Jeff Fager, who has overseen the top-rated TV newsmagazine “60 Minutes” since 2004, was fired from CBS News on Wednesday, the latest blow to a company that has been roiled by allegations of sexual misconduct at the highest levels.
“He violated company policy, and it is our commitment to uphold those policies at every level,” CBS News President David Rhodes said in a memo to staff.
Rhodes’ memo did not specify what policy Fager had violated. However, the network later revealed that Fager’s dismissal was related to a harshly worded text message he sent to CBS News correspondent Jericka Duncan, who was working on a piece following up on journalist Ronan Farrow’s #MeToo-related reporting in the New Yorker. Two of Farrow’s stories included allegations of inappropriate conduct by Fager while he was at “60 Minutes.”
Duncan showed the offending text during a report shown Wednesday on the “CBS Evening News with Jeff Glor.”
“If you repeat these false accusations without any of your own reporting to back them up you will be responsible for harming me,” the text message read. “There are people who lost their jobs trying to harm me and if you pass on these damaging claims without your own reporting to back them up that will become a serious problem.”
Before CBS related the contents of the text message, Fager issued a statement that said his departure was not related to the allegations in Farrow’s stories.
"The company’s decision had nothing to do with the false allegations printed in the New Yorker,” the statement said. “Instead, they terminated my contract early because I sent a text message to one of our own CBS reporters demanding that she be fair in covering the story. My language was harsh and, despite the fact that journalists receive harsh demands for fairness all the time, CBS did not like it. One such note should not result in termination after 36 years, but it did.”
But according to a CBS News representative, executives believed the text message was of a threatening nature, which made it a violation of company policy.
Bill Owens, who has served as executive editor of “60 Minutes” since 2008, will take over the venerable broadcast on an interim basis. Rhodes said a search will be conducted to find a permanent replacement.
Fager becomes the latest high-profile media industry figure to be brought down by the #MeToo movement that also claimed veteran journalist Charlie Rose (whom Fager hired for “60 Minutes”), NBC “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer and former CBS Chairman and Chief Executive Leslie Moonves.
Fager’s ouster comes three days after the forced resignation of Moonves, who is alleged to have harassed or assaulted at least a dozen women.
Fager has been on thin ice since Farrow’s story published in July that said he ignored inappropriate behavior at “60 Minutes,” and that there were at least three financial settlements paid to former CBS News employees related to harassment and discrimination allegations.
The media executive was mentioned again in a New Yorker story published Sunday that contained allegations against Moonves. The CBS boss, who denied the claims again him, resigned the same day.
The story included an allegation by a former female CBS News intern who said Fager groped her at a company event. Fager denied the allegation and accusations that he turned a blind eye to bad behavior in his operation.
While Fager had been fighting to keep his job, his chances of remaining at CBS diminished with the departure of Moonves. The former chief executive was loyal to Fager, who early in Moonves’ tenure at CBS produced a second, midweek edition of “60 Minutes” over the strenuous objections of Don Hewitt, the show’s creator.
In 2011, Fager reluctantly took over as chairman of CBS News, at Moonves’ request. He served in the role until 2014, when he moved back to “60 Minutes” full time and Rhodes was named president of CBS News.
Fager is only the second executive producer in the long history of “60 Minutes.” He took over the reins from Hewitt, who was able to run the program with a large degree of independence from the rest of CBS News.
Walled off from the rest of the news division, the program has had a reputation in the TV industry for having a misogynistic culture, dating from its early days when legendary correspondent Mike Wallace went up to female co-workers and unfastened their bras.
Long-timers at the news division believe that the behavior was overlooked over the years because the program maintained its sterling journalistic reputation while being a major profit generator for CBS.
Some women who have worked at “60 Minutes” have been reluctant to speak out about workplace issues because they did not want to damage what is one of the last bastions of investigative journalism on television.
But the removal of Fager is a signal that the culture at “60 Minutes” is about to undergo a major shift.
“The program has not played by anyone else’s rules, and it’s kind of inevitable that that would have to change,” said one CBS News veteran who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The leading candidate to permanently replace Fager is Susan Zirinsky, who oversees the CBS true crime newsmagazine “48 Hours.” She would become the first female executive producer of “60 Minutes.”
Zirinsky is one of the longest-tenured veterans of CBS News and something of a media industry legend. She was the inspiration for the type-A personality news producer played by Holly Hunter in the 1987 film “Broadcast News.”