Minutes' chief gets heat for dismissal


April 01, 1991|By Diedre Fanning | Diedre Fanning,New York Times Service

"I'm not a chauvinist. I'm not a racist either. I'm not an 'ist' of any kind."

That's the kind of talk you're likely to hear these days from the CBS television executive Don Hewitt, the iron-fisted creator and executive producer of "60 Minutes."

Mr. Hewitt has kept his 22-year-old television show at the top of the ratings year after year by exposing the curiosities and dubious deeds of politicians, socialites and other public figures. But now, it's his turn to be scrutinized.

In recent weeks, he has found himself feverishly defending his personal values and beliefs -- often to total strangers -- as he has been trotted out as a national symbol of corporate inflexibility and insensitivity.

His infamous new status stems from his recent decision to reassign one of his correspondents, Meredith Vieira, because she wanted to work part-time during her second pregnancy and spend more time with her child.

Executives take heat for making unpopular decisions all the time. Doing so is the ulcer-inducing occupational hazard that comes with their jobs. Yet the consequences of a decision can be unexpectedly explosive when an executive tries to apply conventional business thinking to emotionally charged issues.

Ms. Vieira's request was not particularly unusual. As more and more people seek to mesh work schedules with a family life, executives everywhere are confronting similar questions.

Yet Mr. Hewitt's response has subjected him to a remarkable barrage of criticism from his colleagues, his viewers and the media, making headlines and tabloid covers nationwide.

The decision stands out in part because it was made in the very public forum of television. The high visibility of the situation was seized upon by the public to drive home the view that business leaders have a responsibility, if not an obligation, to set an example and dictate the national agenda -- in this case, protecting mothers' rights to a career.

"It's a pity that it happened at CBS," said Alison Wetherfield of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, a women's rights group in New York. "When a major corporation with the visibility of CBS passes up a chance to say women are important, that's a shame."

Mr. Hewitt refused to see his decision in that light, although he says he is now disturbed about his new public image. "I do not lose sleep over my decision," he said firmly. "But I do lose sleep over the fact that I'm being tagged a sexist ogre for it. I believe that there is a certain dedication to a job and that you make certain choices in life."

But Mr. Hewitt originally accommodated her when he allowed Ms. Vieira to work part-time during her first two years at "60 Minutes." She was able to maintain a lighter workload because Harry Reasoner, whom she had been hired to replace, was still on the show.

But Mr. Hewitt said she had an agreement to work full-time at the end of those two years -- this spring -- which coincided with Mr. Reasoner's retirement from the show. After consulting with Eric Ober, president of CBS News, and informally with other "60 Minutes" correspondents, Mr. Hewitt decided that he would hold her to the agreement.

But telling a working woman as highly prominent as Ms. Vieira to choose between her job and her baby painted Mr. Hewitt, 68, as a figure for working parents to despise.

What Mr. Hewitt failed to see was that his very visible position in a very visible corporation automatically elevated his decision regarding Ms. Vieira into a matter of national policy.

And his resolutely by-the-book ruling subsequently backfired on him by making his personal style the issue rather than flexible time for working mothers.

L Even people who know him have second-guessed him in private.

"I think it's in the best interest to bend a little if you have a talented person," said one CBS executive. "Meredith is a talented person. The bottom line is, it could have been arranged."


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