In the world of journalism, this is big news. “60 Minutes” is, as Rhodes notes in his memo, “the most significant news broadcast on television,” having debuted in 1968 and served as the investigative home for such television inquisitors as Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley and Lesley Stahl. It has inspired spinoffs, imitators and challengers, none of whom has ever matched its brand recognition — or its awards tally.
Fager himself was a “60 Minutes” stalwart, having taken over the franchise in 2004 from series creator Don Hewitt. He was known as a hands-on executive producer, famous for meticulous involvement in screenings of prospective “60 Minutes” segments — in the tradition laid out by his predecessor. “His magic is in the screening room, as was Don Hewitt’s,” says a “60 Minutes” staffer who declined to be named. “He makes all the pieces better.”
The departure of Fager adds tumult to a company that already has plenty of it. Les Moonves, the chairman and CEO of CBS, resigned on Sunday, following the second story from New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow describing alleged sexual harassment and assault by the media mogul. Phyllis Golden-Gottlieb told Farrow that she’d filed a criminal complaint against Moonves accusing him of “physically restraining her and forcing her to perform oral sex on him, and of exposing himself to her and violently throwing her against a wall in later incidents.”
Both Farrow and the Erik Wemple Blog have reported allegations about Fager. As detailed in the New Yorker, several women contended that the “60 Minutes” chief had touched them inappropriately at company functions. And Fager allowed a senior producer, Michael Radutzky, to engage in a pattern of abusive conduct in the workplace over a number of years — including an incident in which he allegedly twisted a female staffer’s arm behind her back.
However, the memo from Rhodes distances Wednesday’s action from those accounts. “This action today is not directly related to the allegations surfaced in press reports, which continue to be investigated independently. However, he violated company policy and it is our commitment to uphold those policies at every level. Joe Ianniello is in full support of this decision and the transition to come,” reads the memo.
A statement from Fager is consistent with — and also critical of — the Rhodes version of events:
The company’s decision had nothing to do with the false allegations printed in The New Yorker. Instead, they terminated my contract early because I sent a text message to one of our own CBS reporters demanding that she be fair in covering the story. My language was harsh and, despite the fact that journalists receive harsh demands for fairness all the time, CBS did not like it. One such note should not result in termination after 36 years, but it did.
Bill Owens, Fager’s No. 2 at “60 Minutes,” convened the newsmagazine’s staffers on Wednesday afternoon for a discussion with Rhodes. Awkwardness followed. According to two sources, Rhodes encouraged the assembled talent to have a great season on “60 Minutes” but declined to say just what prompted the termination of Fager. Citing the vague statement about a violation of company policy, staffers wanted to know: Just which company policy did the boss desecrate? The reply from Rhodes stressed that it would be “inappropriate” for him to get into such detail at a company gathering of this sort. One attendee quipped that Rhodes’ reticence had people guessing whether the cause of termination was bigger than a “bread box.”
As the meeting was limping along, Fager’s statement, cited above, surfaced on the Internet, and it was relayed to Rhodes in the meeting. Still, the network news president declined to tell his colleagues what had happened — no details for the journalists.
“It was an extremely dramatic scene,” said one source, noting that there were about 50 “60 Minutes” personnel standing in the reception area growing frustrated at the stonewalling from above. The assembled newspeople had read the various stories alleging managerial wrongdoing by Fager, and left skeptical that the actual cause of Fager’s departure was more acute than the activities alleged in press accounts.
Rhodes mentioned that Owens would grab the reins of the program, an announcement that prompted a sustained round of applause. When Rhodes later said he’d be eager to hear feedback about Owens, a staffer noted that the group had already expressed its feelings on the matter.
This is a breaking story, and there’ll be more to come.