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In Era of Change, ‘60 Minutes’ Focuses on Hard News

You might think Lesley Stahl would be rested. Her show, “60 Minutes,” broadcasts on Sundays. And she snared the big interview for her story last Thursday.

“If I sound tired, I am,” the veteran “60 Minutes” correspondent told Variety in an interview, just hours before getting on a plane to Africa to pursue another report. Stahl unveiled last night on the show one of the biggest stories of the week — a Thursday sit-down with President Donald Trump during which she asked him about his views on climate change, pushed back on his use of undocumented sources, and elicited vows of potential retaliation if the Saudis have in fact assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The segment sparked tons of reaction.

Viewers expect big stories from “60 Minutes” each week. They don’t always get segments that are so tightly entwined with the current news cycle. “The first three shows of this season, the opening pieces have been right on the news — hard-news pieces,” says Stahl.

“60 Minutes” is no stranger to generating headlines. An aficionado of the venerable CBS newsmagazine typically expects deep-dive reporting into any number of newsy subjects, such as Bill Whitaker’s recent look at the opioid crisis, or a whimsical profile of an artist or celebrity about whom everyone wants to know more. Since the show launched its 51st season three weeks ago, producers have made certain that one segment has been about the week’s most-discussed issues – a bid, perhaps, to give viewers something extremely relevant to consider even as “60” applies its own brand of reporting to the matter at hand.

“60 Minutes” opened the season with Scott Pelley getting reaction from both Republican Senator Jeff Flake and Democratic Senator Chris Coons to the emotional testimony from Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Last week, Pelley presented interviews with Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota, and Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, in which they explained why they voted how they did on the Kavanaugh confirmation. The stories gave viewers added perspective into a topic that was arguably one of the most consequential decisions about American government in recent memory.

The emphasis has surfaced as the CBS show is in a period of transition. Jeff Fager, the longtime executive producer of “60 Minutes” left the company in September after responding to a CBS News reporter with a threatening text message — a violation, CBS said, of company policy. Fager had been under after The New Yorker printed allegations by CBS News staffers that he had tolerated a tough workplace culture and possibly touched some employees inappropriately. Fager has denied the allegations, and both he and CBS agree that his dismissal came after a threatening tweet he made to a CBS News reporter who was investigating the claims.

Two people familiar with the show say a significant portion of the staff would like to see Bill Owens, the show’s executive editor, take the reins. Owens is managing the program as CBS News considers candidates for the executive producer role. These people also note that “60” has an insular culture that would be difficult for anyone who has not worked there to navigate.

Other names have surfaced as potential replacements for Fager, including that of Susan Zirinsky, the veteran CBS News producer who currently oversees “48 Hours.” If named chief, she would be the first female producer to run the show.

Owens has been busy. He helped produce an opening-week story on Paul McCartney, and was instrumental, Stahl says, in securing the interview with President Trump. He was also involved, she says, in Pelley’s recent work.

Stahl interviewed Trump and his family for a “60 Minutes” segment in November of 2016 – just days after he was elected to the Oval Office. Trump promised another sit down, Stahl recounts. “From time to time, Jeff Fager would check into the White House and sort of urge them to consider whatever the month way. Bill Owens picked that up and pursued it.”

Getting behind breaking headlines means more work for the staff, Owens told Variety. Producers were working on Saturdays to get Pelley’s interviews ready for air. “I haven’t, and most of the staff hasn’t, had a day off in three weeks, literally,” he says. “There’s a real feeling of everybody pitching in on the floor,” he adds. For the Trump interview, he adds, “I have to give credit where it is due, to Lesley and a host of producers, assistant producers and editors who were really grinding it out.”

And there can be risk for “60 Minutes” in chasing breaking news. What if the reporting can’t hold until the Sunday broadcast? “We have been worried all week that the news was going to get ahead of the interview,” says Stahl. Indeed, “60 Minutes” released news of President Trump’s remarks about the Saudis and Khashoggi well ahead of the broadcast.

The show is not backing away from the types of stories for which it’s famous, says Owens, but “we want to be on the news” when the show can “cover it in a way that we are going to bring something new to the story, something value added.” Viewers want to see longer conversations from newsmakers, he says, even examine their body language as they respond to the most important questions of the day.

Viewers who watched Stahl’s segment on Sunday saw a President much more confident in his position. “He was almost the opposite of what he was” when she interviewed him in 2016 for “60 Minutes” after he had been elected to office. “He was just a different person then,’” she recalls. “He was sitting back in his chair. Zero feistiness. As any president was, he was just beginning to absorb the challenges that he was facing.” On Thursday, she says, she encountered “a man who is feeling extremely confident. He had a lot to crow about. At the same time, she pressed him on the facts throughout the encounter.

Owens says the hard-news segments help bolster the program. “This isn’t about me auditioning” for the executive-producer role, he says. “This is about what’s best for ’60 Minutes’ and our audience, really, who expect us to relentlessly be covering the news in a smart way that’s in keeping with our standards. That’s what we are going to do.”

While the show charts its path, Stahl says she tries to focus on her assignments. There’s plenty to do. “You put your mind to your story. You have to find your pieces. You have to make them sing, and make sense, and have a beginning, middle and end. That takes a lot of work.”

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