The Secret World Behind '60 Minutes'
In a rare behind-the-scenes visit with TV’s most revered news program, the inner workings of CBS' crown jewel are revealed. Says executive producer Jeff Fager: "We piss off some really important Hollywood types on a regular basis."
This story first appeared in the April 19-26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Lara Logan emerges from her 60 Minutes office on the ninth floor of an anonymous West 57th Street office tower that shares its lobby with a BMW dealership. She greets a visiting reporter before taking off in a speed walk down the hall, calling out, “It’s a bit stressful,” over her shoulder. The correspondent is preparing for a screening with 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager of her upcoming piece about the hunt for African warlord Joseph Kony. “This is a story I care a lot about,” explains Logan, a South African who made her bones covering the violence of her country’s post-apartheid regime. “And I hate for him not to be happy,” she adds, referring to Fager.
On this last Tuesday in March, Logan, Fager, 60 Minutes executive editor Bill Owens, producer Jeff Newton (a tall, thick man with a shaved head who endured six days in the unforgiving jungles of central Africa before Logan arrived) and about a half-dozen other staffers file into the windowless screening room. Fager -- reading glasses perched on his nose, pen tapping the table, Logan's script in front of him -- sits on the far right of a long conference table facing a 52-inch flat-screen at the other end of the room. Dark-blue folding theater seats with ashtrays in the armrests -- vestiges from a pre-cancer-awareness era -- line the right and left walls. Logan sits at Fager's right, arms folded across her chest. She watches as Fager marks up the script, her eyes darting back and forth between the screen and his script.
As Logan's piece makes clear, Kony is now the target of a U.S. Special Operations manhunt. American officials, working in concert with the Ugandan military, strive to keep the extent of their involvement quiet so as not to inflame anti-American sentiment in Africa or spook a war-beleaguered American public. Kony has kidnapped tens of thousands of young boys for his army, and his henchmen have terrorized others into submission by hacking off arms, lips, ears. A 30-minute video -- Kony 2012 -- went viral last year, elevating Kony from anonymous madman to notorious war criminal. And in a postmodern twist, one of the creators of the video -- which generated more than 100 million views in less than a week, enabling the nongovernmental organization that disseminated it to collect close to $20 million in donations -- suffered a very public meltdown in March 2012 when he was detained by police after he was spotted in his underwear on a San Diego street allegedly masturbating and vandalizing cars. But the video and its controversial creator are of little interest to Logan and 60 Minutes executives. They do not show the video in the draft, and it warrants only a one-sentence mention in the open.
After 14 minutes and 25 seconds, the lights come up. Fager pronounces the piece "terrific." But "something is missing here" -- he wants to know what will happen when Kony is captured by the Ugandan military: "It's more than a curiosity."
Responds Logan bluntly: "They'll kill him. It's going to be an ugly, awful ending for him." Fager decides he wants a clearer picture of the U.S. involvement in a manhunt that has faint echoes of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Owens interjects that it's "odd" to even mention the Kony 2012 video. "It was such a Hollywood thing," he says. "[Kony] is the worst guy walking the face of the earth right now."
Logan: "Forget about the video?"
Owens: "Pfft, it's a sideshow."
Fager: "F--- it. You guys went there [to Africa]."
So now there will be no mention at all of Kony 2012 when Logan's piece hits TV screens April 14. Six months in the making and with a price tag between $125,000 and $150,000, the segment is not even the most expensive for the newsmagazine. The show's war-zone reporting in such hotspots as Afghanistan and Syria, where transportation, insurance and security cost dearly (private security can double the cost of a piece), easily can run to $200,000 for each segment. That's more than double the cost of an entire hour of some newsmagazines in the postcrash media economy. And yet, the corporate bean counters have not descended.
"The most important thing about that show is the quality. They take time to do those stories," says CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves, who persuaded Fager to take the chairmanship job at CBS News in early 2011 after many months of wooing. "Could Jeff do the show cheaper? Probably. But that's not the place to scrimp."
With its mix of hard-news investigations, soft features and behind-the-scenes profiles of people unlikely to grant them, from Steven Spielberg to global soccer superstar Lionel Messi, 60 Minutes has changed little since the CBS News program debuted 45 years ago. Among the last redoubts on television for investigative reporting, especially overseas, as well as a coveted platform for Hollywood heavyweights and political power players, the newsmagazine will go just about anywhere -- and spend whatever it takes in time and dollars -- to get the best story. If there aren't as many ambush interviews -- a staple of the earlier years that made resident attack dog Mike Wallace famous and feared -- Steve Kroft has been known to chase down reluctant prey including controversial Three Cups of Tea co-author Greg Mortenson and congressional leaders (legally) trading stock on insider information, a piece that finally shamed Congress into passing the STOCK Act banning the practice. The show has prospered by remaining true to its original vision -- the "high Murrow" and the "low Murrow," as creator Don Hewitt explained it, invoking CBS journalism legend Edward R. Murrow.
"There's no secret to the success of the broadcast," says correspondent Morley Safer, 81, who joined the show in 1970. "It is staying out of the gutter and handling just about any kind of story imaginable. And at some point, maybe around the 25th year, we became a habit."
60 Minutes remains a Sunday night habit for more than 12.7 million viewers this season, retaining an enviable dominance among TV newsmagazines (more than double the viewership of NBC's Dateline, its closest competitor). It has ranked among TV's weekly top 10 14 times this season. "The thing we most love to do at 60 Minutes is be surprising," says correspondent Lesley Stahl, whose profile in October of Spielberg revealed a family secret unknown to many of the director's close associates. (More on that later.) That attention to the art and craft of storytelling and willingness to follow a story where it leads confers an imprimatur of seriousness upon its subjects. It's one reason that Hollywood studios and book publishers view 60 Minutes as the Holy Grail of media gets.