One of the strangest conversations I have ever had on the telephone was with Don Hewitt, the great CBS News producer who just died of pancreatic cancer, and whose most important, lasting journalistic achievement was the creation of 60 Minutes.
Hewitt called me one day after my book Arrogance came out (in 2003) and to put it mildly he was furious. I had written about how the 60 Minutes curmudgeon Andy Rooney had gone on the Larry King Show and dropped a bombshell. Rooney said that Dan Rather “is transparently liberal. Now he may not like to hear me say that, I always agree with him, too. But I think he should be more careful.”
Then I wrote, “Had I heard right? Did Andy Rooney … just go where no newsman had gone before? Did he really say that Dan Rather was ‘transparently liberal?’” And I concluded with this: “Andy Rooney had just acknowledged that conservatives had been right all these years, after all.”
But as anyone who’s over the age of three can attest, telling the truth can get you in a lot of trouble — so Andy felt the need to become a weasel and slink away from his courageous statement. And that’s where Don Hewitt comes in. The phone conversation I had with him took place many years ago and since I wasn’t taking notes, I’ll re-create it as best I can.
“On page 24 of your book,” he said, you wrote the following…” Then he read a paragraph from my book that quoted a newspaper column Rooney had written a full year before Arrogance came out. This is the paragraph in which Rooney backs away from his observation about liberal bias: “As a guest on the Larry King show a few weeks ago, I said some things, in answer to his questions, that I would have been better off lying about or avoiding. It was not that the people who objected to what I said necessarily thought I was wrong. They thought I shouldn’t have said it. In my own defense, I told a boss of mine that I thought if all the truth were known by everyone it would be a better world. He scoffed. I think ‘scoff’ is what he did. I know he rejected the idea.”
The next sentence in the book summed up Andy’s cowardly retraction following the conversation he had with his boss. “Let’s see if I understood this, I wrote. “Andy Rooney thinks that when it comes to liberal bias in the news, dishonesty is the best policy?”
Hewitt was ballistic. I could feel the smoke coming out of his ears. “I never told Rooney to lie,” he spit out. There was more than a hint in that conversation that I had slandered his good name.
“I didn’t say you told Andy Rooney to lie, Don. It was your guy, Andy Rooney, who wrote the newspaper column – not me! It was your guy who wrote “a boss of mine” “rejected the idea” of telling the truth.”
I no longer worked at CBS News and I wasn’t about to take this guff from anyone over there, not even Don Hewitt.
I told Don that I wrote –in the very next paragraph — that Rooney’s “boss” in question was either Don Hewitt or Andrew Heyward, then the president of CBS News.
“But it wasn’t me,” Hewitt shouted, and you had no business saying it was.”
“But Don,” a page later I reveal to the reader that the villain wasn’t you – it was Heyward [the president of CBS News] who told Rooney that telling the truth wasn’t always a good idea, not even for a newsman.”
I am convinced that Don hadn’t read that part. He got to page 24, read the section that infuriated him and stopped reading. He went on and on about how he had been thinking about doing a 60 Minutes piece about me and my book and liberal bias in the news, but now he’d never have me on his show. As I recall, we exchanged F-Bombs and hung up.
I tell you this story not to belittle Don Hewitt. Despite the temper and ego, he was a rare visionary. He not only created the best news magazine program on television but he made sure the program never stooped to the tawdry, tabloid ways of other magazine shows like Dateline on NBC and 48 Hours which had become a “murder mystery” show on his own CBS. No, I tell the story because Don is a perfect example of how hyper-sensitive so many journalists can be – a very odd trait for people in the business of looking down everybody else’s throat.
I later wrote Don a note reminding him that he puts people in the crosshairs every week on his show. He’s the one who perfected the technique of having the camera go in tight on some poor bastard so you can see the sweat dripping off his face as Mike Wallace grills him. Now, I wrote a few harmless words about Don and he was sputtering like a loon at me. He called me after he got my note, didn’t back down an inch, but this time we said our good byes in a more pleasant way.
But the fact is that nothing I said on the phone or in my note would appease Don. Absolutely nothing! That I didn’t write so much as a word that was untrue, meant nothing. That it was Andy Rooney – not me — who hinted it was Hewitt who encouraged him to lie about liberal bias, meant nothing. That I was the one who cleared Don’s good name, meant nothing either. All that mattered to Don – was Don.
I haven’t thought about that crazy phone conversation in many years. But it came back to me when the sad news of Don’s death became known. And I started thinking that as screwy as that chat was, it tells us something important about journalists and journalism. It tells us that Don’s old friend and colleague Ed Murrow got it right many years ago when he is alleged to have said, “Journalists don’t have thin skins, they have no skins.”