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CBS bids farewell to ‘60 Minutes’ chief

Special episode will reminisce about Don Hewitt
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

"60 Minutes" will bid farewell to its creator, noted newsman Don Hewitt, with a special episode in May featuring clips and reminiscences from the newsmagazine’s correspondents.

Hewitt, 81, is retiring at the end of the 2003-04 season as executive producer of the program, though he will remain at the network as a producer of news specials and adviser to CBS News president Andrew Heyward.

Speaking to reporters Saturday at the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour in Hollywood, Heyward said the tribute program is envisioned as "Don’s All-Time Greats," featuring clips of Hewitt’s favorite segments together with commentary from Mike Wallace, Morley Safer and the rest of the "60 Minutes" team.

Hewitt’s retirement has been a long time coming. He and the network engaged in a delicate dance for months that, at least on CBS’ side, seemed aimed at prying him away from the flagship newsmagazine while keeping his dignity intact. His successor will be Jeff Fager, the executive producer of "60 Minutes II."

Hewitt told the crowd that he was "not a happy camper" when first confronted with the idea of leaving the show he created in 1968. But when CBS offered a contract that would give him at least some continuing role in the network, he reconsidered.

"What in the hell do you have to complain about?" he said he asked himself. "Nothing, absolutely nothing."

Reflecting on his more than 50 years at CBS News, Hewitt said that some of the TV landmarks he is associated with are in fact mixed blessings. The 1960 presidential debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, which Hewitt helped produce, proved that the new medium could be used effectively for political communication.

But, he added, it also made subsequent politicians rely too much on TV and fostered a sense among media executives that politicians are "a bottomless pit of advertising." He also spoke of some failures on "60 Minutes," including last season’s commentary pairing of former president Clinton with his onetime nemesis, former Sen. Robert Dole. The program aired all 10 of the promised segments taped by the duo, but the matchup failed to catch on with viewers and did not return this season.

"It didn’t work because Bill Clinton was so busy writing his book that he didn’t give us the time," Hewitt said. "You can’t be a success on ’60 Minutes’ unless ’60 Minutes’ is the No. 1 thing on your mind."

As for the recent controversy about the newsmagazine’s interview last month with embattled pop star Michael Jackson, Hewitt was adamant that CBS did not pay the singer for the interview, which was his first since his arrest on child molestation charges in November. Published reports have claimed that CBS agreed to pay Jackson extra money in connection with a tribute special that the network’s entertainment division had licensed but yanked from its schedule following Jackson’s arrest.

"I don’t see anything that happened in connection with the Michael Jackson interview that we should be the least bit ashamed of," Hewitt said. "To me, the only crime in television journalism ... is when deals are made with interview subjects. We’ve never done that, and we didn’t do it with Michael Jackson."