When longtime CBS News producer Don Hewitt passed away last week, media accounts teemed with tributes to the “legendary” newsman, fondly recalling a visionary who “changed television news.”
Hewitt may have been a historic figure, but his media career is not without blemish. Among the less admirable legacies of the CBS veteran concern the services he rendered to Cuba’s communist regime through decades of uncritical coverage. Since Hewitt’s obituaries universally glossed over his shameful role in airing propaganda for the repressive regime, a corrective would seem to be in order.
In 1957, Herbert Matthews of the New York Times made Fidel Castro an international pop star on the front page of the world's most prominent newspaper, praising Castro’s “strong ideas of liberty, democracy, social justice” and suggesting that his rise “amounts to a new deal for Cuba, democratic and therefore anti-Communist.” It was not long before CBS News joined in on the promotional act.
Two months after Matthews’ visit to Cuba, CBS dispatched their ace anchorman, Robert Taber, and a camera crew to Castro's camp in Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountains. Media folklore, including a recent book by former Times correspondent Anthony DePalma, describes a courageous and utterly terrifying journey to Castro's secret camp in Cuba's wilderness that narrowly evaded dictator Fulgencio Batista's troops.
In fact, the trips by the U.S. media throng to Castro's “secret” camp were actually arranged by the U.S. ambassador to Cuba with Batista's own help. During Congressional hearings, Arthur Gardner, a U.S. ambassador too Cuba in the fifties, testified to this under oath. At one point in 1958, in order to accommodate the media multitudes, Castro's camp actually had a big, bright sign reading: PRESS HUT. By that time reporters from all across the media had made the terrifying trek to obtain an interview with the Cuban version of George Washington, Robin Hood, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Davy Crockett, all rolled into one.
After his death-defying odyssey to Castro's camp, Taber (later a founding member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee) emerged from Cuba's hills with a long reel and tape of Castro lies that his editor and producer – none other than the late Don Hewitt – fashioned into a 30 minute Castro snow-job titled, “Rebels of the Sierra Maestra: The Story of Cuba's Jungle Fighters,” that ran on May 19, 1957. Fully half of the “report” consisted of Fidel Castro facing the camera and carrying on in monologue on the microphone and outlining his plans for Cuba. Nary a rebuttal was to be heard on this blockbuster CBS “investigative report.”
Two years later, while Castro's firing-squads murdered hundreds of Cubans per week, Don Hewitt was again on duty. This time he was producer of Edward Murrow's CBS show “See it Now,” which on February 6, 1959 featured an interview with Castro. By this time, Castro had abolished habeas corpus, filled Cuba's jails with ten times the number of political prisoners as under Batista, and was killing hundreds without due process. Surely he would be pressed on these human-rights issues by the celebrated scourge of Sen. Joe McCarthy.
It was not to be. “That's a very cute puppy, Fidelito,” Murrow cooed to Castro's son, who skipped merrily on camera at their “home” in the Havana Hilton and plopped on the lap of his loving and pajama-clad Papa. “When will you visit us again?” an (uncharacteristically) smiling Murrow asked a (very uncharacteristically) smiling Fidel. “And will that be with the beard or without the beard?” CBS did not raise a single issue of substance.
Every night during the week that Murrow interviewed him, Castro and company repaired to their respective stolen mansions and met with Soviet GRU agents to advance the Stalinization of Cuba. That February of 1959, Murrow was fresh from a harangue to the Radio and Television News Directors Association of America, where he blasted television for "being used to delude us."
By April 16, 2000 most people with eyes, ears and functioning brains had noticed that, for going on 40 years, practically everything CBS had broadcast regarding Castro was indeed delusional. (During an interview with Castro in 1978, for instance, Dan Rather referred to his host as “Cuba's own Elvis!”) But it was on that April date that Don Hewitt's brainchild, “60 Minutes,” truly went the extra mile for Castro, by featuring a Rather interview with Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elian's father. For a full disclosure of one of the most embarrassing (even by CBS standards) TV broadcasts in U.S. history click here.
During that 40-year interim, over 20,000 Cubans were murdered by firing squad and beaten or starved to death in forced labor camps. Another 70,000-80,000 were ripped apart by sharks or drowned in the Florida straits, attempting to flee a nation that previously took in more immigrants per-capita than the U.S. CBS might have told the truth about that gruesome history. On too many occasions, it did not.
It is no doubt true to say that through his direction of network news coverage, Don Hewitt helped shape some of the most important events of the previous century. In Cuba’s case, regrettably, it was for the worse.