It’s not often that 60 Minutes, the high church of television journalism for over four decades, becomes late-night comedy fodder. But that’s what happened earlier this month when Saturday Night Live’s cold open featured 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan (Kate McKinnon) giving a sympathetic hearing to disgraced Toronto mayor Rob Ford (Bobby Moynihan).
“I’m going to go on a show where people do believe me and will believe anything I say!” Ford declared. Cue the ticking clock and Logan, clad in a form-fitting dress and displaying ample cleavage. After Ford asserted that he had never used crack cocaine, smoked pot, or consumed alcohol, Logan cooed gauzily, “I believe you.”
Logan has been tight-lipped about the inspiration for this bit: The revelation that her October 27 report on last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, was riddled with inaccuracies and featured an unreliable star witness, a British security contractor who told her a riveting story contradicted by the one he’d put on record with his employer and the FBI. The exposé threatened to reignite the Benghazi scandal, which dogged the Obama administration and was the most glaring liability for Hillary Clinton’s nascent presidential candidacy. Instead, its failures seem to have closed the books on the scandal, at least temporarily.
Citing a memo from CBS chairman and 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager, the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reported on Tuesday that CBS News has placed Logan and her producer, Max McClellan, on leave. Fager cited the “journalistic review” into the Benghazi segment, which concluded it was “deficient in several respects.” Chiefly, the review faulted Logan and McClellan for their failure to vet the contractor’s account; in particular, it noted that the “wider reporting resources of CBS News were not employed” in an effort to confirm it.
Though Fager conceded that “as Executive Producer, I am responsible for what gets on the air,” the report, conducted by the network’s executive director of standards and practices, Al Ortiz, faulted nobody superior to Logan or McClellan. “There is still no account of how the verification process broke down, of who dropped the ball and when,” says former 60 Minutes producer Steven Reiner. “Personally, I think this is an extremely inadequate and perhaps inappropriate response.”
Such reviews are normally conducted by outsiders: In 2004, CBS charged former attorney general Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press executive Louis Boccardi with investigating the journalistic breakdown that led to the Rathergate scandal, in which longtime CBS evening-news anchor Dan Rather claimed to reveal new documents damaging to George W. Bush’s record in the Air National Guard on 60 Minutes II. (They were discredited shortly after the segment was broadcast.)
In this case, by contrast, Ortiz has been asked to report his findings to his own boss. It’s a move Reiner says is “hard to figure out.” “Al Ortiz is in a very, very difficult situation being asked to investigate, essentially, his superior,” he tells me. Reading the report, he concludes, “I still don’t know where the editorial oversight was.”
The answer to that question begins with Jeff Fager, who since 2004 has served as the executive producer of 60 Minutes. In 2011, he was named chairman of CBS News, but he relinquished neither his title nor his position at 60 Minutes, a move one longtime television insider calls “absurd.” “It indicates you view the news division as a secondary annoyance to 60 Minutes,” the insider tells me. On Fager’s watch, the show has become something of an echo chamber where outside voices have largely been shut out, and the show’s ego, already healthy, has been put on steroids thanks to Fager’s own regard for the program.
Fager escaped, just barely, the Rathergate scandal of 2004 that turned 60 Minutes upside down. In the wake of that incident, four CBS veterans lost their jobs. Among those fired were Josh Howard, the executive producer of 60 Minutes II, a job Fager had vacated just three months earlier to take the helm of 60 Minutes. Fager had been the executive producer of 60 Minutes II when the Rather report went into production. By all accounts, he helped to create the culture in which Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes, empowered by her explosive report on the Abu Ghraib scandal, was allowed to push the story almost single-handedly and, according to a television insider, she got “out of control.” A New York magazine report on the episode observed, diplomatically, that he emerged “remarkably unscathed by the events at his former show.” The television insider puts it more bluntly: “People thought he got away with murder.”
It’s good to be Jeff Fager — and his superiors will admit it. Universally recognized as an enormously talented producer and executive with a proven track record of success, some suggest nonetheless that he has also benefited from a whole lot of luck. Former CBS News president Andrew Heyward coined the term “Fager World,” a utopia where nothing goes wrong. The only time the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather got a bump in the ratings was when Fager served as executive producer. At 60 Minutes, he inherited a time slot — piggybacking on Sunday-night football — that has an enormous built-in audience, and where he could ride the wave of success created by the show’s legendary founder, Don Hewitt.
Less than a year after Fager left 60 Minutes II, the program was canceled. The reason: “Ratings, not Rather,” says a television insider. “The 60 model doesn’t work unless you’re in that [Sunday] time slot and have the fossilized audience.” One former 60 Minutes producer concludes, sardonically, “Fager’s golden. The only possible salvation for this country is if Jeff Fager is elected president.” The current dust-up, he says, “is the first dark cloud on his horizon, and it’s a big one.”