Jeff Fager will step down from leading CBS News and devote his full attention to the network’s “60 Minutes” while CBS News president David Rhodes will take command of the unit, the network said Thursday.
Starting on the first day of 2015, Rhodes will supervise everything from “The CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley” to “CBS This Morning.” Fager, meanwhile, has agreed to extend his term as executive producer of “60 Minutes” to 2019.
CBS characterized the transition as one that was instigated by Fager’s desire to return to news reporting full time after running CBS News for about four years. During that time, the unit has promoted itself as a place for more serious reportage than its rivals at NBC and ABC. The network’s morning show, “CBS This Morning” has gained some ground in the ratings as has the evening newscast, though both are still in third place compared to their broadcast competitors. And CBS News has made strides in the digital realm, recently unveiling CBSN, a new content offering that bypasses traditional media structures, like a cable network, to deliver news to consumers via streaming video.
“So much about CBS News is going well, and I am extremely proud of where we have come in these four years,” Fager said Thursday in a memo to staff. “Every day the people of this news organization are turning in the kind of high quality reporting that is in keeping with our identity and heritage as the home of the best in broadcast journalism. In my 32 years here, I cannot remember a time when you could feel as much good spirit and energy that exists today.”
Fager took the reins of the news division at an interesting point in time. In early 2011, Katie Couric was the anchor of the CBS Evening News, nearing the end of a rocky five-year tenure during which the network had hoped to use her star power and on-screen ebullience to evolve the evening newscast to something that had more personality and zip. The effort failed to gain traction among audiences,who still wanted a more traditional newscast even as viewership of the TV mainstay flagged. What’s more, the network’s morning-show efforts were not improving.
Fager and Rhodes were the architects of a new strategy – to use CBS News’ roots as a place for serious TV journalism to present an alternative to fluffier or partisan newscasts presented elsewhere. From Bob Schieffer to Scott Pelley, CBS News’ best-known anchors tout their attempts to draw on original reporting to get scoops that outmaneuver rivals. Under Fager, CBS News has been less eager to pursues such stuff as royal weddings but has taken pride on getting its staffers into trouble spots like Syria.
“We have to just keep doing what we are doing,” Schieffer said in an August interview. “We still try to do what they did on the first show: Figure out what the topical news of the week is and try to get the key players in front of the camera and sit them down and ask them questions. It’s not much more complicated than that.”
But Fager has had some stumbles as well. In November of 2013, he took personal responsibility for a flawed “60 Minutes” report by Lara Logan that was found to be lacking in its substantiation of the claims of a key source about a 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Logan and her producers were found to have not checked thoroughly the account of a key source for the story, and Logan took a leave of absence from CBS News as a result. ““As executive producer, I am responsible for what gets on the air. I pride myself in catching almost everything, but this deception got through and it shouldn’t have,” Fager said in a memo to staff at the time.
In Rhodes, CBS has a young but aggressive executive who has been determined to move a network whose journalistic efforts date back to some of TV’s earliest days into a world where technology has quickly changed how information is delivered and consumed. When Fager recruited him in 2011, Rhodes was the youngest person ever to be named president of a network news division. He has had stints at both Fox News and Bloomberg L.P. Rhodes has recently taken an interest in such things as exploiting CBS News’ storied archive for digital purposes and moving ahead with CBSN after nearly a year of development and research.
“I believe great days are ahead for our news division,” said Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp.’s chief executive. “We would not be in such a strong position today were it not for Jeff’s leadership and his willingness four years ago to supplement his role at “60 Minutes”with the duties of chairman as David integrated himself into CBS News.”