Bergman on Hewitt

“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.

11 thoughts on “Bergman on Hewitt

  1. ElstonGunnAICN on said:

    One should also acknowledge that a show like Frontline, where Bergman has since done some amazing work, would not exist if not for 60 Minutes, which would itself not exist if not for Hewitt, per ironiam.

  2. I guess Frontline probably does owe its existence, in part, to 60 Minutes. That show, along with NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, show that for consistent top notch news programming, public television wipes the floor with its for-profit counterparts.

    I have stopped watching cable news altogether since the election last year, and now get my national “tv” news entirely from NewsHour. Suggest you give it a try!

  3. I vehemently disagree with this idea that “Frontline” is somehow a decedent of “60 Minutes.” The two shows are radically different. Sure, there’s the hour of time (only when it’s not, as “Frontline” does 120min shows occasionally) and both are news, but after that they diverge tremendously. “Frontline” is always about a single topic.

    Seeing the “AICN” tag in the poster’s name, one can reasonably assume that this person is too young to remember or know about the various “white paper” type reports TV news (both national and local) would do on a host of subjects back in the 60′s & 70′s. Before he became a national joke, Geraldo Rivera rose to that level by exposing the treatment of patients at facility for mental handicapped youth on Staten Island. Those are the forebears of “Frontline.”

  4. Good point, Mr. _Groupie. Frontline/World, however, *is* a magazine show to which Bergman also contributes. Not taking sides — nor at all making excuses for Hewitt — just thought the irony was interesting.

    AICN = All Is Copacetic Now.

    (Also, I think The Insider is one of the best U.S. films of the last ten years and I hope Roth and Mann get back together to do Hatfields & McCoys soon — especially after the nice nighttime woods cinematography from Public Enemies.)

  5. After all the talk here about it, I finally watched THE INSIDER for the first time since seeing it opening weekend. My wife had somehow missed it so she joined me on the sofa. I remember liking it, but not thinking it was a great as MOHICANS, THIEF or HEAT.

    What I had forgotten was the thing that had bothered me the first time: why the hell does Bergman call Wigand in the first place? Apparently there’s a line about how a friend at the FDA will give him a name to help him understand the box of papers that someone else sent him from another company altogether. But after the whole totally unrelated opening in the Middle East, Mann is in such a rush that he glosses over it and loses his audience.

    Things like that, early in a movie, can distract an audience so that they are off in their own heads instead of paying attention to the film. At least it happened with the two of us and we both have college degrees on the wall.

  6. Opinions may vary, of course, but I don’t think it glosses that over. The whole purpose of the Middle East opening is to show the dynamic between Bergman and Mike Wallace; Wallace may be the personality and the “face,” but Bergman’s the one who gets the story (it’s done a little too over-the-top, maybe, I grant you). Then Bergman gets the box of files about how cigarettes are a fire hazard. It’s too detailed for him, so he asks for the name of a scientist who can translate it into English for him. He gets Wigand’s name and contacts him. Wigand’s wife, and then Wigand himself, says he can’t talk to Bergman. Everyone knows if you tell a reporter you can’t talk to them, the reporter will automatically assume you have something to hide. And the story goes off from there. I’m not sure I see the confusion.

  7. Nearly all of Mann’s films have a scene where we’re supposed to feel confused and disconnected until he brings the rest of the picture into focus (shit, read the scripts to his movies, most contain something like “we don’t know what we’re seeing, we don’t know why we’re here, we don’t know who these people are”)…

    …also, the scene with Wigand’s wife first talking to Bergman over the phone (“…he doesn’t care to know”) is, for me, one of the best-framed shots in the entire film, right behind the Wigand hotel suicide scare where it cuts over his shoulder, then the same shot even closer, all to Lisa Gerrard “Meltdown.”

  8. What Bergman doesn’t say here is that he was in contact w/ Mann throughout the whole ordeal, and secretely loved how Hewitt let it play out. I don’t doubt that Hewitt attempted blackballing him to some extent, but that was due to Bergman’s ongoing efforts to promote himself as the hero of this story, at Don’s expense, before events actually played out.

    One criticism of The Insider was Bergman’s “blow-by-blow tell-all” interview w/ the NYT didn’t appear to reveal much that was previously unknown. 60 Minutes was already scrutinized for airing the piece sans Wigand due to a potential B&W lawsuit, and Bergman and Wallace were already on record that the decision was corporate and not editorial. It was unclear what that interview, which was portrayed as the film’s climax, actually accomplished.

  9. Having just re-watched The Insider I have no problem with the Middle East opening; as said above, it establishes the lengths Bergman goes to get his stories as well as Wallace’s bona fides.

    I’d concede the reason Bergman calls Wigand is a bit skipped over if you’re not paying attention but it is there.

    The Unabomber thing, however, is a bit random. There’s no explanation of how/why Bergman is randomly in Montana. It’s only at the very end of the movie you really understand what was going on there. But aside from that, it’s a pretty flawless movie.

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