WHERE ARE THE NO'S OF YESTERYEAR? Why an editor’s pushback remains critical in the Internet Age

by Steve Dunlop

In 1992, when I was the newly-installed president of the New York Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, I had the privilege of introducing Don Hewitt as the speaker at our Awards Dinner.  

It was my first encounter with Hewitt.  I felt awkward and on display sitting alongside this broadcasting legend on the dais, in front of a large and important audience.  I tried to engage him with some chit-chat.  Big mistake.

“Don was utterly incapable of small talk,” CBS correspondent Morley Safer would say years later at a memorial service for Hewitt, the pioneering television producer and creator of 60 Minutes, who died in 2009. 

And his reputation as an editor was ruthless.  In Safer’s words:  “Don liked to boast that he could cut the Lord’s Prayer in half and make it better.”

Failing miserably at said small talk, I innocently asked Hewitt if he would have a look at my introduction to him.

 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt (l) with Steve Dunlop at the Deadline Club Awards in New York, 1992. 

60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt (l) with Steve Dunlop at the Deadline Club Awards in New York, 1992. 

No sooner had I produced three pages of remarks from my inside jacket pocket than Hewitt conveyed exactly what he thought - with a dismissive wave of his hand.

“Too long,” he told me, loudly enough for everyone on the dais to hear.   “You gotta cut it down.  Way down.” 

Too long?  He hadn’t even read it. 

Much has changed since Don Hewitt gave me a wakeup call about brevity.   Television was supposed to spell the end of the written word.  Instead, we find ourselves in an age where more people can reach more people with more sentences than at any time in history. 

But in this brave, twittering world, where talk is cheap and words are cheaper, it seems no one thinks he needs an editor. 

Editing is so 20th century - so obsolete, you may say.  I can always change something online after I’ve posted it, you rationalize.  (Really?  Ask Anthony Weiner about that one.) 

Editors cost money.  Who has the budget to be second-guessed?  They cost time, too.  Who wants to short-circuit the constant ebb and flow of words and ideas online?  If I don’t jump on this thought before someone else does, the theory goes, it will cost me dearly in hits.

But if more people have access to your thoughts and words than ever before, wouldn’t you want more than ever to get them right? 

When I was the morning news editor at New York’s WOR Radio, another experienced newsman, Reg Laite (now Dunlop Media’s senior trainer), made the case for the existence of editors.  While reporters may strive to be objective within their own stories, Laite told me, reporters cannot be objective about their own stories.  A story is like a baby.  Its parents develop an immutable sense of pride. And that is to be expected, precisely because they are invested in having created it. 

They are unable to stand back and see the story’s holes, its flaws, its inconsistencies.  But that is precisely what a good editor does.   An editor’s job is to be critical, to ensure balance, to cut.   And when in doubt about accuracy, to send it back. 

When it comes to self-editing, Abraham Lincoln’s oft-quoted observation about lawyers comes to mind.  “He who represents himself,” Lincoln is reputed to have said, “has a fool for a client.”

So I did cut my introductory remarks for Don Hewitt down.  Way down, as he suggested – on the back of a paper napkin.   I read my scribbled version to the big man, and asked for his feedback. 

“On See It Now,” I wrote, “he helped determine what television news could become.  On 60 Minutes, he continues to define what it is.  Ladies and gentlemen, Don Hewitt.” 

“That’s good,” Hewitt said, rewarding me with a half smile.  “Go with it.” 

Coming from him, that was high praise.