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Jeff Gralnick

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Appreciating The Don

Posted: 08/19/09 08:57 PM ET

Everything being said today and written today to mark the passing of Don Hewitt is 100% true. Inventor of much of television news as we know it today, no doubt. Father of the many of the forms of broadcast news as we know it today, no doubt.

But almost all of what is being said and written today is in the kinds of generalities minus specifics that Don as a preeminent producer would have hated. Where are the facts he would have asked? Where are the guts of it he would have demanded. To get at that on this somber day I offer up something I knocked out five years ago for a print publication no longer printing as Don was stepping away from 60 Minutes. If I wrote it from scratch on this day, I wouldn't change a word.

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Here's a little secret. Before 60 Minutes, there was Don Hewitt. Between those grainy old black and white pictures of that young producer with Edward R. Murrow and the sharply colored ones of the Master of the Magazine with his "Minutes Family," Don Hewitt was hard at work.

And what was he doing? Not much beyond inventing television news as we have come to know it. He was Roone Arledge before there was Roone Arledge.

Back in the days when television was in black and white, Hewitt was creating and producing the world's first taste of "news at the dinner hour." It was "Douglas Edwards with The News" then and it was the way that that part of America that owned television sets in the late 1950s and early 1960s was beginning to get its news. Rough around the edges and only as current as the wire services could allow it to be, it was however the birthplace of what we now know as the home of Tom (soon to be Brian), Dan and Peter. "Switching" to Chicago for a weather report from PJ Hoff was magic. Getting the stock prices up on a day when trading hit an incredible 5,000,000 shares was as well.

What Hewitt knew then was that people needed to know and to help them you had to experiment within the confines of the rudimentary technology we had back in the day. When that technology wouldn't do the job, you had to invent something new.

Case in point: Charles Kuralt in Viet Nam. One day the shipment of film brought a brilliantly written Kuralt narrative on American troops struggling and fighting in the jungle. That was on one piece of film and by itself it was powerful stuff. But Kuralt's cameraman had also shot vivid pictures of the action Kuralt was describing. The only problem was, there was up to that point no way to broadcast both at the same time. It was Kuralt or the pictures but not both.

Unacceptable was Hewitt's view of it. I probably could put that in quotes with an exclamation point but at this remove I can't remember hearing him say it but know he did. So what did he do? Invented what became known as "the two chain piece." Kuralt's on camera narration on one and all those dramatic pictures on the other with the director going back and forth between the two.

Simple, right? Not then but what it was was the birth of "the living room war," and afterward reporting on television changed for ever. Words and pictures had been married and the power was stunning.

After Douglas Edwards and what was arguably a true "15 Minutes of Fame," came the half-hour evening news and Walter Cronkite and both bore the stamp of Hewitt's creative genius.

But wait, there is more.

Big event television news? Hewitt birthed it. The anchor on location for the big story? Hewitt birthed that too. Alan Shepard became America's first man in space and there was Walter Cronkite not in a distant studio but at Cape Canaveral broadcasting from the back of an air conditioned station wagon — the first anchor booth — because Hewitt believed that was the only way to do it. And it stayed that way.

And then there was the "big get." Hewitt pioneered that too. Or at least the concept.

Nikita Khrushchev was in the United States. Detente was trying to happen and the jolly Soviet leader was seeing America, including a stop on an Iowa farm. What Hewitt wanted was the first interview and to that end, he dressed himself as a farmer and tried to blend to the point where he could get close enough to put the arm on Nikita.

He got caught and the interview never happened, but the attempt made the point. Do whatever to get the "get." And that hasn't stopped since.

He had by the end of the '60s done it all and what he needed was a new playground — and a new form. That is when Don Hewitt as most of you know him became Don Hewitt. He took acerbic Mike Wallace, folksy and human Harry Reasoner, an olio of producers (this writer included), a simple set and a stopwatch and he created "60 Minutes." And once again television was on the road to never being the same again.

So, legacies for The Don? Far more than just "60 Minutes" but perhaps the most memorable will be the sound of that stopwatch that identifies television in a way that no other sound beyond perhaps the NBC "chimes" does.

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After that piece was published in 2004, Don called me.

"Jeez, "he said" that was a really nice but I don't deserve all of that."

Yes, I told him, you do and you still do.

RIP.

Jeff Gralnick has been in broadcasting for 50 years, working for CBS News, ABC News, NBC News. During that time he says he was lucky enough to work and learn from the best in the busy among whom he numbers Don Hewitt.