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Don Hewitt, inventor '60 Minutes,' dies at 86

Don Hewitt
Don Hewitt
Jim Cooper, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Don Hewitt, a TV news pioneer who created "60 Minutes" and produced the popular CBS newsmagazine for 36 years, died Wednesday. He was 86.

He died of pancreatic cancer at his Bridgehampton home, CBS said. His death came a month after that of fellow CBS legend Walter Cronkite.

Hewitt joined CBS News in television's infancy in 1948 and produced the first televised presidential debate in 1960.

His lasting legacy took shape in the late 1960s, when CBS agreed to try his idea of a one-hour broadcast that mixed hard news and feature stories. The television newsmagazine was born on Sept. 24, 1968, when the "60 Minutes" stopwatch began ticking.

He dreamed of a television version of Life, the dominant magazine of the mid-20th century, where interviews with entertainers could co-exist with investigations that exposed corporate malfeasance.

"The formula is simple," he wrote in a memoir in 2001, "and it's reduced to four words every kid in the world knows: Tell me a story. It's that easy."

Hard-driven reporter Mike Wallace, Hewitt's first hire, became the journalist those in power did not want on their doorsteps. Harry Reasoner, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Steve Kroft, Diane Sawyer and Dan Rather were among others who also reported for the show.

"60 Minutes" won 73 Emmys, 13 DuPont/Columbia University Awards and nine Peabody Awards during Hewitt's stewardship, which ended in 2004.

It is television journalism's best show ever, said CBS Corp. chief executive Leslie Moonves. "To me, the creation of '60 Minutes' was truly genius," he said.

Among his other jobs, Hewitt directed the first network television newscast on May 3, 1948. He originated the use of cue cards for news readers, now done by electronic machines. He was the first to "superimpose" words on the TV screen for a news show.

"Most people think about Don as the creator of '60 Minutes.' In fact, he was one of the inventors of broadcast journalism," Kroft said. "There isn't a news show on television that doesn't have Don Hewitt's DNA in it."

Donald Shepard Hewitt was born in New York on Dec. 14, 1922, and grew up in the suburb of New Rochelle. He dropped out of New York University to become a copy boy at the New York Herald Tribune. He joined the Merchant Marines during World War II and worked as a correspondent posted to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's London headquarters.

After the war and a few brief journalism jobs, he took a job as an associate director at CBS News in 1948.