It’s been a sad summer for CBS News, and yet one that’s reminded the world of that network’s huge role in reporting the news of the 20th century. Like Walter Cronkite, Hewitt was of a generation of newsman who was in TV news for nearly its entire existence as a popular medium. (Even more so than Cronkite, actually, since Hewitt’s went back to the late ’40s with CBS.)
60 Minutes, the long-running hit known for its lengthy, often confrontational investigations, will clearly be his greatest-known legacy. (Interestingly, the show didn’t become a top-20 hit until nearly a decade after it launched.) But well before that series started in 1968, he was helping to shape TV news, which in turn helped shape history. As CBS News notes, for instance, he produced coverage of the Nixon-Kennedy TV debate, the seminal example of candidates’ TV presentations helping to sway an election.
Ironically, by becoming a ratings hit, 60 Minutes ended up helping to establish news shows as network profit centers–which later would make things tough for forms of news that didn’t draw big ratings and ad dollars. And the way the show adapted the narrative form of great TV storytelling to the news (and still does) was a double-edged triumph too; it brought the attention of millions to important stories and corruption reports (as well as entertainment stories), but inspired a host of less-ambitious, ratings-driven primetime newsmagazines. Still, four decades later, 60 Minutes (which Hewitt left in 2004) has kept a news show among one of TV’s most-watched, with offerings like last year’s coverage of the Presidential election and its newsmaker interviews with President Obama. That’s no small feat at a time when broadcast-news ratings (outside morning shows) have steadily declined for years.
Hewitt’s record was not spotless; the movie The Insider documented how 60 Minutes, under his leadership, backed off under pressure from a whistleblower investigation of the tobacco industry. But he was a tremendous figure in TV news, an example of its power and potential, and a strong voice in making the now-almost-quaint argument that it should not be driven mainly by profit. Millions of Americans profited from Don Hewitt’s work, though, and his legacy keeps on ticking.