Friday, August 21, 2009

Tell me a story

When "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt passed away two days ago, the tributes were staggering. How this one man, a photo editor at the time of his hiring in 1948, could have shaped the way we receive our news over television today seems implausible. In many ways he and others he worked with in the early days of the medium were making it up as they went along. He acknowledged that he said "tele-what?" at the time of his hiring at CBS Radio. But this was a broadcasting giant that didn't let inexperience hold him back. Hewitt was the man responsible for the first televised presidential debate between Senator John Kennedy and Vice-President Richard Nixon and set a standard we follow today. He was the original producer for the "CBS Evening News," worked with the venerable Edward R. Murrow on "See It Now" and had a long relationship with the late anchorman Walter Cronkite. Of course, there has always been the combative and hard-nosed Mike Wallace (with whom Hewitt sparred over many an issue) and the amiable Morley Safer, both of whom Hewitt hired for the news magazine he envisioned four decades ago. In many ways Hewitt upped the ante on what network news correspondents would be paid. The salaries he paid Wallace, Safer, Harry Reasoner, Steve Kroft and the late Ed Bradley were huge compared to journeymen broadcasters on their way up. Along the way he chose Diane Sawyer and Leslie Stahl for coveted positions on "60 Minutes" and made their distaff stars shine evermore brightly in the process. Hewitt had the enthusiasm of a cub reporter, many said. He tackled each news project with verve, vigor and vinegar, admitting his sometimes volatile temper. Although few agreed he had truly slowed down later in life, the handsome and virile octogenarian said he had "mellowed" near the time of his retirement from "60 Minutes" five years ago. When Hewitt wrote about his success in a memoir a few years back and spoke at tribute dinners shortly thereafter, he put it all into four little words. These were four words, he said, that every kid knew: "Tell me a story." Whether we refer to TV newsmen, motion picture screenwriters, playwrights or radio broadcasters like Paul Harvey, that's really the four words that define greatness. If one can tell a story that captivates, wrenches one's heart, creates pride or elicits myriad other feelings, there is little doubt that success will follow as surely as day follows night. Hewitt instinctively knew this and great writers the world over prove his point daily. Although Hewitt was not considered a great writer, he had the knack for news to know a good story when he heard one. That important lesson qualified his entire career and continues to be a source of inspiration for abecederian and fledgling writers like me and would-be broadcasters, filmmakers and dramatists. Hewitt's legacy may be distilled into just four words, but most of us realize it is so much more than just that.

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