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.
"It remains the primetime newsmagazine of record," says Paul Bogaards, executive vp at Alfred A. Knopf, who placed Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on the show to support her controversial memoir Lean In. "It's not just the viewership, it's the kind of viewer that you are capturing." Sandberg's book shot to the top of best-seller lists upon its March 11 release. It has sold 285,000 copies and went back to press April 1. "We look at all kinds of analytics," he adds. "We know that the book segments on 60 Minutes drive results."
Subjects are given no control over how they are presented or what material makes it into the piece. "We don't make deals," says Stahl. The show preps thoroughly whether tailing a ruthless despot or A-list actor. "They are perfectionists," says Hugh Jackman, who dissolved into tears discussing his father's reaction to his mother's abandonment of the family during an interview with correspondent Scott Pelley that aired in December. "It was like shooting a movie, as they wanted to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end."
One obvious side effect of the effectiveness of the show's format -- with the correspondent-as-reporter model -- is that the storytellers are as recognizable as the luminaries they're shadowing. "Wherever I went with Anderson Cooper in my hometown [of Syosset, N.Y.], people were way more excited to see him than me," notes Knocked Up and This Is 40 filmmaker Judd Apatow, who was profiled in December.
His selection was part of a thoughtful process: With only about 100 stories a year on 31 broadcasts -- each season runs from September to May -- Fager and Owens are ever mindful of celebrities pushing their latest project. Listening to pitches from correspondents and producers (each correspondent works with a regular team of five to six producers whose job it is to pound the pavement for stories) consumes a big chunk of each day. But they also get directly lobbied by studios and agents.
"We don't really pay attention to the lobbying," says Fager. "It doesn't take on an added meaning. We still think of it as, what's going to make for an interesting story? We piss off some really important Hollywood types on a regular basis, I'm sure." (In fact, Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS Corp., might be the only place that doesn't lobby them; the Chinese wall is sacrosanct.)
The show remains a coveted perch for luminaries, yet its signature remains the deeply reported pieces that can take months -- even years -- to come together. Pelley's award-winning hourlong piece about an Iowa National Guard battalion deployed to Iraq was shot over 18 months. "We followed them all the way from the moment they got the phone call in the cornfield, through their training, through their experience in Iraq and all the way home," says Pelley.
Fager says that even while sparing no cost, 60 Minutes -- and the news division overall -- is profitable. This despite the fact that the audience, with a median age of 60, is deemed too ancient to justify charging advertisers a premium, as the heavy rotation of commercials for erectile dysfunction underscore. "The TV-news audience is old," concedes Fager. "But 60 Minutes is, in many households, a family appointment." And it pulls in close to 4 million viewers in the 25-to-54 demographic -- that's more than Parks and Recreation, The Good Wife, The Mindy Project and all of the broadcast late-night shows. 60 Minutes booked $123 million in ad revenue in 2012, up from $115 million the year earlier, according to Kantar Media. (And the show has eased into the digital age with the web extension "Overtime" and an iPad app, while the monthly Showtime spinoff 60 Minutes Sports launched in January.)
The news division under Fager has grafted the 60 Minutes DNA onto daily broadcasts including its heretofore troubled morning show, which was rechristened CBS This Morning in January 2012, and especially the CBS Evening News, where there is much cross pollination with Pelley in the anchor chair.
Fager assures that costly foreign coverage will remain integral to 60 Minutes and a priority at the news division overall. "I can promise you that when you see less international reporting in other parts of broadcast news, it's because of the expense," he says. "And that's because they've deemed the audience uninterested. If we think it's important, the onus is on us to make it as interesting as we can. We don't say the audience is turned off by the war in Afghanistan. Screw that."
Nonetheless, high-ticket foreign stories in Afghanistan, Syria and China are offset by cheaper domestic pieces. For instance, interviews with the president at the White House pack a ratings punch without the steep price tag. Kroft's 2008 sit-down with then newly elected President Obama and Michelle Obama at the Chicago Ritz-Carlton 10 days after the election garnered more than 25 million viewers -- at the time, the show's biggest audience in nine years.
60 Minutes has had exactly two executive producers in 45 years: Hewitt, who died in 2009, and Fager. The latter has been at the broadcast for more than 25 years; he joined CBS News in 1982 as a segment producer and worked his way up to executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and later 60 Minutes II. A talented storyteller with a hard-news bent, he became Hewitt's heir apparent long before the official passing of the baton -- resisted by Hewitt -- in 2004, when Fager was 49 and Hewitt was 81. At the time, Safer, an amateur artist, presented Fager with a pointed welcome memento that still sits on a shelf in Fager's 60 Minutes office. It is a sculpture of two naked Greco-Roman wrestlers. "One is grabbing the other by a part of the anatomy that would not be considered fair," says Safer, laughing. The plaque on the pedestal reads, "The Tranquil Transition."
Hewitt and Wallace would engage in epic battles in the screening room. "Don liked drama," recalls Safer. "After a screening, the lights would come on, and there would be a long silence. And then Don would say, forgive my language, 'What the f--- was that all about?!' And then the blood would start to flow." In contrast, when asked who wins the screening-room debates with Fager, Stahl describes a toughness marked by a seasoned integrity: "He always wins, but he is not arbitrary. If the argument is well put, he'll say, 'OK, you're right.' He's sane."
Hewitt had a different reputation, supporting an environment in which Wallace was known for stealing stories from his colleagues. Moreover, women who were brought into the fold (Diane Sawyer, Meredith Vieira) were hazed so severely that they remain silent about their experiences to this day. "You could hear the doors slamming all the way down at my end of this place," says Fager. "It was colorful. But it also got in the way. It's different now. There's still competition for stories. But it's healthy competition. There are no doors being slammed."
With Fager in charge, emphasizes Safer, "there isn't quite so much blood on the floor." He has brought along a new generation of correspondents, including Logan, 42, whom he championed over Hewitt's initial objections; Cooper, the 45-year-old globetrotting CNN anchor; and Pelley, 55, whom he put front and center. (Pelley will file 21 pieces for 60 Minutes this season despite also having a day job as CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor.)
"We lucked out with Jeff because he was determined to keep it a hard-hitting broadcast," says Stahl about the current team, which reaps the benefits of the show's resources and a no-questions-are-off-limits approach by teasing out surprising story nuggets in the process.
Case in point: Stahl and producer Ruth Streeter originally set out to show Spielberg making Lincoln. But the director, says Stahl, "didn't want to talk about the movie until the very, very, very end of our shoot, which made it very hard for us to plan." So they pursued the personal angle in the interim. When Stahl suggested talking to Spielberg's wife, actress Kate Capshaw, he said fine, but she said no. Then Spielberg offered up his parents. "And we said, well, huh, OK, his parents, that's interesting."
Indeed. It was during a pre-interview with Streeter that Spielberg's mother, Leah Adler, blurted out that she was the one who left Spielberg's father, not the other way around, as had been established in Hollywood lore. "That was completely unknown," says Stahl. "So we pursued that. And when Steven opened up about it" -- saying he still blamed his father even after learning the truth years after the divorce and waiting 15 years to reconcile, at Capshaw's urging -- "we thought, 'Wow, this is really interesting. We're going to do our story on this.' It was reporting and digging, it was an unusual Hollywood story to say the least. And we had set out to do the movie Lincoln." Spielberg professed his approval. But his parents were the real stars of the piece: "My mom and dad have gotten more mail, more calls, more e-mails. They're really happy," says Spielberg.
If the luxury of time to report a piece often leads to compelling turns in a preconceived narrative, the news can just as often break on you. Stahl and her producers began working on a profile of former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger well before the May 2011 news of a love child with his housekeeper and his subsequent breakup with wife Maria Shriver. And while the scandal gave Schwarzenegger's story a hot news hook, Stahl and producer Rich Bonin were determined to tell the bodybuilder/actor-turned-politico's full story; they already had traveled to his homeland of Austria with him when he became enveloped in scandal.
"He really didn't duck very many questions," says Stahl. "He didn't want me to ask about his children. But I did. I think if you come out of a tough interview, you're better off. The public thinks if you got a tough question and you answered it, there's more credibility there than if you just got softballs and played around." The explosive 60 Minutes interview in September was the first in a series of media appearances for Schwarzenegger -- who was promoting his just-released memoir (which included a seemingly hastily added chapter about the affair).
The show's executives try to sidestep the TV booking wars that have created multiplatform bonanzas for publishers who push interviews timed precisely to street dates. "I wish we didn't have to do stories that were pegged to book releases," admits Fager. "We do far fewer of those when it comes to celebrities." Newsmakers like Mark Owen, a member of the SEAL Team 6 unit that took out bin Laden and whose firsthand account (written under a pseudonym) of the mission, No Easy Day, warranted the entire hourlong broadcast, are the exception. "Mark Owen's book was newsworthy on a number of fronts, including the fact that he was even talking about [the mission] and writing a book about it," says Fager.
Still, a full hour of 60 Minutes -- for any topic -- is extremely rare. Although ABC's Diane Sawyer was the early front-runner for the interview in July 2011 with kidnap victim Jaycee Dugard, Dugard's representatives floated the idea of getting her the full hour. Fager characterizes such a request as "craziness. No way," he says. "Not in a million years. Not going to happen." Of course, Sawyer's compelling interview with Dugard ultimately ran over two hours and attracted nearly 15 million viewers. Fager admits that he would have liked to have landed Amanda Knox, another booking scooped up by Sawyer and scheduled to air April 30 in conjunction with Knox's book release.
If you ask the correspondents about which stories they are most proud, they'll invariably cite those that refused to fall into the conventional wisdom and thus drastically impacted the lives of others: Kroft's 2002 story about a 16-year-old African-American who was convicted of 28 counts of murder for a 1970 Arizona hotel fire (Kroft revisited the story on March 31, when Louis Taylor was set free after 42 years behind bars); Safer's 1983 piece about Lenell Geter, who was sentenced to life in prison for holding up a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Greenville, Texas, and freed after the 60 Minutes piece ran. "There's an old saying," says Safer. " 'You save one life, you save humanity.' "
That's not to say the franchise has not sustained a black eye or two over the years: Suppression of the Brown & Williamson tobacco story in the mid-1980s that became the Michael Mann-directed film The Insider and the botched 2004 60 Minutes II report about George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard are the most notorious examples. Fager, who launched 60 Minutes II but had assumed control of the flagship broadcast by the time that Rather's Bush report aired, seems cognizant of the sins of the past, yet company lawyers -- who wanted to be present at more screenings after what became known as Rathergate -- are only included in about one in 20. "Legal questions are rare, but fairness issues are daily," says Fager. "Every story we deal with, we deal with fairness issues. We pride ourselves on treating everybody fairly, including those people who refuse to cooperate with us."
Like Lance Armstrong.
Nearly 13 years ago, executive editor Owens and Pelley looked into nefarious rumors circulating in the insular cycling world about the seven-time Tour de France winner. At that time, recalls Owens, his conversations with Armstrong's representatives were "dismissive." By March 2011, when producer Michael Radutzky met with former Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton -- for six hours -- in the Newport Beach, Calif., office of Hamilton's lawyer, Armstrong was the target of a federal investigation. This time, the response from Armstrong and his team, known for its bullying tactics, was "ferocious," says Radutzky.
Three weeks after that six-hour meeting, Hamilton came to an oceanfront hotel room in Dana Point, Calif., for an on-camera sit-down with Pelley. The May 22 report, the result of a six-month investigation by Radutzky, Tanya Simon (correspondent Bob Simon's daughter), Oriana Zill de Granados and Flora Tartakovsky, was a bombshell -- and the beginning of the public unraveling of Armstrong's carefully tended public image. "He was and is a powerful individual," says Hamilton. "Obviously, safety was a concern for me. But they had my back through this whole thing."
There were threats: Armstrong's representatives set up a website and his attorneys issued Fager a howling letter of protest accusing the show of shoddy reporting and a reckless disregard for the truth. "It was addressed to me, but it went to every newspaper in the country before I woke up," recalls Fager.
The threats continued when Hamilton ran into Armstrong at an Aspen, Colo., restaurant shortly after the 60 Minutes report aired. Warned Armstrong, "We're going to make your life a living f---ing hell both in the courtroom and out," according to Hamilton. He immediately called his lawyer. "The second person I called was Michael Radutzky," says Hamilton. "The first person he called was the FBI. They had their story, but they weren't going to let Hercules walk all over me. And that just shows who they are. I'll be a fan of 60 Minutes for the rest of my life."