Political Education” what he witnessed at this “60 Minutes” videotaping:
“Don Hewitt. . . told the Clintons how he’d made John Kennedy president by producing the debates in 1960 and said he could do the same for them.”
In this interview, America heard suburban Chicago-raised Hillary in a fake Southern accent speak loyally at her husband’s side. This Oscar-worthy performance enabled Clinton to eke out a second-place finish days later in New Hampshire, proclaim himself "the comeback kid," and go on to win the White House.
What Americans were not told was that the Clintons knew in advance the questions they would be asked.
Hewitt had also promised the Clintons that if they disliked the way a "take" was going, they, like prima donna Hollywood stars, could halt the videotaping and do a new take — or three, four, whatever the Clintons needed to sound and appear the way they wanted to.
Don Hewitt gave the Clintons their own free $20 million TV commercial. CBS dishonestly broadcast this Clinton infomercial to the nation disguised as an honest news interview.
And in the 2008 elections the “60 Minutes” that Hewitt shaped and staffed was up to its old dirty tricks, pretending to be even-handed while smearing Republican moderate candidate John McCain and promoting the Chicago’s Democratic machine’s far-left candidate Barack Obama.
In CBS’s softball Obama interview by Steve Kroft — the same lapdog reporter Hewitt had used in the 1992 Clinton infomercial — Obama was repeatedly pictured before adoring, cheering crowds.
CBS even showed him embracing an African-American woman who “wanted to tell Obama that she had just lost her husband of 70 years, and that he tried to live long enough to vote for him.”
Whenever Obama spoke, Kroft let him orate almost uninterrupted. After merely mentioning that Obama had “never run anything,” Kroft left unchallenged Obama’s dishonest retort that “if the question is executive experience, then Senator McCain and I are on equal footing.”
In fact, McCain commanded the largest fighter squadron in the U.S. Navy, but viewers would never know this from CBS.
By contrast, the McCain interview was conducted by attack dog Scott Pelley, notorious for his one-sided alarmist global warming reporting. When asked why he unethically refused to interview anyone with contrary views, Pelley snidely dismissed warming skeptics as “Holocaust deniers.”
More than 22,000 scientists, including MIT’s chief atmospheric scientist, have signed a petition expressing skepticism about Al Gore-like, Pelley-like climate alarmism.
CBS showed McCain not with friendly crowds like Obama, but alone facing a bright Hanoi Hilton-like interrogation light that made him appear white and pasty, and made him blink or look away.
Pelley repeatedly interrupted McCain’s answers with accusatory statements. “Can you see [your running mate Sarah Palin] as president of the United States?” he demanded repeatedly in a haughty, incredulous tone.
Palin was governor of America’s largest state and commander in chief of Alaska’s National Guard, with 80 percent popularity among voters who know her. Why didn’t Kroft similarly press his question about Obama’s utter lack of executive experience?
The specter of Don Hewitt will haunt America for a long, long time.
Lowell Ponte is co-host of the radio show “Night-Watch,” heard live nationwide Monday through Friday, 10 p.m. to midnight Eastern time, on gcnlive.com.
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