Meet The Media Mensches, 2009

It’s at least in part thanks to Mr. Stein that, for now, one need not worry. Judging from the books he’ll be working on in 2009—new novels by Sam Lipsyte and Denis Johnson, a poetry collection from Frederick Seidel, an English translation of Vladimir Sorokin, a short story collection from Lydia Davis—that culture is rather alive and well.

Leon Neyfakh

Jeffrey Fager
Executive Producer, 60 Minutes

On the afternoon of June 17, CBS News’ mercurial foreign correspondent Lara Logan appeared on The Daily Show, where over the course of a seven-minute interview, she proceeded to eviscerate the American media’s coverage of the war in Iraq. The armchair academics on TV were phonies, she said. They might have visited the Green Zone once. They knew nothing. If she had to watch the stories about the war on American TV, she’d blow her brains out. “It would drive me nuts,” she said.

TV producers were apathetic about our conflicts overseas, she said. She once did a piece once on Navy SEALs taking down high-value Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. Afterward, her bosses suggested that all guys in uniforms looked the same. Ditto, radical mullahs. Unless it was Osama bin Laden, who cared? Sometimes it felt like she had to aim an armor-piercing RPG at the bureau chief just to get her stories on the air.

Ms. Logan mentioned one exception. She praised Jeffrey Fager, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, noting that “he always says to me, ‘Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, Afghanistan, Afghanistan. We don’t see enough of it. I want people to know more. I want people to see more.’”

When Mr. Fager took over the reigns of 60 Minutes from legendary producer Don Hewitt in 2004, some of the saber-toothed correspondents on the show worried that the Young Turk (then a mere puppy of 49 years), would soften up the vulcanized newsmagazine in search of younger viewers.

Mr. Fager did no such thing. Rather than tart up the weekly telecasts with stories about, say, teenage sex rituals and celebrity hijinks, Mr. Fager did the improbable—he restored the aging institution to ratings prominence by mixing in a new cast of talented reporters (including Lara Logan, Katie Couric and Anderson Cooper) and bulking up on serious, timely, intelligent stories.

Under Mr. Fager’s steady hand, 60 Minutes had a breakout year in 2008 (some 40 years after initially breaking out), finishing consistently among the top 10 most watched shows on television. During back-to-back weeks in November, 60 Minutes pulled in larger audiences than any other program on the air.

Along the way, Mr. Fager’s team of correspondents filed hard-charging, elbow-swinging stories on the economic crisis, the presidential campaign, and—yes—on America’s pair of largely ignored wars overseas. Lara Logan reported stories from the Pakistan border. Leslie Stahl from Iraq. Scott Pelley from Afghanistan. At a time when long-form journalism is an increasingly hard sell to network programmers, Mr. Fager managed to make a strong case for spending the money on painstakingly reported, carefully polished stories often taking place overseas.

Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Fager keeps a low profile. He manages his high-strung team of star correspondents with a low-key, conflict-free management style. The cerebral son of a doctor is known for his calming bedside manner, which can come in handy given the bouts of hysteria known to afflict many a star TV correspondent.

As a result, many TV insiders consider Mr. Fager the CBS News president in waiting. And he got there not by showing the network how to scrape and bow to a low common denominator, but how to lead in the news, how to bring the audience around to what’s important rather than bringing the network around to what isn’t.

Should CBS chief Les Moonves get around to moving current prez Sean McManus back to the sports division full-time, Mr. Fager, goes the theory, would be first in line to take over the job. That is, if he wants it.

At a time when much of the traditional news media has taken to chewing its nails anxiously and tossing precious money at charlatan news consultants, it would be understandable if he didn’t. But if he’s the mensch we think he is, he will.

Felix Gillette

Meet The Media Mensches, 2009