Think of all the people and institutions that winced, wailed and/or wilted under the accountability furnished by the celebrated newsmagazine “60 Minutes.” The Pentagon saw its disgraceful work at Abu Ghraib exposed; Lance Armstrong saw a fellow cyclist confess he’d seen the champion injecting performance-enhancing drugs; prosecutor Mike Nifong saw a dismantling of his case against Duke University lacrosse players; medical researchers saw their fraudulent cancer project exposed. There are, of course, many other examples.
What happens, though, when the tables are turned?
We learned the answer to that question on Wednesday: Jeff Fager, who ran “60 Minutes” for 14 years as executive producer, found himself the subject of a journalistic investigation, as opposed to its agent. Back in August, the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow had reported that Fager had touched women inappropriately at company functions, not to mention allowed an abusive senior producer to run amok — reporting that this blog expanded. Those allegations rode shotgun with the sexual-harassment and assault allegations against CBS chief executive Les Moonves, who resigned his position on Sunday, thanks to a fresh set of allegations from Farrow in the New Yorker.
Also in that New Yorker package: An on-the-record account from a former CBS intern who alleged that Fager had groped her buttocks at a work party in the late 2000s. “The hand belonged to an arm which belonged to Jeff Fager,” Sarah Johansen told Farrow. Fager declined to comment to the magazine.
The revelations stirred the assignment desk at CBS News, which has been forced to cover this long-running internal management crisis. Jericka Duncan, a CBS News correspondent, checked in with Fager about the claims against him. The “60 Minutes” eminence made clear that he didn’t appreciate being on the other side of the business. In text messages, Fager told the correspondent:
If you repeat these false accusations without any of your own reporting to back them up you will be held responsible for harming me. Be careful. There are people who lost their jobs trying to harm me and if you pass on these damaging claims without your own reporting to back them up that will become a serious problem.
CBS News itself surfaced the text messaging on Wednesday night as part of its package on Fager’s firing. Though “60 Minutes” staffers were prepared for disciplinary action against their boss based on press accounts of his behavior, the rationale for the company’s Wednesday announcement caught them off guard. No, said CBS News President David Rhodes, the departure didn’t stem from Farrow’s revelations. “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,” wrote Rhodes in a note to staff.
Fager even issued a statement referencing the text:
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.
At a tense “60 Minutes” meeting on Wednesday with Rhodes, staffers insisted on an explanation of just how Fager had so violated company policy as to warrant summary dismissal. Could it really have been more egregious than the inappropriate touching claims? Why not roll this violation into the investigations of management practices being conducted by two prominent law firms? The staffers received nothing approaching a detailed explanation, though Duncan’s report, which aired on the “CBS Evening News” on Wednesday, filled in that particular gap.
The text message from Fager represents an attempt to pull rank and intimidate a reporter, something that surely happens to investigative reporters all the time at CBS News. Would the company have cashiered Fager for that mere offense, absent the underlying claims? Perhaps not, but it’s impossible to isolate these two things: Duncan received this message of arrogance and entitlement — indeed, a threat — because she wanted to know whether Fager really did view company functions as feel-copping expeditions. What she got was the desperation of a man trying to cling to the best job in journalism. “We do receive harsh language all the time, but this is someone who held an enormous amount of power here,” said Duncan on “CBS This Morning” on Thursday.