N.Y. Times Remembers the 'Kinder, Gentler, More Conservative Take' of 60 Minutes
In a Thursday New York Times appreciation of CBS producer Don Hewitt, television writer Mike Hale avoided the whole concept of liberal bias in the work of Hewitt or his creation, 60 Minutes. Instead, Hale suggested that in threading the needle between an "increasingly radicalized" audience and stuffy advertisers, CBS and Hewitt created a "kinder, gentler, more conservative take" for 60 Minutes than controversy-stoking British and Canadian shows that inspired it. (Hewitt represented "cautious CBS News values, the kind exemplified by that other recently deceased titan, Walter Cronkite.")
How hard was it for CBS to be "more conservative" than the Canadians? Consider this brief explanation of the "slyly subversive" film Mills of the Gods: Viet Nam, produced for the TV show that inspired CBS: "Working without a script, [filmmaker Beryl] Fox went to Vietnam with portable equipment and shot two kinds of cinema verite footage: placid images of the ordinary life of the Vietnamese peasantry and shocking images of the war’s carnage and destruction as wrought by sometimes disturbingly cheerful American pilots and soldiers." These were then edited together for propaganda impact.
Hale also found 60 Minutes to be more conservative than the leftist tilt of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour:
"60 Minutes" was born at a time of uncertainty for both the nation and the broadcasting industry, which was eager to attract the attention of an increasingly radicalized young audience without unduly upsetting advertisers. Its first season coincided with the debacle of CBS’s censorship and cancellation of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." The Tiffany network didn’t need any other problems.
Mr. Hewitt, who had already been in television news at CBS for 20 years, drew on his experience with evening news broadcasts and with interview programs hosted by Edward R. Murrow. But the distinctive "60 Minutes" format was more closely influenced by two foreign shows, the British "That Was the Week That Was" and the Canadian "This Hour Has Seven Days," that used satire and song along with reporting to respond to the shattering events of the time. The Canadian program produced controversial segments on the Vietnam War and the Republican Party and pioneered the ambush interview.
The American version that Mr. Hewitt created was a kinder, gentler, more conservative take on those models — he covered the difficult topics, but what he brought to the table were his cautious CBS News values, the kind exemplified by that other recently deceased titan, Walter Cronkite. While the Smothers Brothers — the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert of their day — opened the 1968 season with Harry Belafonte singing "Don’t Stop the Carnival" in front of images of the violence at the Democratic convention that year in Chicago, "60 Minutes" began with an interview with Ramsey Clark, then the attorney general, about police brutality and reports from the convention headquarters of the two candidates.
Hale couldn’t even manage to consider that interviewing leftist Clark on police brutality is a standard-issue liberal story. Weeks later, Time magazine reported on Clark said before Congress, that police violence was worse than protester violence: "Above all, such crowds can be controlled without excessive force and violence by police. Of all violence, police violence in excess of authority is the most dangerous. For who will protect the public when the police violate the law?"