For more than three decades, Jeff Fager led a charmed life at CBS News, so much so that his colleagues coined the term “Fager World” to describe the happy bubble in which he seemed to exist—a place where the sun always shone, songbirds warbled, and golden droplets of pure joy rained down from the sky.
Indeed, there was a running joke in the news division that “Fager World” would be the perfect title for a hit Broadway musical.
“Fager World” met with an abrupt annihilation on Wednesday, blown apart by the corporate equivalent of a nuclear attack. In what several CBS News veterans said was a shocking exercise of brute force—and perhaps even payback for past irritations—CBS News President David Rhodes fired the 64-year-old Fager, his former boss and longtime rival.
Rhodes’ action, which he said he took with the “full support” of acting CBS Chief Executive Joe Ianniello (the interim successor for the disgraced Leslie Moonves), came amid published allegations of sexual-harassment complaints against Fager, the former CBS News chairman and, until Wednesday, the executive producer of 60 Minutes.
Fager has vehemently denied the allegations, which were featured in two stories by New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow, alleging that he had inappropriately touched and groped women while tipsy at office parties, and had fostered a workplace atmosphere that was rife with sexism.
The allegations against Fager and Moonves remain the subject of an internal investigation that CBS has farmed out to two white-shoe law firms.
Fager’s public execution was played out in a pair of dueling memos, in which the 44-year-old Rhodes—whom Chairman Fager hired to report to him as CBS News president in February 2011 at the suggestion of Moonves—accused his one-time boss of having “violated company policy,” but without explaining what exactly Fager had done.
Fager fired back: “The company’s decision had nothing to do with the false allegations printed in The New Yorker. Instead they terminated my contract early because I sent a text message to one of our own CBS reporters demanding that she be fair in covering the story. My language was harsh and, despite the fact that journalists receive harsh demands for fairness all the time, CBS did not like it. One such note should not result in termination after 36 years, but it did.”
The recipient of Fager’s text, as she acknowledged on Twitter late Wednesday, was CBS News correspondent Jericka Duncan, who has been covering the various network scandals and filed a lengthy piece on Fager’s firing for the CBS Evening News.
Hours earlier, Fager’s statement was read aloud by a longtime 60 Minutes producer during an acrimonious meeting at the 50-year-old broadcast’s West 57th Street offices, across the street from CBS News headquarters, between a deeply uncomfortable Rhodes and more than 100 60 Minutes staffers, mostly Fager loyalists who were angered by his dismissal and the manner in which it was done.
According to participants who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of not being named, outraged 60 Minutes veterans pressed Rhodes for answers, and Rhodes parried their questions, telling his skeptical audience that he was obligated to keep such information confidential.
“There was a lot of anger in the room, and a lot of tears,” a participant told The Daily Beast. “People were shouting out questions and demanding clarity. Someone asked flat-out if this was a power play. It was a really tense 45 minutes.”
This witness, a Fager supporter, longtime veteran of the broadcast, and a woman, added: “David didn’t answer questions directly and that frustrated everybody on the show. In the middle of it, as people were demanding clarity on why Jeff was let go, someone asked David if Jeff’s statement was true, and David didn’t comment on it, saying he wanted to protect all the parties involved… It was rough.”
At one point during the raucous session, correspondent Bill Whitaker grilled the shaken CBS News president in the take-no-prisoners tradition of the late 60 Minutes inquisitor Mike Wallace.
“He challenged him,” said a second witness, also a female 60 Minutes veteran. “Bill, as a human being, wanted answers. He said, ‘Look, I do this for a living. Come on, David, who do you think you’re talking to? Was it really that bad? Was it really that bad that you had to do this right now? This must have been something so horrible, can you share that with us?’ And David wouldn’t do that.”
It wasn’t until Wednesday night, after several hours of refusing to characterize Fager’s allegedly policy-violating text or even identify the recipient, that the network released excerpts of it during Duncan’s reported package.
Duncan’s report, and how CBS News would handle the termination of one of its top executives, was highly anticipated in the media world. Before it aired, a former CBS News staffer told The Daily Beast: “Watch them bury Jeff Fager tonight. They might even drag his body down the street. It will be remarkable.”
Duncan’s report, which quoted liberally from the allegations against Fager in The New Yorker, did not disappoint.
“Since Jeff Fager publicly referred to our exchange today, I want to be transparent about it,” Duncan told viewers, according to a transcript provided by CBS News. “Sunday evening, I reached out to Fager for comment on the articles alleging he ‘groped or touched CBS employees at company parties.’
“In addition to denying these charges, Fager—in a text—said (quote) ‘…If you repeat these false accusations without any of your own reporting to back them up you will be held responsible for harming me.’
“He went on to say: ‘Be careful. There are people who lost their jobs trying to harm me and if you pass on these damaging claims without your own reporting to back them up that will become a serious problem.”
At the end of Duncan’s report, anchor Jeff Glor—on Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, awaiting the landfall of Hurricane Florence—offered words of support: “You have done great work. It’s difficult enough without dealing with this. That message was unacceptable. I think it’s important for you to know, for everyone to know back there, that I, we, the entire team at Evening News supports you 100 percent.”
Fager, who is said to regret sending the text to Duncan, declined to comment for this article. As The Daily Beast previously reported, he was among several accused high-profile media men, including disgraced Today show star Matt Lauer, who’d hired an aggressive Northern Virginia law firm, Clare Locke, in an unsuccessful effort to suppress news stories concerning alleged workplace misconduct.
Wednesday night, scores of Fager loyalists gathered at P.J. Clarke’s near his Lincoln Center apartment to toast and commiserate with their fired boss.
“People are fucking pissed,” an attendee told The Daily Beast.
Arriving at the network in 1982 from a local station in San Francisco, Fager exuded a sort of frat-boy bonhomie, a vestige of his skiing and drinking days at upstate New York’s Colgate University, and was supremely confident and cocky, even as he deftly maneuvered through the news division’s hazard zones and bounded up the corporate ziggurat.
In a Darwinian environment typical of network television, Fager beguiled such challenging, larger-than-life personalities as 60 Minutes founder Don Hewitt and alpha-male Evening News anchor Dan Rather.
Safely cocooned in “Fager World,” he managed to thrive at practically everything he did, whether it was helming coverage from the CBS London bureau, producing segments under Hewitt at 60 Minutes, executive-producing Rather’s nightly newscast, creating a successful 60 Minutes spinoff, 60 Minutes II, and ultimately replacing the legendary Hewitt at CBS’s hugely popular Sunday magazine show.
Multiple CBS insiders told The Daily Beast that initially Rhodes, who had been a top executive at Fox News and Bloomberg but had little to no television production experience, seemed to get on well with his new boss, Fager.
But over time, they said, Rhodes became frustrated with having to report to the CBS News chairman, who was simultaneously running 60 Minutes as a separate fiefdom that was not accountable to the news division. Even after he stepped down to run the news magazine full-time, Fager continued to report to Moonves and not news president Rhodes—a source of increasing irritation, insiders said.
In the end, whether justified or not, Rhodes has succeeded in removing that irritant. In his memo, Rhodes wrote that Bill Owens will supervise 60 Minutes temporarily but that Rhodes and a lieutenant, Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews, will “begin the search for a new executive producer.”
Variety listed the potential candidates as CBS veteran producer Susan Zirinsky, Vice Media executive Josh Tyrangiel, and senior 60 Minutes producer Tanya Simon, daughter of the show’s late correspondent Bob Simon.