Tick... Tick... Tick...: The Long Life and Turbulent Times of 60 Minutesby David Blum
The story of how CBS's 60 Minutes grew from a little network experiment into a Sunday-night-at-seven addiction for most of the country would itself make a raucous and typically compelling 60 Minutes episode. Or, maybe, an opera, complete with rival tenors, backstage intrigues, imperious divas, vulnerable ingenues, tragic deaths, a handful of big and small wars, and a brilliant if maniacal maestro running the whole production. For two years, author David Blum talked to everybody connected to 60 Minutes, and, incredibly, everybody talked to him-about themselves, about the show, about one another. Blum's unprecedented inside access takes us into story meetings, blood-on-the-wall editing sessions, turf wars, and to the heart of the rivalries and the myths-who got hired, who got fired, who got screwed-going as far back as the earliest black-and-white days.
In a history that spans four decades, 60 Minutes has piled up an encyclopedic list of first-and-onlys: it has aired fourteen-hundred-plus times, hauled in a profit of two billion dollars for CBS, finished in TV's top ten for twenty-two consecutive seasons, and garnered sixty-eight Emmy Awards. In the process, producer-guru Don Hewitt's beloved "tigers"-correspondents Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Lesley Stahl, Steve Kroft, Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer, Meredith Vieira, the late Harry Reasoner, and cranky essayist Andy Rooney-have become brand names and media demigods. Hidden cameras, "gotcha" interviews, in-your-face confrontational journalism-this is where it all began.
And thirty-six years later, Hewitt's still there, pounding his desk, swearing at his tigers (most of whom are also still there), and holding in his tightly clenched fist the patent on the mother of all magazine shows. Or, rather, he was, until just recently, when a bunch of younger guys in suits decided it was time to take 60 Minutes away from its eighty-one-year-old boss. The changes, the innovations, the stop-the-presses big stories-for Hewitt, and maybe a couple of the others-are, at last, winding down. But the story of the most successful and contentious program in TV history is not over yet: the new guys are settling in and the future is up for grabs.
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Tick... Tick... Tick...
The Long Life and Turbulent Times of 60 MInutes
It was a Saturday afternoon in March 1931, and an 8-year-old boy named Donald Shepard Hewitt had taken the profits from his part-time job selling magazines in the tree-trimmed New York suburb of New Rochelle and bought himself a frozen Milky Way bar and a trolley car ticket to the neighborhood movie house. That day's feature was The Front Page, which had opened to rave reviews -- an adaptation of the Ben HechtCharles McArthur play about a big-city newspaper and the people who worked there. The Front Page had had a great run on Broadway in 1928 and done plenty to glamorize the journalism profession into which young Don had been born. Don's dad wasn't a reporter, exactly; he sold classified advertising, and not even for a New York newspaper, and these days he was selling ad circulars. But that was the black-and-white real world; in the wide-screen, Technicolor world inside young Don's head -- where even the best story could stand a little exaggeration -- Ely Hewitt might as well have been the editor of the New York Herald Tribune. Plus the kid loved the movies, and a comedy about the newspaper business was one he did not intend to miss.
The Front Page introduced the world to one of the great archetypes in the short history of the movies: Hildy Johnson, the freewheeling, rule-breaking Chicago newspaper reporter preparing to leave the chaotic news business for marriage and a more respectable career in advertising. His last day on the courthouse beat, hell-bent on breaking one last story, Johnson spends every penny of his $260 in honeymoon booty to buy an exclusive on the prison escape of convicted murderer Earle Williams. With his crusty but benign editor Walter Burnsanother archetype built to last -- he manages to grab Williams and stash him inside a rolltop desk in the courthouse press room until their scoop is assured.
The movie made a fortune at the box office and resulted in multiple remakes (including Howard Hawks's classic 1940 comedy, His Girl Friday) and contributed an enduring stereotype to the culture: Hildy Johnson defined the hard-drinking, intrepid newshound in his broadbrimmed fedora, feet up on the pressroom desk, wisecracking about dames, pols, and the latest big story. He would stand for decades as Hollywood's ultimate reporter -- a little shady around the edges, no holds barred -- at least until Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman came along and sanctified journalism as a serious business for ethical, hardworking professionals who never stretched the truth.
From the moment young Don stepped out of the theater into the March sunlight, he knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up -- to get the story, no matter what it took.
It didn't take Hewitt long to find a way to turn his Hildy obsession into coin. In the seventh grade, while his pals were playing baseball and chasing girls, the opinionated and boisterous teenager won a Junior Scholastic Magazine contest for "best editorial" with a piece he'd titled, "Press Drives Lindbergh to Self-Exile." He put his moviegoer's sense of story and drama to use in the student paper at New Rochelle High School, in a sports column with the somewhat catchier title of "Athlete's Footnotes." After that he set his media obsession aside just long enough to join the track team and earn an athletic scholarship to New York University.
At 19, Hewitt's already well-developed short attention span got the best of him; he dropped out of NYU and found what looked like his dream jobnight copyboy at the fabled New York Herald Tribune. But sharpening pencils for other Hildy Johnsons wasn't quite the fulfilling experience Hewitt had dreamed of back in the movie house. After several months racing around the newsroom in the service of other reporters' stories, Hewitt found a ticket to bigger and more exciting opportunities: World War II. He enrolled at the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, in 1943, and by the next year he was working public relations for the Merchant Marine in London. There he finally got the chance to work with real reportersamong them two young journalists named Andy Rooney and Walter Cronkite.
"He was a young fellow, as we all were, much younger than we are now, anyway," Cronkite remembers. "It seemed that he was enjoying hanging out with the news people more than he was busy ... I think many of us questioned whether he was busy doing anything, except kind of enjoying the war." Andy Rooney's recollections were a bit more specific: "He used to come into the Stars and Stripes office all the time ... He was very good, he did good pieces for us. He submitted pieces about the Merchant Marine, and we often ran them."
One night near the end of the war, in his capacity as a Merchant Marine correspondent, Hewitt was a passenger in a supply convoy in the Atlantic Ocean taking heavy enemy fire. All around him, ships were sinking; as the night wore on and the battle raged, Hewitt watched helplessly as one ship after another disappeared beneath the ocean surface. By dawn, according to Hewitt's own highly theatrical account, his was the only boat still afloat, the only one to escape enemy fire. Then came two Royal Air Force planes out of Scotland -- and the realization that rescue was near.
"Where's the music?" Hewitt said to himself as he watched the planes head toward them. "This can't be happening unless Dimitri Tiomkin writes the score." Even in the middle of a war, Hewitt figured the action could be more thrilling with just a few small improvements.
Hewitt may not have quite realized it that night, but despite all his fantasies of a career as a dashing correspondent, he seemed to be missing the basic reporter gene. He had the flamboyant personality and the wild ideas, and he liked being near the action. But he appeared to shy away from the hard, gritty work that came with the job description. While his pals Rooney and Cronkite -- and other future TV stars like Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid -- tore up the continent with their confidence and tenacity, Hewitt hurried back to the United States and got himself a job as the night editor of the Associated Press bureau in Memphis, Tennessee.Tick... Tick... Tick...
The Long Life and Turbulent Times of 60 MInutes. Copyright © by David Blum. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
David Blum has written regularly for New York Magazine, Esquire, and the New York Times Magazine, and is the author of Flash in the Pan: The Life and Death of an American Restaurant. He is the television critic for the New York Sun and teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He lives with his wife and children in New York City.
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