02.08.11

Behind the CBS News Shakeup

In a surprise even to insiders, 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager will lead the news division, along with Bloomberg’s David Rhodes. Howard Kurtz on the back story—and what it spells for Katie Couric.

Jeff Fager, the 60 Minutes producer who has been something of a golden boy at CBS, is taking over the news division—and with a grander title than the man he’s replacing.

Fager was tapped Tuesday to take over for CBS News President Sean McManus, but Les Moonves is bestowing on him the rank of chairman. The president’s title will go to David Rhodes, who has been Bloomberg’s head of U.S. television operations after a dozen years as a vice president at Fox News.

McManus has been juggling two jobs since 2005, when he took over CBS News without giving up his portfolio as president of CBS Sports. He’ll now return to the sports division with the title of chairman.

Network insiders were stunned by the announcement, and some said that McManus, the son of legendary sportscaster Jim McKay, had indicated that he couldn’t handle both jobs forever and would eventually return to sports.

“Sean McManus is the best boss I ever had, and I’m really going to miss him,” says Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer. “But if there had to be a replacement, I can’t think of a better person than Jeff Fager.”

Fager is a newsroom favorite who pulled off an extremely delicate task. As the longtime understudy to Don Hewitt at 60 Minutes, he took over the executive producer’s job in 2004 without making Hewitt feel he’d been pushed aside, then restored its competitiveness by jumping more quickly on breaking news stories—for example, the recent two-part profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Fager will be doing his own juggling by holding onto his job at the newsmagazine, although delegating more to his deputy.

Ira Rosen, a 60 Minutes producer, describes his no-drama style: “Jeff has a real clear judgment about ideas, even while he’s disagreeing with you, but he’s open-minded enough to hear you out. In screenings, he’s a great editor. He could take a piece you know something’s wrong with, and in five minutes—rip it apart, put it back together, and it’s much better.”

“Sean McManus is the best boss I ever had, and I’m really going to miss him,” says Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer.

While he has a collegial approach, Fager can also make tough decisions. Although he had served as Dan Rather’s CBS Evening News executive producer in the 1990s, Fager decided not to keep Rather as a 60 Minutes correspondent in 2006, concluding that he had trouble breaking into a crowded lineup that includes the likes of Steve Kroft, Lesley Stahl, Ed Bradley, Scott Pelley and Bob Simon. Rather’s involuntary departure came after his botched story on George W. Bush’s National Guard service, which aired on 60 Minutes II—after Fager had left as that show’s founding producer—and cost Rather the anchor chair. Rather unsuccessfully sued CBS for breach of contract.

McManus helped court Katie Couric when she was deciding whether to leave NBC’s Today for Rather’s old job, which she did in 2006. Couric's contract expires in the spring, and the betting at CBS has been that she will sign a new one.

One problem McManus couldn’t fix is CBS’ perennial also-ran status in the morning. He presided over several anchor changes at the Early Show, most recently replacing Harry Smith and Maggie Rodriguez with Erica Hill and Chris Wragge, but the program remains in third place.

In handing McManus’s job to Fager, Moonves is in effect rewarding him for his stewardship of one of the few parts of the CBS News lineup that remains an undisputed No. 1.  

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.