Thursday, August 20, 2009

Two princes

Don Hewitt, the broadcast journalist who became a pioneer in television news with the creation of 60 Minutes, has shuffled off this mortal coil as many of you are by now aware. He passed away at the age of 86, after a long bout with pancreatic cancer.

From 1968 to 2004, Hewitt produced the most successful prime-time news program in the history of the medium by mixing both hard and soft news stories, combined with a “knights in shining armor” approach to exposing corporate malfeasance. He explained the successful formula of 60 Minutes in a memoir published in 2001, boiling it down to four words: “Tell me a story.”

I have to confess at this point that I honestly can’t remember the last time I watched the program, but in its heyday it made for some truly outstanding television. It premiered in the fall of 1968 as a Tuesday night staple but it wasn’t until the network moved the series to Sunday nights in January of 1972 that the show began to find an audience (and much of that was a spill over from whatever football game was on CBS that afternoon). It was the top-rated series for the 1979-80 season, and would also hit the number one position in the 1982-83 season and from 1991-94.

I don’t, of course, want to box Hewitt in as just the creator of 60 Minutes—he also directed the first network newscast on CBS in 1948, and was a one-time executive producer of The CBS News with Walter Cronkite. He also produced and directed the three networks’ coverage of the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960. Don Hewitt was a personal hero to me (though I didn’t always agree with some of the decisions he made while at CBS News) and I am severely devastated by the news of his passing.

Robert Novak has also passed away at the age of 78; a conservative columnist/pundit who wrote for both the now-defunct New York Herald and later the Chicago Sun Times, often in concert with partner Rowland Evans (who died in 2001). The two men joined up with the fledging CNN network in 1980 with a television version of their “Evans & Novak Report”—a popular news-discussion program that later added columnists Al Hunt and Mark Shields to the lineup. Novak also made frequent appearances on the syndicated The McLaughlin Group and CNN’s Capitol Gang as well.

But Novak’s best-remembered television showcase was probably Crossfire, the combative discussion program that originally featured Pat Buchanan as its conservative voice—but Novak replaced him when Buchanan became White House communications director in the Reagan administration. Buchanan later returned to the program but left again in 1991 for an ill-fated presidential bid—he was replaced by John Sununu, who then began alternating his duties when Novak was brought back into the fold.

My admiration for Don Hewitt does not extend to Mr. Novak, unfortunately. But since I promised my mother that I wouldn’t publish anything nasty about “the Prince of Darkness,” here are some people who share far better memories of working with the man.

R.I.P, gentlemen. Your contributions to journalism will not be soon forgotten.


Scott C. said...

Hewitt was also a minor character in the sublime Good Night and Good Luck, played by co-scripter Grant Heslov.

hobbyfan said...

Novak's best known on-air partner on Crossfire was Tom Braden. Used to watch the show with friends back in the 80's, and Novak's putdowns had us ROTFLOAO!!

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

There's no love lost between Novak and myself, but I'm like you -- I'd root for the "Prince of Darkness" over Tom Braden any day of the week. How a former head of the CIA could be introduced as "on the Left" was one of those CNN mysteries I never could figure out.

I read somewhere that the reason fans have not seen Eight is Enough on DVD is because of some sticky legal entanglement. If Braden's estate is responsible...well, that's just one more reason to dislike him.

Brent McKee said...

Braden was never the head of the CIA. He was only in for four years (1950-54 - the period when Bedel Smith and Allen Dulles were the Directors). Braden's principal work with the agency was promoting anti-communist elements in organizations like the AFL-CIO.

As far as his credentials on "the Left", he was friends with both Nelson Rockefeller (who would be a Democrat today) and Bobby Kennedy and he was on Nixon's enemies list. Apparently Braden sold the rights to "Eight Is Enough" to ABC TV for $1,000.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I sit corrected re: Braden's status in the CIA -- for some reason I thought he had more clout within the Agency.

But Braden's "left" credentials are as bogus as a three=dollar bill. Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch are good friends but that doesn't mean that Ted drives around with a gun rack or that Hatch subscribes to The Nation. One doesn't see many true representatives of the Left on television, and both the major and cable networks intend to keep it that way.