The CBS producer reflects on 60 Minutes and the importance of a good story.
When Diane Sawyer dropped by KPIX in San Francisco in the early 1980s, Jeff Fager was a producer at the CBS affiliate and Sawyer was a network anchor with a national reputation.
At the end of her visit, Fager drove her to the airport and asked, “How do i get to the network?” Sawyer gave him the scoop: CBS was about to start an overnight newscast, airing from 2 a.m. till 6 a.m., and was looking to staff up.
Fager applied for a producing job on that new show, Nightwatch, and got it. Some 35 years later, he’s still with CBS, where he is executive producer of its much-lauded newsmagazine, 60 Minutes. Over the years, he’s had a hand in producing or otherwise guiding The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, 60 Minutes II, 60 Minutes Sports, 48 Hours, Face the Nation and CBS This Morning. He’s also served as chairman of CBS News.
Born in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Fager has traveled widely to cover world events, such as conflicts in the Middle East and the collapse of the Soviet Union. As such, he’s been a part of investigative pieces that have influenced world affairs, including the 2004 report on 60 Minutes II about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison by U.S. personnel.
“It was, I think, the proudest moment of CBS News,” Fager says. A time he is less proud of: when 60 Minutes was deceived by a source in its reporting of the 2012 terrorist attack on Benghazi. “The most important thing now,” he said at the time, “is that we own it: We made a mistake. We are sorry.”
When asked in 2015 by the Hollywood Reporter about his “dream interview,” Fager replied: “The Pope. Or Vladimir Putin. Maybe together.” Later that year, Russian President Putin did appear on 60 Minutes — not with the Pope, but in the same program as future U.S. President Donald Trump. Fager traveled to Moscow for the interview, which was conducted by Charlie Rose.
Fager broke away from 60 Minutes for his own extended talk with Jenni Matz, director of The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of that June 2016 conversation. The entire conversation may be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews
Q: Tell us about your early years at the network….
A: [At Nightwatch, I did] broadcast producing, which is different from story producing. They didn’t have a lot of broadcast producers, people who could put together a two-hour block of television. They needed someone from local news to fill that job — someone who had been organizing a news program on a regular basis and who was willing to do it in the middle of the night.
I was fortunate to get noticed, and I got promoted to a producer of weekend news. And during the week I got the chance to occasionally work for The CBS Evening News, which had just turned over from Walter Cronkite to Dan Rather. It was during the [presidential] campaign, 1983–84.
I was assigned to cover [former Senator] George McGovern, and I ended up doing a story for the Evening News on the night he decided that he was quitting [the race for the Democratic nomination].
A: It made the Evening News. They’d asked it to run 01:45 and it was 01:45. I got it done in time, and the next thing I knew, they called me in for a job interview.
Q: What were you interested in covering?
A: I was most interested in going overseas. A job opened up with The CBS Evening News in 1984, as a producer based in London, and I applied for it. I couldn’t imagine anything better than that.
We were over in Europe at the time I heard about it, covering the 40th anniversary of D-Day, which was a powerful moment to experience and to cover. I realized that I would love to be overseas. That was my goal: covering stories, traveling the world. I got that job, and I think to this day that was the biggest growth experience of my life.
Q: What was your most challenging story during that time?
A: The Middle East. The Intifada started, and covering that was difficult. But the Soviet Union was probably the most interesting, because we were restricted there.
We started to go into the Soviet Union more and more [under President Mikhail] Gorbachev. Under glasnost, we had the chance to do a lot more reporting and travel the country. In 1987, at the 70th anniversary of the [Russian] Revolution, Tom Bettag, who was running the CBS Evening News, asked us to go in and report on what are they proudest of in the Soviet Union.
There were a lot of things they were proud of, and that was an eye-opener for me as a journalist, because [it’s easy] to wave the flag too much and look just for the negative. I don’t think you’re doing your job if that’s the way you’re doing your journalism — nobody’s gaining from that. I found it interesting that we did a story about a system that was failing in front of our eyes, where they were still very proud of things.
Q: What attracted you to 60 Minutes?
A: Everything. I didn’t even know how much I would be attracted to it till I arrived here. When I first got to CBS News and Nightwatch and then the Evening News in the early ’80s, I couldn’t believe how dedicated [the division] was to reporting. Nobody talked about ratings. We didn’t even know what it meant [to say,] “Which demographic is watching?” It’s all about story, all about covering what’s important and what’s interesting.
Q: How are the teams paired on 60 Minutes?
A: The correspondents each work with about three producers. One of the valuable aspects of that is that a producer and correspondent go out on the road to cover a story. You get to know each other well. Everything is a collaboration. And everybody has a different skill that they bring to it.
Morley [Safer] was a great writer. Steve Kroft is a great writer. The producers that work for them don’t necessarily need to be great writers. If they are, boy, what a combo you’ve got — two brains, really good writers.
Mike Wallace didn’t write much. He was a good writer, but his stories are more about the interview. And he teaches us so much about the interview. Watching his stories now — to this day — I always try to channel Mike because he’s just so damn good.
Q: Does it ever get competitive between correspondents for a story?
A: [Yes, 60 Minutes is] built to be competitive. The internal competition keeps everybody on their toes. Don Hewitt [the show’s late creator– executive producer] always used to worry about people being complacent, because our ratings were so good. He’d say, “Never rest on your laurels.” I always say, “You’re only as good as your next story.”
But it wasn’t competitive [for Morley] because nobody could write as well as he could and see things as well as he did. Morley learned that he had something so special that nobody could steal from him — his writing and storytelling — and it was part of what motivated him to do those classic Morley Safer features.
Q: You became executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. What changes were you able to effect there?
A: Significant changes. I felt like the Evening News was in such a formula that everything was narration, sound bite, narration, sound bite, stand-up, sound bite, close, next. And studio lead-in.
We changed the broadcast significantly in keeping with everything that I’d learned from 60 Minutes. If a story deserves six minutes on the Evening News, let it go six minutes.
Everybody thinks a 60 Minutes story is 14 minutes long. Some of them are nine and some are 20, but they all feel like 14. It’s like the beauty of the TED Talk — it’s 17 minutes long; it should be 17 minutes. It’s the genius of Don Hewitt. He figured it out 40 years before TED Talk that the attention span is about that long for one story.
Q: In 1999, something happened called 60 Minutes II….
A: It dovetails with the Evening News, because the people at 60 Minutes were proud of what we had done at the Evening News. The organization was proud. I think everybody felt like, “Wow, they really made it valuable again for viewers.”
At the same time, they were being pressured to agree to a second edition of 60 Minutes, which none of them wanted to do. They all thought it was for making money and it was going to water down the product and the brand, but there was a lot of pressure from the corporation.
I didn’t campaign for it, but I was the first person hired, so I got to hire the whole staff, which was great, with Patti Hassler, the number two I hired, who is also a 60 Minutes veteran. The message was basically, “We’re going to be what 60 Minutes is. We’re going to do it during the week [the show originally aired on Wednesdays]. We’re going to focus on what’s important and tell it in an interesting way.”
I believed that we could succeed. It was hard to find that quality of people that had been built up over the years at 60 Minutes, but we launched January ’99 and got rave reviews.
Q: A huge story you covered at 60 Minutes II is Abu Ghraib….
A: A source developed in a previous story came to Dana Roberson, our associate producer, to say, “I’ve got a story you’ve got to look into.”
Q: She had the photos [of tortured Iraqi prisoners]?
A: They didn’t. She just said that [the source] said there are pictures. I remember feeling so strongly about it. [Producer] Mary Mapes got involved, and I remember saying to them, “Go where you have to go to see those pictures.” They went, and they came back and said, “You’re not going to believe what we found.”
Q: Did you believe it when you saw the pictures?
A: I was shocked. We all were. We knew there was an important story to tell, [but the pictures could have been] manipulated in some way. Patti Hassler deserves a lot of credit because she helped run the vetting of the story. We vetted it for probably six weeks, making sure the pictures were authentic, double-sourcing the actual moment they were taken. It was CBS News at its finest.
We could have run [the story right away], but it would have been unfinished, because we’d asked the Defense Department for a spokesman. I had conversations with the Army and they said, “We’ll give you somebody, but not this week because we have prisoners in Fallujah. We’d appreciate it if we could do the interview next week.”
I talked to Dan Rather [the correspondent on the story] and Andrew Heyward, who was president of CBS News, and we felt strongly that we should acquiesce. We knew nobody else was on the story. So I called the Army [and said], “We’ll do the interview on Monday. We’ll air the story on Wednesday,” and they said okay. Then Dan got a call from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying, “Please hold the story for another week.”
Q: What happened next?
A: Dan called me and said, “Jeez, Jeff, I’ve never had a call like that, but they’re worried that people are going to get killed.…”
Q: There were hostages….
A: Yeah, there were hostages. So I said, “Okay, Dan. We’ll hold it for another week.” But we needed the interview. The next Monday I got into an argument with the Pentagon spokesman [saying], “We’re not going to wait any longer. Get us an interview. We’re going to put it on [the air] Wednesday whether we have the interview or not.” Three hours later I got a call, we did the interview and put the story on.
We found out later that [Seymour] Hersh of The New Yorker had gotten hold of some of the photos and was going to work on the story. We knew that Wednesday we were going to lose our exclusivity, and I know that he got those pictures from members of our team.
I didn’t find that out until a couple years ago, but the actual decisions that were made, I regret nothing. It was the proudest moment of CBS News, and Don Hewitt said, “That’s the best story that’s ever been done at 60 Minutes.”
Q: In 2004, you stepped into rather large shoes, succeeding Don Hewitt as executive producer of 60 Minutes.
A: It meant a lot, because Don was my mentor, [but] I felt ready for it. It was time for Don to move on, [but] he wasn’t convinced of that. That was the only difficult part. He used to say, “I want to die at my desk.” But he meant so much to me. I knew that I had to do whatever it took to help him through the process as best I could.
Q: At 60 Minutes, in 2013 you aired a segment on Benghazi that resulted in a lot of criticism.
A: The fundamental flaw there was something that happens from time to time — someone lied to us, and was lying to make his story sound more compelling. Were there reasons to suspect that he might be? There could have been. If there are some circumstances or some detail that we had paid better attention to, we might have become more suspicious of him. More skeptical of him. Because he became the backbone of the story.
Q: You’re talking about security officer Dylan Davies….
A: Yeah. He had written a book. It’s frustrating because, for the most part, a book isn’t vetted the same way 60 Minutes is. It’s someone’s account of what happened, and factually it was wrong; it seems to me it was done to build himself up. And we got hurt by it, pretty severely — as we should have, by the way.
But you’re going to make mistakes, and it’s going to make you more vigilant. We don’t make many. In the time I’ve been running 60 Minutes, that’s the one. There have been others, less consequential, but ever since I’ve been an E.P., that’s the one. It’s almost 20 years. And I think that we all learned from it. I learned that you have to know how to apologize and clear it up, as well.
Q: Correspondent Lara Logan issued an on-air retraction….
A: That’s one of the things Don said: “When you make a mistake, own up to it.” I don’t think that was done well with the Bush documents story [the 2004 report on 60 Minutes II about the Texas Air National Guard service of President George W. Bush was based on documents that were later discredited]. We got criticized for not owning up to it enough, and I’m sure we could have done that better, too.
Then you’re in the fog of it and you make another mistake, and it gets loud when you’re in a big controversy. But if you acknowledge the mistake and you investigate it as best you can, people are forgiving.
Q: One of the biggest stories you oversaw at 60 Minutes was the Putin interview….
A: Charlie Rose made that happen. He got to know Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, and was invited to a conference that Putin was attending. He got the chance to moderate a session with Putin, so he earned his trust. Charlie and I pushed for an interview by also telling them, “You can have the full hour of Charlie Rose , which is now on Bloomberg [Television] and goes all over the world.”
Everything came together, and we got Putin. It was great. I’ll never forget that day.
Q: You went with Charlie?
A: Yeah, I worked hard with him on that. We got [Syrian president Bashar al-] Assad the same way — together. Working with Charlie Rose is just a dream. The best of them always make it look easy, but it’s not. He’s the most well-prepared person I know.
The reason I wanted him to anchor CBS This Morning — aside from him being very good on television and a real person — is that he’s the best-prepared journalist I know. He reads everything, knows everything. You cannot stump him on a subject. We’ll go over the list [of interview questions], but at the end of the day, he’s on his own and not referring to his list.
He hit everything [with Putin]. And Putin was great. He spent two hours with us. That’s rare. He was ready for everything.
Q: Was there anything Putin didn’t want to answer?
A: He’s a very clever guy, so he ducked around several questions. But I’ll never forget that week because we also had [Donald] Trump on that week [in September 2015].
Q: Did you put those two together on the same night?
A: Yeah. Typically we don’t get involved in a primary campaign that early, but Trump had changed the game so much. We felt he needed a good 60 Minutes grilling that was fair yet tough, and I think he felt the same way. [Executive editor] Bill Owens and I thought, “Wouldn’t that be the most amazing night? We’ll have Putin in two parts and Trump in one,” and it worked out.
Trump still talks about the night he was on 60 Minutes with Putin. They were like 7,000 miles apart, but that’s Trump.
Q: What can we learn from interviews with presidents and presidential candidates?
A: At 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II, I’ve been involved with probably 15 interviews with the president, often in the White House and at Camp David. When you look at some of our coverage and our reporters — Major Garrett and Nancy Cordes, who [did] the primary coverage, and John Dickerson, who has been spectacular — you hear substance in it.
But it’s becoming more theater than it should. And part of the reason is because Trump creates the theater. So it’s a little bit too much theater and not enough substance.
Q: What makes a good interview?
A: Spontaneity. Listening. Mike [Wallace] listened. He didn’t need notes. He learned his subject well and he listened and he followed. It’s amazing what a rare quality that is. So much is about the exchange, that back and forth.
You know, I can’t stand sound bites. I don’t even want people to say the word around here. They’re meaningless. You don’t walk away with any better understanding from a sound bite. But from a conversation you do.
Q: What’s the best advice anyone’s ever given you about reporting or producing?
A: It’s got to be [from] Don Hewitt. Every time he said something, you learned something. But the most simple thing he said was, “Tell me a story.” That’s what every kid in the world has yearned for as long as there have been human beings. Tell me a story. And basically, that’s what we do. That’s what 60 Minutes is.
Sometimes it may be complicated getting there, but it should be simple in the telling. Tell me a story the way you would tell me a story, not the way a reporter would tell me a story. Tell me a story that I can follow, because you don’t get to go back and do it again. Tell me a story, and tell it well.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2017.