Fenger Pointing

Becky Fenger | August 26, 2009

A rotten apple story

Becky FengerDon Hewitt, creator and executive producer of the long-running television show “60 Minutes,” died last Wednesday at age 86. This past Sunday, he was given 60 minutes of accolades for his half century of work at CBS News. Rightly so. I seldom missed an airing of the Sunday night show myself.

Hewitt is credited with forever changing the course of broadcast news by co-mingling journalism and show business, his two loves. “I consider myself a guy who married ‘show biz’ and ‘news biz,” he said. Good coupling for him; sometimes not such a good union for the truth.

“Don Hewitt would do just about anything to get the story and shaft the competition,” Morley Safer offered. Unfortunately, that tenacity came back to bite participants on his program who can testify to science losing out to sensationalism when ratings were a driving force behind “gotcha” storylines.

I remember well when my friend, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) shared her personal interactions with Don Hewitt during the big Alar-on-apples scare back in 1989. Remember the panic when “60 Minutes” claimed that Alar-treated apples caused cancer in kids? “It was an outrageous piece of TV journalism,” said Dr. Whelan, “and ACSH immediately complained.” Hewitt was asked to straighten out some of the false claims of the alarmist script and issue an apology for the segment. For the next ten years, Dr. Whelan hounded Hewitt for an apology for unnecessarily scaring the apple-eating public and collapsing much of the apple growing industry in the northwest United States.

“During that time, famous authorities including Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop, the World Health Organization, and more came out saying there was no scientific basis for the Alar scare,” Dr. Whelan related. Finally, finally, Don Hewitt admitted to her the segment was a mistake.

To get an official apology, however, Hewitt told Whelan she would have to get the show’s producer for that segment, Ed Bradley, to also agree it was a mistake to have aired it. Bradley repeatedly ignored her pleas. (Maybe he was out shopping for a new earring.)
Here’s where the saga gets rich. On exactly the tenth anniversary of the scandalous Alar story, Dr. Whelan found herself seated two rows in front of Bradley on a flight from D.C. to New York. Taking advantage of the situation, she passed him a note saying she was still waiting to hear from him. When the plane landed, Bradley set a new record for sprinting in getting off the plane!

Hewitt’s only fear “was being bored,” his co-workers acknowledged. A mark of good journalism is issuing corrections when the proof is overwhelming. Setting the record straight may be boring, but it’s the right thing to do, dammit.

Now, here’s been my quandary for the last twenty years, since the application of sound science in public policy formation has been my passion for decades. Actress Meryl Streep played a big role in the Alar hoax. She testified in front of Congress, warning of the death of our children if they should partake of eating apples. She portrayed dire consequences from apple munching, not unlike that which befell Eve in the Garden. Purists would have me boycott her movies. I happen to think Meryl Streep is our greatest living actress. If I were to shun her movies as punishment for her being used as a patsy for the demonization of the chemical Alar, I would never get to relish her magnificent portrayal of Julia Child in the movie, “Julie and Julia.” The flesh is weak and the appetite for experiencing perfection rages.