Editorial: Hewitt’s exit a turning point for TV news

Feb 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Don Hewitt’s announcement last week that he will step down in 2004 as executive producer of “60 Minutes” was hardly a surprise. The future of the 80-year-old television news pioneer had been the focus of speculation for months.
But Hewitt’s departure from the flagship TV newsmagazine is a watershed moment in the evolution-some would say de-evolution-of television news. Especially in light of the death in December of veteran ABC News executive Roone Arledge, it is clear that a generation is handing over the TV news business to its successors.
This isn’t the first time such a passage has taken place. Arledge and Hewitt belonged to the second generation of television news, having taken the baton decades ago from Edward R. Murrow, Douglas Edwards, Pat Weaver and their contemporaries-the generation that created television journalism with only newspapers and radio as its models. The efforts of that first generation, marked by those pioneers’ belief in the role of television as public servant and by their insistence on the highest standards of journalism, helped make television a respectable member of society in the 1950s and ’60s.
The Hewitt-Arledge generation added showbiz to the equation, bringing in viewers in greater numbers than ever before and making news departments a source of profit for their networks. Turning TV news into a money maker was an impressive feat. But managing that feat without sacrificing journalistic integrity was nothing short of a miracle.
Hewitt’s approach at “60 Minutes” was straightforward: Tell both sides of a story, give a voice to those who otherwise wouldn’t have one, shine light where it was needed-on government, on big business or anywhere else.
Today the legacy of Murrow and Hewitt is under unprecedented pressure. These days news departments are expected to turn a profit. Consolidation, economic difficulties and increased competition from cable have dramatically altered the face of network news. The ratings success and publicity generated by Fox News Channel and others that promote a point of view rather than objective reporting put the goal of fair and unbiased journalism at substantial risk.
In an era when fewer people read newspapers, local TV news is often devoid of serious discourse, radio is full of uninformed chatter, rumors pass for information on the Internet and the media is often more driven by the need to make money than by the public trust, industry leaders like Hewitt stand out more than ever.
America is strong because it provides room for all points of view. The public discourse is only effective when informed by leading news organizations that do their best to provide all sides of a story. The ethical tradition of Murrow, Arledge and Hewitt is deemed old-fashioned by some. However, we believe the real danger is that fair and unbiased journalism will go out of fashion.