Executive Suite: Jeff Fager and David Rhodes
The CBS News chiefs talk about post-Katie ratings, refusing to pay Casey Anthony and why Lance Armstrong will never get an apology.
Jeff Fager and David Rhodes took the reins of CBS News at a tumultuous time: The entire Early Show on-air team had been replaced, and Katie Couric was mulling the end of her high-profile -- if not highly rated -- five years on the CBS Evening News. In February, Fager, 56, became the first chairman of the news division, and Rhodes, 37, who spent many years at Fox News and a shorter stint at Bloomberg, was brought in as president, in part so Fager could keep his day job as executive producer of 60 Minutes. "I knew right away we had common sensibilities," says Fager, a married father of three. They have given themselves a steep mandate: Get the network's daily broadcasts out of the ratings basement. (60 Minutes lately has led the news curve, breaking news that Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson apparently embellished parts of his memoir; it also aired explosive accusations from former teammates that Lance Armstrong doped.) They've hired MSNBC's Morning Joe executive producer Chris Licht as vp programming. Soon, Early will move from its drab digs on 5th Avenue near the Plaza Hotel to the broadcast center on West 57th Street."It's a two-person job," says Fager, "especially when you're talking about rebuilding the whole place." Broadcast news divisions are adjusting to austere budgets after years of layoffs. For CBS News, being in third place in the morning and evening makes turning a profit all the harder. During a town hall meeting with employees, Rhodes, married with two kids, acknowledged that "in recent years, it's been difficult trying to live within our means."
Jeff, when you only ran 60 Minutes, you had TV news' best gig. More headaches now, right?
FAGER I still have a great gig. He has the headaches.
RHODES That's the way we split it up.
FAGER What we want to do is restore CBS News to where it should be, where it needs to be.
What do you mean by "restoring" CBS News?
FAGER CBS News has drifted for quite some time without quite appreciating its own identity. I'm not conflicted about what we stand for, and 60 Minutes is a great example of that. We're a lot more current than we used to be.
Will the morning anchors stay the same?
FAGER It's too early to talk about that.
Do you think there's opportunity for Early, given the recent changes at Today?
RHODES We think there is great opportunity in the morning. That's irrespective of what's going on elsewhere in the news business. It's up to us to become more competitive.
"Checkbook journalism" has given TV news a bit of a black eye lately. We won't see Casey Anthony on CBS News if she's charging for an interview?
FAGER No. We're not conflicted by that at all. If we don't get the story because we're not going to pay for it, we don't get the story. There's plenty of other stories. I think that's how we distinguish ourselves from others.
David, an e-mail you sent telling the Early Show staff to "get with it" after they failed to pick up the 60 Minutes story about Mortenson was leaked. Are you sorry it was made public?
RHODES Any time you hit "send" to more than two people, you have to be prepared for a leak. That memo seemed to go around the world more times than the space shuttle -- but in the end, if everyone knows where CBS News is headed editorially, I'll take it.
Did it make you angry when Lance Armstrong impugned CBS News' integrity?
FAGER What made me angry was that they sent me a note accusing us of shoddy reporting …
RHODES Not saying that it wasn't true.
FAGER Right, not denying the allegations. But at 1 a.m. [they sent the note], and by the time I looked at it, there were several pieces already written using quotes [from Armstrong's reps]. That was annoying. I had a call from The Washington Post, and before I was able to return it, they had already written their piece. Why would you [publish] a story without talking to the other side? That is what was annoying. [Armstrong's reps] asked for an apology, which they will never get. We're proud of that story.
What's the impact of losing Katie Couric to ABC?
FAGER We have a new face of the news division [Scott Pelley], and we're happy with him. It's not a function of how it affects us that Katie's gone to ABC, but how well Scott does as the face of CBS News. I'm confident about that.
Do you have ratings expectations for Pelley?
FAGER To do better. It's really important. We want to win. I think Scott, more than anybody, wants to win. Being a distant third, which is how it's referred to, is really foreign to us. And uncomfortable.
David, does Roger Ailes really have bulletproof glass in his News Corp. office?
RHODES I don't know. I never tried to shoot through the window, though I did try to throw myself out of it.