• Marc Johnson

Hewitt and the Prince of Darkness


Perhaps more than anyone, Don Hewitt, the CBS News executive who died this week, invented the idea of television news. Hewitt staged the Kennedy-Nixon debates, produced the early years of Walter Cronkite’s expanded 30 minute nightly broadcast, and invented “60 Minutes.”

I happened to be home nursing a nasty summer cold the day the TV news pioneer’s death was announced. I couldn’t help thinking as I watched (which I rarely do) the continuous loop of nasty health care hearings, celebrity gossip and talking head wisdom that passes for news on cable television that little of that content has much to do with the kind of television Don Hewitt pioneered at CBS.

The irony was palpable when a cable anchor, more at home presiding over a verbal slugfest than a eulogy for a television pioneer, waxed eloquently about Hewitt’s role in the development of the medium.

More irony in the nearly simultaneous passing of columnist Robert “The Prince of Darkness” Novak. With his long-time partner Roland Evans, Novak carved out an early reputation as a tough, well-sourced Washington reporter who broke big stories and stepped on big toes. The rise of cable talking head shows, the type of “news” program that places a premium on opinion (most of it blindly partisan) as opposed to real reporting, gave Novak a new audience. He seemed to relish being cast in the role of the gloomy disher of usually outraged opinion.

Still, with all his years of Washington experience, I often found myself wishing for a just little nuance, a bit of dispassionate insight from one with obviously so much depth. But, that’s hoping for too much from cable and from those who play a role on cable.

We all know the news business, and television news included, continues in a steep, deep decline. The reasons are many, no doubt, including the unbelievable rise of the “new media” thanks to the Internet. I’m from the old school, however, and still want to believe real content – not just overheated opinion in the guise of entertainment – still matters.

Don Hewitt knew something about news and also something about entertainment. With “60 Minutes” he skillfully and very lucratively combined the two. Bob Novak was a good reporter who adapted skillfully and lucratively to the strictures of cable talking head shows, but what he mostly did on the tube had little to do with news.

Both these old news hands had a role, I think, in the continuing evolution of they way we gain information, particularly political information. Stay tuned for the next chapter. I am not an optimist.

I am confident someone will become the next Novak. The “expert,” opinionated talking heads are a dime a dozen these days. I do wonder if there will ever be another Hewitt or worse, perhaps, if anyone really cares any longer about his kind of television.

Wheeler Center Plans Montana Media Conference

By the way, the good folks at the Burton K. Wheeler Center at Montana State University is planning a conference on Montana media issues this fall. “Failure to Inform:” Is There a Looming Media Crisis in Montana? is scheduled for Missoula September 30 and October 1. Sounds like a very timely gathering.

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©2021 by Marc C Johnson