I just returned from over a week in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The weather was great. The scenery was beautiful. The company was amazing. The only negative was trying to watch TV. The current coverage of Obama’s healthcare reforms is enough to drive even the most hardened news junkie away from the television. American networks are dropping the ball big time. They are not delivering the facts. They are allowing falsehood after falsehood to make it to air with little or no comment. If I worked for news at CBS, NBC, ABC, or CNN I would be hanging my head in shame and telling the people I met that I was an accountant.
But that’s not what I want to talk about: the poor coverage of healthcare reform is just a jumping off point to talk about Don Hewitt. Hewitt was one of the creators of television news and current affairs. We all know him for 60 Minutes but he goes back a long way before that. He produced Walter Cronkite on CBS Evening News and Edward R. Murrow before that. He wrote the very vocabulary that television journalism uses and he did it from scratch. There was no TV news before Hewitt.
Lucky for all of us who have followed in his footsteps in broadcast journalism, he set the standards.
I wonder what he would say if he watched tonight’s evening newscasts in the U.S.? I think I know. He would wonder what happened to the story telling. Why are the reporters dealing with issues and not telling stories about people. What about the story of a working class family that can’t afford health insurance? Where’s the story about the middle class dad who’s afraid of losing his company-paid-for insurance? How about the couple on Medicare or Medicaid, government programs, telling us how well or how poorly these programs work for them? Those are just a few of the possibilities.
You see, the true genius of Don Hewitt was his understanding of three small things that every broadcast journalist should know without thinking. They should be automatic – like breathing. They were the backbone of all Don Hewitt accomplished and stood for and they are deceptively simple.
The first is to “tell me a story.” It was his mantra. When you wanted to get something on the air he demanded this simple act from you, the ability to tell an interesting story. What is more basic in broadcasting? Nothing. If you are not a story teller you should not be a journalist. In fact, if you are not a story teller you should not work in TV, radio or film. The ability to weave a tale that will grab the viewer’s attention and hold it is the singular most important craft that we have to perfect to do our jobs. When the powers that be are weeding out applicants for jobs that’s all they should look for. We can teach the rest. Cameras, edit suites, microphones…these are just the tools we use. We can learn how to use them in one year of community college. Story telling…that’s innate, something you are born with.
Don Hewitt’s second rule is even more abused by modern broadcast journalists than his first. He demanded that every story be entertaining. He realized immediately upon joining CBS TV in the late 1940’s that television is an entertainment medium. People don’t turn on their TV to watch the news, they turn it on to see House, CSI and Family Guy. Go ahead, ask your neighbors what their favorite TV show is. None will say it is the news, I guarantee it. Even though this is more important today in the 200 channel universe it appears to be less understood.
When I worked at CBC News they were upset with me for telling my staff to make their stories entertaining. I had to come up with a new description the bosses would accept. I called for “engaging” stories. Today’s newscasts are anything but entertaining. The CBC is the worst offender and the changes they are talking about threaten to squeeze the last bits of entertainment from their newscasts. They don’t seem to understand that their competition is not CTV News and CBS News, it is CSI Miami and Law and Order. Even the 6:30 U.S. newscasts are going up against reruns of NCIS and 2 ½ Men. To Don Hewitt this was obvious.
Finally, Hewitt understood that people do not relate to issues, they relate to people. He demanded that his reporters and producers put a human face on every story. It seems simple and obvious to me as it did to Don Hewitt but I still see story after story on the news that deals with the issues of the healthcare debate without telling me how they affect a single human being. Why should I care about the deficit? Why do we have to help the banks stay afloat? There are real people, Americans, who are affected by what government does. Who is telling their stories?
Don Hewitt’s three simple rules should be the first thing we teach journalism students. They should be automatically understood by everyone who works in TV and radio news. Sadly they are not. In fact we are losing our acceptance of these basic rules. Just watch the news and you will see.
Like all great artists Don Hewitt’s genius was his understanding of the simple truths, the basics, and he never strayed from that. Even though I never met the man I am sad that he is gone. We need his wisdom more than ever. I’m afraid we will miss him more than we will ever know.