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jeff fager

Fager has been executive producer of the venerable CBS news magazine 60 Minutes since June 2004. Prior to that he held the same job at 60 Minutes II and the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Nov. 29, 2006.

The so-called Rathergate story, with its flaws -- the apparently forged documents, although no one seems to have proven that they're forged -- kind of reminded me of the rollover-truck story at Dateline, the General Motors truck using igniters in the gas tank. The process by which the story was told was severely flawed, but the facts of the story were actually true.

Well, yeah, The New York Times and The Boston Globe and I think one other newspaper reported the story within the week. But you don't go about this line of work, when you're selling your credibility, and use documents that are Xeroxed. It's not our job to say, "Prove that they're not accurate; prove that they're not the real deal." The flaw in the reporting and the flaw in the storytelling, as is the case with the Dateline story, you can't justify it under any circumstances, because it just hurts our credibility so severely, at CBS News anyway. I think we all suffered from it, even though it wasn't 60 Minutes. Everybody at CBS News took a hit, because it had the appearance of going after him [President Bush]. ...

So you can see some rationale to the White House saying: "Why should I help you? You're just going [to] screw me?"

At least if that is the thinking, I can see why that would have been very upsetting. The mistake was admitted. The report that came out actually proved that there was no bias involved, or at least stated that. I think you have to move on. I guess one of the legacies of this White House will probably be a disdain for the reporters of the world whom they worked with, and that's just unfortunate. There's always a tension with the White House and the press; this one just seems to be more intense. ...

There's always a tension between the White House and the press, and we always feel it. I just think that the president made it apparent that he's not necessarily reading the newspaper every day, that he's not watching the broadcast. There is a certain distance that the White House has had from us from the get-go, and I think that they are prepared for us to not be fair to them. ...

I'm trying to put myself in the seat of [Counselor to the President] Dan Bartlett and the White House: "Here comes 60 Minutes, and they do Abu Ghraib to us. And then they try to do a pre-election story [with] apparently phony documents. And you're not biased?"

I'm not going to try to defend the document story. ... I will defend Abu Ghraib forever. Of course we're not biased. You're doing reporting, important reporting about the war that ended up being -- the American public had to know that. The Pentagon, the Department of Defense cooperated with us in the end on that, gave us an interview with the general [Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt] who really sealed that piece, and we aired it with their cooperation eventually.

“The idea that 60 Minutes won't be around in 10 years, I just don't believe that. I think there's always a place for this kind of reporting.”

So we're doing our job there, and it's not an easy job to do. Nobody wanted to report what was going on in Abu Ghraib. We were the first to report it, and it was a tough thing to do, and it took an awful lot of time to vet it. We worked that story forever in terms of fairness and making sure that those pictures were accurate. ...

When did you first realize that the White House really didn't care what you said or what you did with this program?

I don't really know when I first realized it. I got the message over and over again -- a lot of our people did -- that: "We don't want to cooperate. We don't want to help you. We don't want to help you tell your stories, because we don't think there's anything in it for us." We didn't get that message in a soft, subtle way; we got it loud and clear.

Now, I feel like we have done some stories that were very fair to the White House and to the president. I also think we did -- at least this organization did -- one that was incredibly unfair by using the bogus documents. So if that had something to do with their feeling toward 60 Minutes -- even though the four people involved with that ended up losing their jobs -- I suppose you can understand that to a degree. ...

One of the things I was surprised about when I read the report, ... they were not told to try to check the documents as to their veracity, were they real or not and where they came from, actually.

Right. And I think that's a shame of the entire episode, which is that nobody knows if they were real or not. The unfortunate part is that it's not for us to put something on the air and tell the viewer to prove it's not true. The onus is on us to prove it's true before we use it. ... I can see how that would have upset the White House.

Or in the end helped them?

Or in the end helped them, because we're a good target. [It's] proven time and time again that if you take on 60 Minutes or any big news organization, it can really help you as a politician. ...

Out there right now are all these bloggers or Web sites, and they're watching everything that comes out of the so-called mainstream media, particularly a place like 60 Minutes.

If we're doing our job well, I don't see why that's a problem; I really don't. We really work hard on being fair and accurate, and if we slip on that and someone catches us, what difference does it make where it comes from? ...

But the Internet has made it possible for that to happen almost instantaneously.

Well, fine. Not sure what difference it makes if you're doing your job well. ... And if it's all right, there's nothing to defend.

We had one interview with this guy who does the Daily Kos, [Markos Moulitsas]. You ever seen the Daily Kos?

No. No, no.

[He told us]: I don't want editors; I don't need to be a journalist; I don't need to go to journalism school; I don't need any standards. I can do it all myself. And he gets 400,000 page views a day.

Wow.

Doing it out of his bedroom.

Yeah, but it's entertainment. It's like [The Daily Show's] Jon Stewart. I mean, they do well mocking the news.

When you read that many young people get their news from Comedy Central, what do you think is going on?

Yeah, I'm not sure it's true. I think that they're getting the news from the Internet; some of them are getting it from Comedy Central. Young people tend to look for irreverence. They just do; they always have. Jon Stewart is incredibly talented, and so is [The Colbert Report's Stephen] Colbert. ... It's always been a fact that you can't get people who don't have mortgages and don't have kids terribly interested in the news. ...

The 60 Minutes news magazine was replicated at the other networks, or there [were] attempts to replicate it, but they look significantly different today. What's happened?

They do. I think a lot of things have happened. First of all, it's hard and it's expensive to do what we do. You send a team into Iraq to do a story on the war, and you pay a lot of money to cover that story. It's risky and it's difficult. There is a conventional wisdom in the television business that you can't make that interesting to the American public, which is, I think, astonishing. ... We're at war in the Middle East; we need to be covering that story. ...

It's easy to go the other way. It's easy to go tabloid, to be interview-driven, to be celebrity-driven. It's cheap. It's not getting as big an audience. What we're proud of is that we can still do the kind of reporting that we do and put it on 7:00 on Sunday night and do as well as we're doing.

So someone would do something like [NBC's Dateline: To Catch a] Predator, lure alleged sexual deviants into situations and film it and show it on the air. It's cheaper, it's more exciting, and then they say it's news.

That's right. And if we did that, we would plummet, because when they see the [60 Minutes] stopwatch, our viewers do not expect that. ...

If you talk about Dateline, over the years they've done tremendous pieces and excellent reporting. They've gone away from it more in recent years, and I think part of it is because it's expensive. I think there is conventional wisdom that says that people are less interested in Iraq and more interested in that, less interested in international reporting and traditional reporting and more interested in celebrity profiles. ...

It's a different kind of reporting. It's a niche that they've found, and I think they've done better with it than just about anything else they've tried in recent years.

I read to the president of ABC News [David Westin] the lineup on Primetime -- teenager has oral sex and gets 10 years in prison; Amish sex; child abuse in various communities -- and his response was, it isn't that the definition [of news] has changed; it's broadened. Nothing wrong with it?

Well, I tend to stick to a more traditional definition of news, which is anything somebody's trying to hide, and all else is advertising. I think that's important, because when we stop thinking about uncovering information that's going to be useful to the viewer, to the American public, that's when we're not in the news business anymore.

What's nice about a magazine is that we can mix it with a nice profile of a Hollywood celebrity; we can mix it with a story about a writer, about an adventure into Africa. But the bread and butter of what we do is news, and that is working on a story that someone doesn't want us to tell.

Let me read you something that Ted Koppel said: "We're now judging journalism by the standards that we apply to entertainment, giving the public what it wants, not necessarily what it ought to hear, what it ought to see, what it needs. It may prove to be one of the greatest tragedies in the history of American journalism." Or as [editor] Dean Baquet at the L.A. Times -- before he got fired -- said to us, my job is to "give people broccoli," not just what they want to see.

Well, my job is to do both. It's a little bit arrogant of us to say we're the ones [to] give the viewer only what they need, as if there isn't more in our world. A combination of the two is more accurate in terms of what we do, which is that we try to do what's important and make it interesting, but we also try to add some life to that. 60 Minutes was created, if you go by how [creator] Don Hewitt remembers it, that Life magazine is part of the inspiration, and Life magazine covers the world in every aspect, from the circus to the war. ...

We interviewed Dan Rather. ... He complains that one of the things that has changed is that he can't find a boss to talk to. When he was here, he could go down the hall and talk to somebody who was running CBS, but that now ... the owners and the news people are so far apart that you're just employees now and part of a production company that has to produce profit.

I think that's incredibly untrue and unfair in his case. He worked here; he knows that the president of CBS News is where the buck stops at CBS News. It doesn't go higher than that. Nobody's dictating how stories should be told. We have total freedom in terms of what stories we will tell and do tell.

But it does happen. We lived through one.

But you're asking about the present. The tobacco case was horrific, really, if you look back on it -- one of the lowest points in CBS history since the company was founded. To tell 60 Minutes that you can't broadcast a story that you put together, Lowell, based on the fears of litigation when the public health was at stake is incredible to think about today. That would not happen in this environment, I don't think. I'd hate to think it could.

We did a story equally as tough and difficult with, I think, incredible fallout for the administration and the Department of Defense and the prosecution of the war in Iraq, when we broadcast the Abu Ghraib story. They were very upset about that in the administration, but we weren't told, "Don't do that," and Dan was there for that. ...

Twenty years ago, network television went through new technology: cable. New rules loosened things up, and people started taking it over who were cost cutters, and you lost a lot of your newsgathering ability. Is that similar to what's going on now, let's say with newspapers?

It probably is. I can't speak to that as well. I feel fortunate in that we still have the support of CBS at 60 Minutes to cover the world the way we always did, which is expensive. ... As I look back on when CBS News was in the [Larry] Tisch era and we were all lamenting the cuts, the cuts were nothing compared to what happened between then and now. It really has been hard to cover the news and cover the world.

They're tough times. I used to run the Evening News, and I know that the budget that I had to cover the news was more significant than the Evening News has today. It makes it much more difficult. ... You have to remember also that in the years before Larry Tisch came to CBS News, there was no budget, and nobody cared about any budget. We just covered whatever we wanted. I don't ever remember submitting a budget before 1988 or whatever it was on any broadcast that I worked on. ...

The fact is that it is a business. We don't expect that it's going to be subsidized somehow. I don't expect [that] 60 Minutes is going to be thriving if we're not attracting a big audience. ... We've been around for 39 years, but if we're not careful and if we're not diligent, it could end.

[In terms of national newspapers,] there are now The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. The Los Angeles Times is in danger of pulling back internationally and nationally and becoming a local, regional newspaper. ... How would that affect you here, because I know at 60 Minutes, at the Evening News, you go to the newspapers in many ways first, right? ... How dependent are you on the newsgathering of other major news organizations?

Broadcast journalists overall are dependent on the newspapers more than they are willing to admit. We pride ourselves on original reporting, so we try not to, but from time to time we'll run with a story that we see in The New York Times or the L.A. Times. There's no doubt it's a problem. If everything becomes a news service without the kind of in-depth reporting that you get in these places, it's bad for all of us. The more independent, original reporters out there chasing down stories, the better off we all are, not just in the news business, but in the country. ...

The fear is that in this transition that's taking place, with eyeballs going to the Internet, that you're going to lose these sources of original reporting. [Former L.A. Times editor John Carroll] estimated 85 percent of all the new information every day comes from newspapers, and it's simply repurposed on the Internet.

Well, there's reason to be afraid of that between now and when the phenomenal success story of a newspaper is found on the Internet, the model for how to do it -- because at some point, someone's going to figure out we can make a lot of money covering stories in a traditional way on the Internet. It hasn't been done yet. ...

I was at 60 Minutes for a long time, and one of the rules was no outtakes get out of the house; I didn't even share, usually, with the [CBS] Evening News. And then I go online, and there I see 60 Minutes online on Yahoo!, with material that I didn't see on TV. What's going on?

Well, there's a lot of value in the material that we don't use. As you know, we report stories for months sometimes, and we end up with a 12-minute piece. So the idea that we shouldn't make better use of what we've been out covering is a mistake. We can make better use of it, ... and that's what we've discovered in this joint venture that we've got at Yahoo!.

And they can stop and start it and play with it and do what they want with it?

Well, that's the nice thing. The Internet allows the user to choose any aspect of the story that they want to choose. There are two- to three-minute clips; there's anywhere from 12 to 16 or 18 of them. And there's a lot of variety. Sometimes it is outtakes. Sometimes it's a conversation that was a lighter moment that didn't make it. Sometimes it's a harder moment that didn't make it. Sometimes it's natural sound: Tiger Woods and Ed Bradley talking while he's on the driving range. I think about 15 seconds of that, maybe 30, made it into the piece, but it's fascinating if you're interested in Tiger Woods. ...

Actually, [head of news and information for Yahoo! Media Group] Scott Moore and [president of CBS Digital Media] Larry Kramer all say this was your idea, something you pushed. When did you decide that you needed to get on the Internet, and why?

It wasn't really my idea, but as soon as I heard the idea, I was pushing it very hard. I don't think we've seen the model, I know we haven't seen the model, for how broadcast journalism is going to end up on the Internet, but it has to go there. It has to. I mean, you don't see anybody between 20 and 30 getting their news from the evening news; you see them getting it online. ...

Has it driven new viewers to the show?

I can't tell. It's too early to tell if it has, ... but millions of streams have been played in the first few months that we've been on Yahoo! -- 20 million streams in two months, which is a lot. ... We are under the assumption that many of them, if not most of them, are not regular 60 Minutes viewers, and I think that's important. It's a place for us to show to people who might not normally come to us at 7:00 on Sunday, which is the only time you can watch it -- something else that I think is going to be problematic in the near future. People are getting used to being able to watch what they want when they want to. ...

What's the current demographic of the 60 Minutes audience? How old are they?

I'm not sure exactly, but I think the average age is in the upper 50s. It's an older audience, and it always has been.

So you need new viewers?

Well, we should have new viewers. ... It doesn't mean that we're going out of our way to change how we choose our stories to pander to that age group, because I think it's really important not to alienate the core audience, which is an older audience. But we have a lot on this broadcast that would be interesting for younger people. ...

But if I'm one of your advertisers, ... and I've paid for this production, and then you're taking the content and selling it again, ... and then you sell more ads on that, why do I want to do that -- subsidize what you're doing, showing it on another platform in another place?

That's a bit of a stretch, because we actually added an entire staff to do this at 60 Minutes. ... It's a significant amount of work that goes into that page every week.

They don't complain?

No. And they have the opportunity to reach an entirely different audience on Yahoo!, which is an exciting prospect. So hopefully they'll figure that out more often and go there and start buying those ads.

[Some on the Internet [say] the likes of you and Time magazine, The New York Times, aren't going to be around. It's all going to be run by Google.]

I just don't believe it. One of the things we've learned over the years is that very few people can provide the kind of content that we provide at 60 Minutes, that Time magazine provides, that The New York Times provides. They're large news organizations with a tradition of gathering news. One of the benefits for Yahoo! in this [is] that they can't do what we do, yet they can share our content with us and profit from it, and they become a fantastic place for us to distribute content that works on the Internet. The idea that 60 Minutes won't be around in 10 years, I just don't believe that. I think there's always a place for this kind of reporting. It's still an incredibly profitable broadcast.

60 Minutes? Even with your overhead?

Even with our overhead, 60 Minutes does very well, and that's important. It's amazing how few people are doing what we do on commercial television in prime time. Almost nobody. I think that helps us to a degree because people are finding what we do so unique and so unusual that the audience is still huge. ...

Let me ask you an economics question, though. It's great you're going to the Internet; the Internet is expanding. But our reporting shows that the revenue coming to CBS, for instance, is like this compared to the revenue that's coming from normal advertising

Yeah.

This is in its infancy, really, from an economics point of view.

It is. It is. You see the figures in terms of advertising on the Internet, though, and they're up 30 and 40 percent a year. So everybody, I think, is crossing their fingers that we start to make real money on the Internet. Right now we're not. Right now we're barely breaking even on the Internet. But I'm optimistic based on the numbers that I see.

So there's faith here. There's hope, ... because the eyeballs are going to the Internet?

Yeah. I don't see it happening as quickly as you're suggesting. When our average audience is 15 million viewers a week, it's a lot of people. In fact, CBS estimates that 100 million people at one point or another tune in and watch 60 Minutes during the year -- 100 million people. So there's still a lot of audience out there. If you think back on it, people have been predicting the death of the evening newscast for years on the three broadcast networks, yet 25 million people are still watching them every single night. I'm not saying that there isn't an issue, ... but I don't think it's as drastic as you're making it sound. ...

[Berkshire Hathaway chair and billionaire investor] Warren Buffett ... says that the traditional newsgathering business is a business in decline, that eventually you're going to hit zero in profits just because of the economics of scale and because of the Internet. You don't believe it?

I can see why he would say that. I mean, look, it's a difficult moment. Nobody's seen the model yet where newspapers in particular translate to the Internet, and I think that's a concern. It's a concern for broadcasters, too. We're working very hard at it.

I don't believe it in the sense that I think you cannot duplicate the kind of content that these news organizations are able to produce. You can't. You've got to have qualified reporters out covering stories, digging up information. Writing a story, telling a story that is well-told -- I believe there's always going to be a place for that.

Even if we haven't necessarily found it -- though I think Yahoo! is a good, really strong beginning -- I think it shows ... that there is a home for us beyond network television. But that doomsday scenario is hard for me to believe, that the American public is going to live without reporting. ...

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posted feb. 27, 2007

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