Numerically and editorially, "60 Minutes" is having a banner 47th season. This classic has been in the top 10 since September. Beginning with a series of Scott Pelley-anchored reports on ISIS, the show this year has also aired several stories on the Syrian civil war and featured other impact pieces that either reflect the national conversation or change it -- a speciality of this venerable enterprise.
But this season also follows one of the most troubled in "60" history, when a Lara Logan report on Benghazi had to be disavowed. An on-air apology was issued and she was suspended. (She's since returned.)
Next month, Jeff Fager resumes his full-time role as executive producer of "60," following a three-year stint as both chairman of CBS News and "60" executive producer. He assumed the latter role in 2004, after legendary "60" founder Don Hewitt stepped down. Fager, 60, has spent most of his career at CBS News, much of that at "60," which he joined as a producer in 1984.
We spoke earlier this week about his new/old role, and the future of one of TV's greatest franchises. An edited version of our conversation
Why were you both chairman -- a new role -- and "60" e.p.?
"It was Leslie's [Moonves, CBS chief] idea, in large part because he felt we needed a producer in charge and someone who had a sense of our history and identity at CBS News [but] I knew I couldn't do both, to run the day to day of [the news division] which David [Rhodes, who will remain as CBS News president] does so well. This is my 33rd year at CBS and I have a good sense of what the identity is, because I've worked for some of the best people who built this place. I'm incredibly proud of where we've come as an organization."
What was the first order of business as chairman?
"The first thing I did was replace Katie [Couric] with Scott Pelley [as 'Evening News' anchor.] He represented everything we stand for and he was to me the most well-rounded correspondent we have at CBS. I think he's covered more important stories in his career than any anchor that's ever done the job at CBS or at any network. That was most important -- he was the symbol of where we were going."
Did you already make up your mind about Katie before talking to her?
"I knew Scott had to be in that job. I really did. There was a contract change, her's was up, and I don't think it was the best position for her."
Scott like you has had two roles -- and has had to miss some nights as anchor. Is he over-committed?
"Yeah, he probably is, but I'm in awe of what he's been able to accomplish because he's so good at it. He does sacrifice all the time, but he loves it and loves the stories he's done here and he's driven by it."
You also rebuilt "CBS This Morning" [adding Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O'Donnell] as hosts. It's still in third, but was parity with ABC and NBC the goal?
"[The idea was] let's try something that fits us, and we did. People were surprised that Charlie would be the choice, but I felt he's the perfect symbol for where we stand as an organization [and] he's going to be there for a long time. This has been invigorating for him."
Let's talk about Benghazi -- the 2013 Logan report about a security officer, Dylan Davies, who fabricated the account of his actions on the night the embassy was stormed. Did you take your eye off the ball because of your dual role?
"It's up to someone else to judge, but I did take responsibility for that. You hope you don't make mistakes but you know that every news organization angling for stories is going to. We are often judged by how you handle them but when you do make mistakes you need to work as hard as you can to figure out how to keep it from happening again. In all the mistakes that have happened here before, they've been instrumental, and the one thing I learned most from Don is recognize it and own it...
"[Davies] went through an elaborate lie and got us. We were had, but again, I think we've learned from it."
Why was the mistake made?
"The truth is that part of what makes stories [like this] so difficult is when reporters are in a combat situation, they tend to believe more often than not what someone who has been in the middle of that war is telling them. It's not always easy to make sure that everything they said was accurate because of the fog of war [but] we should have caught it and we didn't."
One charge was that Lara - who had beforehand spoken publicly about the Obama administration's need to get facts to the public about what happened at the compound -- had a political ax to grind with this story. Fair?
"That's not fair. She has had real proximity to covering Al Qaeda and to covering that part of the world. [But] she should never have believed this guy's story.'
Other critics has said Lara should not have returned to the news division, or at the very least to "60." Your reaction?
"Everybody does at some point make mistakes and they don't get fired for it...We've made mistakes like that and there have been other correspondents that didn't get fired."
You'll be here at the 50th anniversary in three years . How will the show have changed by then?
We need to be better. We are having a good year by any measurement, [but] Don Hewitt said never rest on your laurels, and I remember his favorite saying -- work hard and be better. We have a new collection of people on the air coming through here -- newest correspondent] Bill Whitaker is now part of the place and has been doing some great pieces. A lot of the existing pieces [are already] here. The staff is invigorated and more excited than you can imagine.
Have you thought of finally replacing Andy Rooney , with an in-broadcast commentator?
It's a full-time preoccupation of mine. I would someday love to have something at the end , but we'll know it when we see it. He was so special, so it's not worth rushing into.
You've added a number of correspondents to the show -- such as Norah O'Donnell and Clarissa Ward -- but only for the occasional piece. What happened to Don's old murderer's row theory, of just a few world-famous correspondents representing the face of "60"?
The way Don envisioned the program is that this is the adventure of these five people, and where will they take me this week? That's still part of the appeal, but it's also story-driven, and we do believe that if you tell a story really well and cover everything you should be covering, then viewers will come, and they have. I guess the story is the star more than it used to be.