CBS News' huge, fatal disaster: Why heads need to roll at the highest levels

Lara Logan isn't even the half of it. From errors to puff pieces and an Aerosmith fetish, it's unending humiliation

Published June 9, 2014 4:43PM (EDT)

Lara Logan       (CBS News)
Lara Logan (CBS News)

A scenario: A high-ranking television executive is entrusted with one of the most beloved news programs in history. Under his leadership, the program tanks. Stories fall apart under scrutiny. A reporter, who isn’t particularly good at her job but is telegenic, is given big, splashy stories to do, many of which appear to serve no purpose other than to glamorize the military.

The executive decides the program should run segments that promote the parent company’s brands, rather than hard-hitting news stories. He assigns stories on Aerosmith and Michael Bublé. After the senior vice-president of standards and practices — “whose job it was to bring outside scrutiny to any segment” — left, she isn’t replaced. The staff fears this executive.

The executive is Jeff Fager, who was one of the subjects of Joe Hagan’s recent profile of "60 Minutes" correspondent Lara Logan. I’ve been thinking about that, ever since the news broke that Logan would return to the show. Seems to me that, while it is certainly problematic that a reporter as consistently error-prone as Logan has been given another chance — she really should’ve been fired — she’s the secondary problem for "60 Minutes." The big one is her boss, Fager, who has enabled her and, more generally, systematically destroyed a once-great program.

For some reason — I can guess! (#NotAllExecutives) — Fager has not come in for much criticism, which is weird, because, as he wrote last year, “As executive producer, I am responsible for what gets on the air.” Well, OK! Within the last year, he’s treated viewers to some real bushwa:

  • A grossly inaccurate segment on the green technology sector, which, as Huffington Post put it, “conflated the Silicon Valley clean tech venture capital scene with the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program for renewable energy.” The program portrayed green tech as a failure, which was rather at odds with reports of “the solar power craze that is sweeping Wall Street.” (As Joe Romm noted, Lesley Stahl had clearly made up her mind about the state of the industry, before she’d even talked to experts.)
  • A segment on the NSA that is, at best, a puff piece. The host, John Miller, said the NSA “agreed to speak to "60 Minutes" because it believes it has ‘not told its story well.’” It was not, and should not, have been Miller’s responsibility to oblige them, but that’s what happened. (A comparison to Mike Wallace and Big Tobacco — another leviathan — is not flattering.) There were, noted Jack Mirkinson, “no anti-NSA advocates or civil libertarians interviewed on-camera for the piece.” (Miller has since joined the NYPD, which is not a thing reporters who take the craft seriously tend to do.)
  • A credulous segment on Jeff Bezos and Amazon’s drone service — years away from being a reality — with giggly Charlie Rose. Bezos’ plan is, reported the Washington Post, “nothing more than a gimmick at this point due to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) process for approving civilian drones in the national airspace.” In other words, it’s also illegal. As Gawker’s J.K. Trotter put it, “Amazon could not have asked for a better advertisement.”

This is an extraordinarily terrible record to compile in a single year. And all of it, according to his own job description, ought to be laid at the feet of Fager. Wouldn’t it be in CBS’s best interest to cut him loose?

Is CBS Damaging Its Reputation By Bringing Lara Logan Back?

By Elon Green

Elon Green is a contributing writer at Salon, covering media and politics.

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