Fager, a respected, confident producer with a formidable track record—he ran the CBS Evening News when it reached No. 1 in the ratings, and developed the Wednesday 60 Minutes into a solid journalistic enterprise—has, remarkably, managed to remain unscathed by events at his former show. Now that he has been put back in charge of the Wednesday 60 Minutes, Fager has been killing so many stories commissioned by Josh Howard— including a Dan Rather piece on the AARP—that one producer referred to it as a “Stalinist purge.” He has been said to warn producers away from “dark” stories, in the hopes of saving 60 Minutes Wednesday from cancellation.
Fager would seem a logical long-term candidate to be president of CBS News. But Fager has told people he doesn’t want the job, which would probably mean both a cut in salary and an increase in workload. Fager’s resilience in the midst of so much turmoil has earned its own title: Fager World. “It’s always raining gold coins in Fager World,” a top CBS News executive observed. “Nothing ever goes wrong.” One producer added that in Fager World, “everyone’s drinking champagne and eating shrimp cocktails. It’s a magical place.”
Back in the real world, the future is murkier than ever, with Moonves’s blithe utterances concealing the fact that there is no plan for the future of CBS News. Remarkably, Heyward has reportedly yet to suggest any specific names to Moonves as a possible Rather replacement. Discussions thus far have centered solely on possible changes to the show’s structure. And even those conversations have reportedly yet to coalesce around any single approach, leaving Moonves with little to tell reporters at his recent press conference. Pressed by the angry mob of TV critics and correspondents, Moonves finally tossed out the possibility of a multi-anchor format. (Those offhand comments resulted in newspaper stories suggesting, incorrectly, that Moonves had a specific plan in mind.) He even allowed reporters to speculate, by his studied non-denials, that he might be considering comedian Jon Stewart for an evening-news role.
But CBS News executives insist that Moonves has no plans to put Stewart on the Evening News. If anything, Stewart is considered a more likely candidate to replace Andy Rooney as a commentator on 60 Minutes if the 85-year-old essayist ever retires. Moonves was only riffing; he needs Heyward to come up with a serious plan he can sell to the affiliates—something sexy. He’s a former actor who has far more passion for the entertainment division than news. He just wants it to be something he can announce, without embarrassment, to reporters and affiliates anxious for change. Moonves calculated that by removing four top journalists from their jobs at CBS News, he’d be perceived as a decisive executive unafraid to punish those who jeopardized the news division’s reputation. In the short run, his strategy worked; front-page stories around the country proclaimed that CBS News had cleaned up its mess. But in the weeks that followed, it has become clear that Moonves failed to comprehend or address the more subtle truths revealed in the investigation. He neglected to consider that Betsy West, Heyward’s deputy for seven years, would never do anything not mandated by her boss—and that most of their daily contact was verbal, not through e-mail, rendering Heyward’s written posture of outrage relatively meaningless. He failed to credit Josh Howard’s gutsy e-mail proposing a public admission of a possible mistake less than 48 hours after the story aired.
But most important, Moonves forgot to administer justice according to that ancient Greek proverb: The fish stinks from the head.