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Fager getting ready to replace ‘60 Minutes’ legend Hewitt

Will take over as executive producer
/ Source: The Associated Press

A framed objet d’art on Jeffrey Fager’s office wall at CBS immediately catches the eye.

A Morley Safer original, “Weak Coffee on Cheap Curtain” is a swatch of fabric stained when the “60 Minutes” correspondent hurled a cup at Fager and missed his target.

Plainly, Fager is used to the rough-and-tumble world of television’s first and still most popular newsmagazine, a broadcast he takes over as executive producer at the end of this season.

The baptism by java may prove a useful experience.

Fager has the unenviable task of replacing 81-year-old Don Hewitt, who invented “60 Minutes” in the late 1960s and had to be coaxed into stepping down.

Fager, 49, will have something in common with the basketball coach who replaced John Wooden at UCLA, or the politician who took over for Winston Churchill.

“You don’t want to be the one who followed a legend,” he said. “You want to be the one who follows the guy who followed the legend. Knowing the legend as well as I do, I actually feel pretty good about following him. I feel like I’ve studied under him pretty well.”

Fager worked at “60 Minutes” as a producer for Steve Kroft and Safer. He was executive producer of the “CBS Evening News” in the mid-1990s, then created “60 Minutes II,” where he has remained at the helm.

In what CBS hopes is a seamless transition, Fager will be replaced by Josh Howard, his best friend and currently the No. 2 executive at “60 Minutes” — and a key factor in the show’s resurgence this year.

Both men are deferential to their mentor, who describes them as “the new proprietors of what I like to call, ‘Don Hewitt and sons.”’

Yet they’re quietly making plans, personnel and otherwise, for life after The Don.

Successfully establishing “60 Minutes II” in the wake of intense suspicion from both inside and outside the mother ship’s fraternity prepared Fager well for this transition, Howard said.

Hewitt “always said, ‘Why don’t they just copy us?’ when they wanted to start a new newsmagazine,” Fager said. “When they finally did it, he said, ‘Wait a minute. Not so fast!”’

That experience, and Fager’s respect for “60 Minutes,” means any changes he makes are likely to be done with a certain grace, Safer said. Going outside the “60 Minutes” family for a new producer would have been “a disaster,” the veteran newsman said.

“The biggest challenge is really to put his own stamp on the broadcast while maintaining the existing tradition,” Safer said.

Safer and his former producer have a tradition of playing elaborate practical jokes on each other. Backstage at “60 Minutes” is a macho atmosphere, with its share of shouting and, as Fager’s former curtain attests, the occasional thrown object.

Fager and Howard forged their friendship when one worked for Safer, the other for Mike Wallace. The two correspondents spent a few years not talking to each other, but their producers did.

Will viewers even notice?Fager said he’s not a shouter, but he wants to keep the same “60 Minutes” culture.

“There’s a great give-and-take,” he said. “There are a lot of disagreements, but it’s all about making the story better. I always liked it for its newsroom atmosphere — no holds barred.”

He’ll inherit the central seat in the “60 Minutes” screening room, where stories have been first reviewed by Hewitt since 1968. Fager recalls getting a standing ovation for his first collaboration with Kroft, although it largely came out of relief that the new guys produced something that could be put on the air.

Other times, he wasn’t so lucky. When the lights came up after one screening, Hewitt told him, “Where do you want it, kid? Right between the eyes?”

“Man, that hurt,” Fager said.

He expects the current lineup of correspondents will remain the same. But change is in the air. Wallace and Safer are both working part-time now.

“60 Minutes II” provides clues on how a Fager broadcast will be different. He wants to be closer to the news; “60 II” did more stories than “60” on the Iraq war, for instance. He would also like to see more adventure stories, like when Safer went on the Orient Express.

Still, he’s working off Hewitt’s template and, if things are done right, casual viewers shouldn’t notice a difference, he said.

Notwithstanding Ed Bradley’s controversial Michael Jackson interview, Fager said “60 Minutes” won’t get into the competition for big celebrity “gets” with other newsmagazines.

“It is not part of ‘60 Minutes,’ and, as soon as it is, everybody is going to look around and say, ‘Boy, what happened here? They let this great franchise go so they can talk about the wedding plans of Ben and J.Lo?’ No, we don’t do that.”

Hewitt is keeping an office at “60 Minutes” and will work as a consultant. Asked to describe his expected duties, he said: “Being a general pain in the ass, I guess.”

Fager doesn’t expect many awkward moments. Hewitt has plenty of ideas; many are worthless but some are brilliant, and he doesn’t mind being told which is which, Fager said.

“He’ll have his moments when he’ll second-guess it and wish he was still in the driver’s seat,” he said. “I know that’s going to happen. That’s just human nature. I hope I can help him through it.

“He’s going to be in the office right below me. He’s going to hear the footprints when a correspondent comes storming in upset about something and he doesn’t have to deal with it.”