Will Scandal-Scarred CBS News Pull the Plug on Its Chief, David Rhodes?
The likelihood of David Rhodes leaving is ‘very real,’ a CBS News veteran told The Daily Beast, as Bill Owens and Susan Zirinsky vie to be executive producer of ‘60 Minutes.’
As CBS Corporation executives ponder who will succeed ousted 60 Minutes chief Jeff Fager—Fager’s longtime deputy Bill Owens, 48 Hours producer Susan Zirinsky or, less likely, perhaps even a dark horse from outside the network—the clock also appears to be ticking on news division president David Rhodes.
His future hangs in the balance as the CBS board of directors and the CBS Corp.’s interim chief executive, Joseph Ianniello, determine the company’s remedies—beyond denying disgraced CEO Leslie Moonves a $120 million golden parachute—for the wrongdoing cited in a leaked draft of an internal report by two white-shoe law firms hired to investigate allegations of workplace sexual harassment, abusive behavior, and gender discrimination.
(Eyebrows were raised last week within the news division when lead attorney Mary Jo White of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, one of the two investigating law firms, was reported to have apologized to the CBS board for the leak in The New York Times.)
Rhodes’ current four-year deal—announced with great fanfare in March 2015 by Moonves, who praised “David’s exceptional news judgment and competitive acumen”—expires at the end of February. It’s perhaps revealing that a CBS corporate spokesperson offered zero guidance—ditto a news division spokesperson—on whether Rhodes is likely to remain in the job, and Rhodes likewise declined to comment.
Could he end up being deposed?
“If you’re to believe the internal rumor mills, that’s very real,” said a longtime CBS News veteran who, like other CBS News insiders interviewed for this story, asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely.
Among other problems, this person cited CBS News’ primetime coverage of the Nov. 6 midterm elections—a program that ranked dead last in the Nielsen ratings among the three broadcast and three top cable networks—as “the kind of moment where everybody realized that the emperor had no clothes. CBS News has always been a place, going back to the years of Dan [Rather] and [Bob] Schieffer, that had political heft and savvy and reporting. But this was a showcase for their struggling correspondents. It was embarrassing network-wide, not just within the news division.”
A reliable bright spot on the CBS News schedule, however, has been 60 Minutes, the 50-year-old Sunday news magazine show (indeed, it invented the form) which consistently ranks among the top 10 programs in all of television and is said to be the news division’s cash cow that helps support the rest of CBS’ newsgathering operations.
This past Sunday, for instance, it was No. 3 in total viewers—14.55 million, according to Nielsen, which actually represented a slight increase over the same night last year.
With offices at a far remove from CBS news headquarters—eight floors above a BMW dealership on the opposite side of Manhattan’s West 57th Street—the show’s 100-odd staffers pride themselves on ornery independence.
It was a source of frustration for Rhodes that Jeff Fager, who from 2011 to 2015 was his boss when he held the dual titles of CBS News chairman and 60 Minutes executive producer, answered to his corporate rabbi Moonves, not to Rhodes, after he gave up the chairman’s title to produce the newsmagazine full-time.
That was the case until Moonves was sacked in September, leaving Fager unprotected in the crosshairs of The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow and other journalists looking into the program’s allegedly misogynistic, abusive, and frat-house newsroom culture (allegations disputed by Fager, who is reportedly deciding whether or not to file a wrongful termination lawsuit against CBS).
On Sept. 12, Rhodes fired Fager for sending a threatening text message to CBS News correspondent Jericka Duncan, who was covering the scandals—and then walked across the street to explain his action to Fager’s shocked and angry former colleagues.
It was an ugly scene, and Rhodes was clearly unprepared for the fury that assaulted him. For nearly an hour, 60 Minutes staffers vented their outrage at Rhodes for firing Fager, who had successfully steered the program since 2004; at one point, correspondent Bill Whitaker interrogated the news division president as though he were Mike Wallace grilling a swindler.
“Look, I do this for a living. Come on, David, who do you think you’re talking to?” Whitaker demanded, according to witnesses. “Was it really that bad? Was it really that bad that you had to do this right now?”
The staff didn’t actually know what Fager had texted to Duncan—“Be careful. There are people who lost their jobs trying to harm me”—and Rhodes, citing confidentiality, declined to tell them.
Hours later, when CBS finally released the contents of Fager’s text, longtime 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft told The New York Times: “The text to Jericka Duncan was threatening and inappropriate. It’s unfortunate, and everything about this situation saddens me.”
As reported by The New York Times, investigators hired by CBS found that Fager had “engaged in certain acts of sexual misconduct” with colleagues and failed to stop misbehavior by others. Yet investigators also concluded that media reports had exaggerated 60 Minutes’ “frat house environment” and that “in more recent years... Mr. Fager demonstrated sensitivity and support for working women,” promoting several to senior positions.
Investigators, revealed the Times, also found that CBS continues to pay out a settlement to a woman who claimed that Don Hewitt, who created 60 Minutes in 1968, “sexually assaulted her on repeated occasions and destroyed her career.”
According to TMZ, CBS employees are being asked directly via a survey if they have ever been sexually abused or harassed.
The 60 Minutes crew, by some accounts, consider themselves a special class of people at CBS and there was hardly more compelling evidence for that than the spectacle of nominal employees challenging their nominal employer, Rhodes, with little concern for their job safety.
The 45-year-old Rhodes, a former Fox News and Bloomberg Television executive, was the youngest network news president in the history of American broadcasting when he was named by CBS in 2011. He has enjoyed remarkable staying power at a network that, over the years, has switched news presidents almost as often as Italy changes governments. (Andrew Heyward, who served as CBS News president from January 1996 to November 2005, is another notable exception.)
Rhodes’ detractors at the network, however, point out that he’s a “suit,” skilled in the ways of corporate politics, but has little if any experience as a hands-on news producer. “A facile player for the moment,” as one CBS News insider described Rhodes to The Daily Beast.
In recent months Rhodes has presided over eroding ratings for the network’s news programming, on-air upheaval and public scandal, especially the tawdry allegations surrounding disgraced CBS This Morning anchor and 60 Minutes correspondent Charlie Rose.
The once supremely well-connected Rose, who had conducted interviews with former presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George W. Bush for the recent 60 Minutes tribute to George H.W. Bush, had to be edited out of the package, which was largely in the can by the time the 41st president died, at age 94, on Nov. 30. CBS This Morning host Norah O’Donnell was dispatched to re-interview the younger Bush.
CBS is still struggling to repair the reputational damage inflicted by Moonves’ alleged decades-long record of sexual misconduct, detailed by The New Yorker and The New York Times (and denied by Moonves), to say nothing of the widespread management claims of ignorance, including by Rhodes, regarding Rose’s alleged misbehavior with female underlings until it was detailed last year by The Washington Post.
“I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk,” said a second CBS News veteran concerning Rhodes’ future longevity as news president. “I’m not sure that Rhodes wants it anymore or what his other options are. There are so many open positions right now, it’s ridiculous. We don’t even have a permanent head of the network or the company. We don’t even have an executive producer for 60 Minutes.”
As a counter to internal speculation that Rhodes could soon depart, Variety this week published a story that credited him with “steer[ing] CBS News forward in many areas,” including creating a new digital business, CBSN—the first sustained streaming video news service by a major broadcast network when it launched four years ago—and portrayed Rhodes as the executive who’ll be attempting to fix the news division’s problems.
A longtime CBS News veteran, meanwhile, said Rhodes’ journalistic instincts are solid, but added that he has been less successful in choosing and handling on-air talent.
In one instance in May 2017, Rhodes is said to have irritated Moonves, his then-boss, by abruptly removing Scott Pelley from the CBS Evening News anchor chair (and sending the fired Pelley to 60 Minutes full-time) without announcing a replacement; it was an awkward move at best that prompted months of uncertainty along with widespread speculation that the firing was motivated, at least in part, by lingering rancor between the news division president and the anchor.
Pelley’s and Rhodes’ relationship, never warm, deteriorated in 2014 after the anchor enlisted his pugnacious agent—Ari Emanuel, co-chief executive of William Morris Endeavor—to squeeze the news president for a huge raise at a time when Rhodes was trying to control costs and revamp CBS’s long-troubled morning show.
Jeff Glor, whom Rhodes eventually named as Pelley’s successor, has experienced year-over-year ratings declines since he formally took over the news division’s signature program in October 2017.
Glor’s competitors have likewise lost eyeballs as the broadcast networks continue to suffer from cord-cutting and other changes in viewing habits. But the CBS Evening News’ performance has been measurably worse—which has also been the case with two other shows where Rhodes has made recent personnel changes, Face The Nation and CBS This Morning.
According to Nielsen, the CBS Evening News—from Sept. 25, 2017 to Sept. 24 this year—hemorrhaged 9 percent in the advertiser-friendly 25-54 age demographic, compared to 4 percent declines for NBC and ABC.
The morning television stats are even more brutal.
While NBC’s Today lost 9 percent in the advertising demo and ABC’s Good Morning America lost 10 percent, CBS This Morning, plunged a gut-punching 15 percent since Rhodes transferred John Dickerson from Face the Nation in January to replace Rose as co-host of the morning show along with O’Donnell and Gayle King.
Further turmoil seemed evident from the pending departure of Ryan Kadro—for unexplained reasons other than “I need a new challenge (and a serious nap)”—after two and a half years as executive producer of CBS This Morning.
Face the Nation, where Rhodes installed Margaret Brennan to replace Dickerson, has lost ground to NBC’s Meet the Press and ABC’s This Week in total viewers (down 9 percent, compared to 1 percent and 3 percent respectively), although CBS’s Sunday public affairs show—which a year ago was actually beating its rivals in the total viewers category—retained its second-place ranking in the demo.
Even though his future at CBS is uncertain, Rhodes is said to be asserting his authority as the person who will chose the next executive producer of 60 Minutes—presumably in consultation with his interim boss, Ianniello.
Scott Pelley, for one, has been actively lobbying for Bill Owens, his close friend and producer going back to their days covering the Bush White House and the second Iraq war. During the Emmy ceremony in October, where 60 Minutes picked up yet another laurel, Pelley made an acceptance speech in which he heaped praise on Owens.
In contrast to Fager, who liked to stroll the newsroom schmoozing his staff, Owens tends to spend workdays in his office, quietly directing traffic from behind his stand-up desk. (Pelley and Owens declined to comment for this story.)
Aside from Pelley, 60 Minutes star Lesley Stahl, correspondent Bill Whitaker and part-timer Anderson Cooper, the CNN anchor, have also been vouching for Owens, Fager’s longtime second in command who has been helming the program for the past three months as both executive editor and acting executive producer.
If Owens officially gets the nod, his deputy will likely be Tanya Simon, a longtime 60 Minutes producer and daughter of the late correspondent Bob Simon.
The other publicly name-checked front-runner, Susan Zirinsky—who also declined to comment—has been toiling at CBS News since her college days in 1972, when she was a weekend production assistant in the Washington bureau, covered wars and the White House, and for the past two decades has helmed 48 Hours, which has morphed over its 32 years into a true-crime show; she also executive-produces longform documentaries.
Unlike Owens, a creature of the insular 60 Minutes culture, Zirinsky is an outsider who is viewed with skepticism among some members of the newsmagazine’s staff. She achieved legendary status at the network and beyond as the inspiration for the Holly Hunter character in the 1987 film Broadcast News.
Hard-driving and gregarious, Zirinsky—who is 66—has even been mentioned in recent weeks as a possible successor to Rhodes, which would make her something of an historic figure—the second woman to head a broadcast news division (after Deborah Turness' ill-fated stint at NBC)—as well as offering welcome optics for a network trying mightily to distance itself from sexual harassment and discrimination claims.
The general uncertainty at CBS News, accompanied by the heat of public scrutiny, has been taking a toll, especially at 60 Minutes.
“I’ve never seen a political campaign run in journalism before,” one CBS insider sighed. “It’s extremely wearying.”