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."
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."