“My relationship with Don Hewitt was never close,” writes former 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (who was played by Al Pacino in The Insider). “It was marked not just by arguments, but a kind of dance where he would regularly ‘fire’ me during my first decade at the program.
“But it finally disintegrated during a critical period in 1995 when CBS management and lawyers changed the rules, citing a little-used legal concept (‘tortious interference’) to justify killing an investigation of the tobacco industry that I was working on. Hewitt’s acquiescence, and then public justification of management’s decision, was the last straw. That episode convinced me he was willing to abandon the basic trust that a real news organization has to maintain with its most important sources: people who are willing to risk retaliation for telling the truth.
“I never expected that Hewitt would protest publicly. I was dismayed that someone who had so little to lose was unwilling to at least talk back, even in private meetings, to the powers that be.
“I have to acknowledge that working for Don Hewitt taught me how to survive the consequences of my decision to talk openly and honestly about what really happens when powerful interests are threatened by the truth. Seeing him in action over the years prepared me for the consequences of my own decision to try to expose, and hopefully undo, CBS’s decision.
“After loudly protesting my critique of what he did, as portrayed in the 1999 movie, The Insider, Hewitt went on to try to blackball me in the industry. He finally relented — citing advice from his friend, Benjamin Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, who told him, ‘go back to the dugout, sit down and shut up.’”
I wrote the following on 8.19, hours after news of Hewitt’s death broke: “Hewitt’s reputation isn’t 100% sterling due to the depiction of his actions during the Jeffrey Wigand/Brown & Williamson/tortious interference debacle in Michael Mann‘s The Insider. Fairly or unfairly, he was portrayed by by Phillip Baker Hall as a corporate-deferring go-alonger who allowed the reputation of 60 Minutes to be tarnished in what is now regarded as a classic case of corporate interests undermining journalistic integrity.
“Many heartfelt tributes will be heard over the next few days, but The Insider will live on for decades if not centuries. Tough deal, but there’s no erasing it.