“60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt was a tremendous journalist and a great pal. His death yesterday came as no surprise considering how unwell he appeared at Walter Cronkite’s recent funeral.

But little by little we are whittling down to nothing the great era of television journalism. Don was in the forefront of it. He kept “60 Minutes” above the fray, refusing, for example, to do pieces on O.J. Simpson during his murder scandal unless there was something monumental. “60 Minutes” was so well shaped and executed, also, that Hewitt never allowed “identifiers” ‘ you had to follow the story to know who the people were. The stories were so good you could listen to them on the radio and not miss a thing.

When Ed Bradley did a piece on Michael Jackson in 2003, right after his arrest, CBS was accused of paying $1 million for the rights. Hewitt denied it, and was furious when the New York Times made such a suggestion. I wrote a column about it on Jan. 14, 2004, called “‘60 Minutes’ Producer Hewitt: Times Won’t Print His Letter.”

Here it is, again:

Don Hewitt, the respected executive producer of CBS’ “60 Minutes,” is hopping mad at the New York Times. They won’t print his letter to the editor regarding the Times’ assertion that CBS paid Michael Jackson $1 million for his interview.

I ran into Hewitt and his wife, Times writer Marilyn Berger, at the lavish party TNT threw at the legendary Four Seasons restaurant for their remake of “The Goodbye Girl.” Hewitt told me a letter he sent to Times editor Bill Keller was rejected for publication, despite the Times having run a story by Sharon Waxman claiming that Hewitt’s show participated in checkbook journalism to get an interview with Jackson.

I told you in this column that Waxman was wrong, and CBS has since denied paying Jackson $1 million so he would sit down with Ed Bradley.

Hewitt, of course, is outraged. “I guess they don’t print a letter to the editor if you write it to the editor,” he told me.

In his letter to Keller, Hewitt wrote: “How could a newspaper that prides itself on publishing ‘news that’s fit to print’ allow an anonymous and admittedly disgruntled source with an axe to grind put damaging and utterly false words in the mouth of a journalist as respected as Ed Bradley? Is it not a violation of journalistic ethics to publish an unsubstantiated story about anyone (let alone a fellow journalist of the stature of Ed Bradley) without getting corroboration that he actually said what you quoted him as saying?”

Hewitt asks Keller “to stop insisting that what you published on Dec. 31, 2003 about Ed Bradley and Michael Jackson was fair and balanced ‘ which it most certainly was not.”

Hewitt told me last night that he is still convinced that no payment was made by CBS to Jackson, and that he questioned Les Moonves about it. “Les said no, and I believe him,” Hewitt said.

Catherine Mathis, the Times’ press rep, had no response from Bill Keller.

As for Hewitt, he wants everyone to know that he has “a contract that runs forever” and has no intention of retiring. In fact, he’s moving into what he says is the biggest office in the CBS building, previously occupied by Bryant Gumbel. And this Sunday, to avoid being trampled by football in the ratings (games on Fox, ‘natch), Hewitt will run a spiffed-up rerun of its 35th anniversary show.

“We’re hot right now in the ratings,” he said, “and I don’t want any setbacks. But you can’t win against football.”

Or, evidently, the New York Times.

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