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Golden world of Jeff Fager

Times Staff Writer

Jeff Fager lives in a place that CBS colleagues of the heir apparent to run “60 Minutes” jokingly refer to as “FagerWorld.”

It’s a place of happy families and enchanted careers, “where even the in-laws are beautiful,” says Fager’s boss, CBS News President Andrew Heyward, and “your show gets a time period move and the ratings go up instead of down.” Now he’s been given the job of running the oldest, most influential of TV news magazines. “His life does seem charmed,” says Heyward, who has played a key role in the 48-year-old Fager’s success over the years, and sent his own son to Colgate University because he was so impressed with Fager’s college friends whenever they visited him at CBS. “When it rains in FagerWorld, it rains gold coins.”

After a career as hard-charging foreign producer and executive producer of “CBS Evening News With Dan Rather,” Fager got what some would call an unenviable post in 1998, as the founding executive producer of “60 Minutes II.” The spinoff of its venerable namesake was the source of contention, because “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt, who at 80 remains at the show’s helm, hated the idea and didn’t want it on the CBS schedule, for fear it would dilute his own highly successful show.

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But Fager, his supporters say, pulled off the impossible, turning the newcomer into an award-winning program that didn’t embarrass its tradition but nonetheless carved out its own identity and journalistic voice. Hewitt came around. And last week, Hewitt agreed to turn over the reins of “60 Minutes” to Fager in June 2004.

Feisty Hewitt revels in dramatic confrontations played out in the press; Fager, originally from outside Boston, is a more private father of three, who sees the world through “rose-colored glasses,” staffers say. He’s just as press savvy, though, telling a Boston reporter that having Hewitt agree to stay on at CBS is like having “Ted Williams ... still around to help me with my swing,” an analogy he changed to “Babe Ruth” for New York reporters. Those who work with them say the two also share key traits when it comes to the all-important “60 Minutes” screening room, where decisions are made on what makes the cut, and what’s simply cut: They are decisive and know what they want. “He has an almost eerie self-confidence,” Heyward says, that “doesn’t spill over into megalomania or arrogance.”

Producers, correspondents and editors will often work weeks or months on “60 Minutes” pieces, which spend more time in development than many stories at rival shows. (The “60 Minutes” programs have been criticized at times for not being timelier in jumping on the news.) While executives have input along the way, “you’re out there on a limb with not a whole lot of safety net,” Fager says, and it all comes down to the screening.

Fager, a “60 Minutes” producer for six years earlier in his career, remembers well when the lights came up after one such session and Hewitt said: “Where do you want it? Right between the eyes?” “60 Minutes,” he says, “is a very adult place. You’re not allowed to beat around the bush, and it’s not personal. It’s about ‘your story can be better and here’s how to make it better, period.’ I find that refreshing.”

“In any kind of collaborative reporting, you can’t continue very long if you’re at daggers pointed on every story, and I think he’s a terrific, accommodating kind of man, without being a pushover,” says Morley Safer, who worked closely with Fager. “He’s a tough editor in that cutting room, which Don is also.”

Last week, Fager killed a “60 Minutes II” piece -- he declines to say whose -- outright. “I didn’t know why it mattered, I didn’t quite see the reason for doing it,” he says. “I told him, ‘sorry.’ There’s not much you can say.”

Safer says, however, that Fager is also “an enthusiast, as is Don. He gets steamed about a story. He’s very upbeat, very positive, a very well-rounded guy. He’s got a life out there, which some people don’t.”

Asked for “60 Minutes II” stories that reflect his own sensibilities, Fager ultimately picks two from correspondent Bob Simon, one on the U.S. pilot shot down over Iraq and another on the “lost boys” of the Sudan, both foreign reports that run counter to newsmagazines’ trend toward domestic crime stories and celebrity interviews.

Unusually, Fager walked away from a career path that was taking him to similar places. Based in London from 1985 to ’88, he found himself away from his family half the year. “It got a little strange,” he says of racing off to cover the bombing of Libya or the Palestinian-Israeli conflicts in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. “You get to like it too much. It gets the blood going. It’s addictive.” So, he says, he “pulled the plug” and returned to the U.S. “Family comes first.”

In addition to accumulating the foreign experience that was a rite of passage for his generation of CBS News executives, Fager has succeeded at CBS News by being a loyal deputy. He was a producer on the launch team of “48 Hours,” with Heyward as executive producer, before going to “60 Minutes” for six years. He later served as deputy to Heyward at “Evening News.” When Heyward was named CBS News president, Fager won a tough battle for the executive producer’s job at the newscast, where he was also noticed by higher-ups for working within the more austere budgets then being imposed.

There was little panic among the “60 Minutes” staff last week about the prospect of a new boss in 18 months. “He comes out of this culture, for better or worse,” Safer says. “There’s nothing he has to learn and he’s been doing it. It’s going to be a question of changing desks.”

Safer says Fager has “one major weakness, a penchant for extremely bad practical jokes.” He has faked memos from higher ups to his colleagues and he places prank calls to executives, imitating their friends. The results of one joke gone awry are framed in Fager’s office, a piece of fabric labeled, “Weak Coffee on Cheap Curtain,” that came about when Safer threw his cup of coffee at the producer. Neither side professes to remember what prompted the exchange. “I would not want to intrude in his privacy,” Safer says.

“The next joke’s going to be on Morley Safer,” says Fager. “Especially after I get that big desk right next to his.”


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