by James Leach
Jeff Fager '77 lives in the fishbowl, a glass-encased corner overlooking Studio 47 at CBS, which you would recognize as the setting for The Evening News with Dan Rather.
As executive producer of the Evening News, Fager daily oversees the process that determines what news the world will view on CBS. In consultation with Rather, the broadcast's managing editor, and scores of producers, writers and correspondents, Fager marshals CBS resources around the world to tell the day's news.
"Our goal is two-fold," he says, "to cover the stories that are important, and to make the telling of those stories interesting." The decisions come fast and frequently, and in the end the toughest ones fall to Rather and Fager.
"Dan and I have a good relationship," Fager says. "It helps that we came up the same way through CBS." The careers of both have included foreign postings, general assignments, time at 60 Minutes and 48 Hours. "We have a similar sense of what's important and what isn't."
Stories were developing in Russia and Pakistan, and senior producer Pat Shevlin debated whether to send a correspondent to Afghanistan. To do so would leave London "unprotected." A crew would be sent as soon as Richard Threlkeld arrived in London. Allen Pizzey was monitoring the Pope's pending appendectomy ("He doesn't look well"), and the team in the fishbowl contemplated having medical correspondent Dr. Bob Arnot do a background piece.
A handful of other stories included new developments surrounding a case of multiple births in London and a drive-by shooting in Croatia.
At 10:15 the bureaus came on line with their morning summaries. From Los Angeles, the question of whether Mark Fuhrman would be charged with perjury. Would O.J. comment? ("How relevant is the n-word to this case?") And a watchful note that Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau was teeing up drug official Stan Lungren.
From Dallas, testimony was anticipated in the case of a doctor charged with manslaughter after falling asleep during a child's surgery. The bureau was also sending a crew to Wisconsin, where tanks had been stolen from an army base.
The Miami bureau was focusing on the Peruvian plane crash, Bob Orr to report. In New York, a 13-year-old honor student had been suspended from school for carrying a bottle of Midol, the over-the-counter pain killer. A seven-year-old Queens elementary student was in the news for kissing his classmate. The cleanup from the crash of TWA flight 800 was continuing ("When will they let us send a crew down with the divers?").
The Washington bureau was focused on the peace negotiations, the situation in Bosnia and a South Korean spy case. The politics unit was centering on candidate Bob Dole, with the potential for an on-air interview in Washington, where Rather was on assignment.
Once the bureaus had signed off, Fager and his colleagues previewed a chilling piece of video portraying rituals attended by the son of Saddam Hussein. The message:
"If they get rid of Saddam, what's next?" The challenge: how to knit the piece into future coverage.
The producer's job times ten|
After starting his career with positions in radio and television in Boston and San Francisco -- including a period of several months where he wrote news without being paid at WBZ Radio to establish his credentials -- Fager joined CBS News as a producer in 1982. His first assignments were with weekend broadcasts and with the overnight news program Nightwatch.
In 1984 he moved to The Evening News as a producer, first in New York and then in the London bureau. From there he covered the bombing of Libya, the Reagan-Gorbachev summits, the Gulf War, change in the Soviet Union and the fall of Eastern Europe, among a host of other foreign stories. (On later foreign assignments he produced Emmy award-winning segments on the assassination of Yitzak Rabin and the war in Bosnia.)
Fager returned to New York in 1988 to help develop 48 Hours under Andrew Heyward, who is now president of CBS News. In 1989 Fager moved to 60 Minutes, where he worked as a producer for six years, most often on stories reported by Morley Safer.
"We had one responsibility -- to get the story right," Fager says of 60 Minutes. "You find a story, you go out and develop it, you put it on TV. You go out and find another. Period. I was spoiled rotten and I loved every minute of it. Andrew [Heyward] used to say being a producer at 60 Minutes is the only country club where they pay you to be a member.
"It's fun traveling and telling the stories. I've seen the world and reported on the big events of our time, first hand. They had to drag me out of that job, and I put it off for as long as I could. "
He moved back to The Evening News as a senior producer two years ago, and succeeded Heyward as the program's executive producer last February. The pressures are markedly different. "The story is still first and foremost," he says, "but there are a lot of stories, and there are a lot of people. Here, it's the producer's job times ten. It's all of the different people and resources and it's like an army." More than 200 people work on The Evening News in New York alone.
Following the morning call to the bureaus, Fager, Heyward and several of the Evening News senior producers convened in the Edward R. Murrow Room to get a sense of what lay ahead for the day. Like the fishbowl, the Murrow room looks out on the studio, and the morning deliberations are held in full view of the steadily growing number of writers, producers and assistants who are gathering to report the day's events.
Midday was filled with phone calls and e-mail and conversations and planning the future of The Evening News. But by 2:00 the news of the day was maturing and there was a sense of anticipation in the fish-bowl. Arnot was pitching stories, including pieces for the series "Facing 50," targeted at concerns
of baby boomers. Fager and the producer of "The Class of 2000," a major theme across CBS News, were refining the approach to a piece on marketing to 14-year-olds.
At 2:20, Fager gathered the producers and writers to discuss the lineup of stories for the edition of the news that would air in just over four hours. Ten people were crowded around computers and television monitors, and an open phone line connected the group with senior producer Janet Leissner working with the Rather crew in Washington.
What appeared in the morning to be a modest news day was shaping up as anything but. In the middle of the lineup meeting, live coverage of a White House press briefing flashed on the monitors, with President Clinton speaking and the pool camera coverage flashing to Arafat and Netanyahu, silent and somber. The first issue in the fishbowl was balancing the Middle East story with reports by Rather and Rita Braver in Washington and Bob Simon in Jerusalem.
There was the possibility of interviews with Netanyahu (taped) and Dole (live). "If we get Dole at 6:40 I'd like to move him down the lineup," said Leissner from Washington. "I know that causes you a problem." Laughter in the fishbowl.
As each of the day's potential stories was reviewed it was also timed. Clearly there was too much news for the half hour available. "Ninety percent of the days we just don't have enough time," says Fager. "I wish we had more."
On the day at hand one decision came down to choosing between a piece of breaking news and a feature story. Producers argued both points of view. One described the network commitment to the feature, another countered that the breaking news was a commitment to the audience.
In the end, as often happens, the decision fell to Fager. "It's too big a news day to use the feature," he decided. "There's too much happening and we're giving eight minutes to a major story." The decision would be debated again, but for the moment the issue was resolved. By 3:05 the lineup was decided and writers and producers set about creating a script and putting the graphics in place.
Fifteen minutes later, the script was up for grabs again. Fager and Leissner were on the phone negotiating the order of appearances in Washington, Shevlin and Simon were editing Simon's script, senior producer Al Berman was confirming the story of the stolen tanks, and there was a parade of writers and producers streaming through the fishbowl testing drafts of copy and themes for video coverage. The Dole interview fell through -- a relief, in a way.
A new version of the evening's lineup emerged from the printer every 15 minutes or so. The computer notes the time of each piece and nets out the minutes or seconds that the broadcast will run short or long.
Fager was on the phone again, this time with the control room. "Hi, Jimmy. Is everything OK? Is anything OK?" He laughs. Assistant producer Kathryn Kent says Fager brings a style and sense of humor to the job that eases the pressure.
"Tom," Fager called out to one of his writers, "I think I zapped TWA." Fager was editing the copy on screen and may have pushed a wrong key. Minutes later came the report, "They've got TWA back." Applause in the fishbowl.
Reporter Harry Smith checked in on his way to Dallas to cover a story. In the middle of the chaos there is always a moment for the human exchanges. "We are like a family here," Fager explains.
With little more than half an hour until air time, the mood around the fishbowl was urgent. The producers killed a story to make the newscast fit its time. "I like it better when they kill them before we write them," said a writer.
Headlines had been sent to Rather over the computer. He called to talk with Fager, their third conversation of the day. At 6:08 Fager headed down one flight to "the engine room," where graphics and video are produced to support the stories. At 6:20 video began filtering in from foreign bureaus. "It's very last minute," said Fager, "and that gets in your blood. At the same time, that's what wears you down. So much happens in so little time. It's not like you have a chance to stop and catch your breath."
And then, in a rush, it happened. No fewer than 14 people were crammed into the dark control room, peering into at least 70 monitors, bringing graphics up, fading them out, framing Braver and Rather, cutting to Simon, rolling video, adding a few seconds to one story, cutting a few from another. Anxious moments as the control room crowd adjusted to a bad cue and turned it into a flawless transition.
By 6:58 the network had reported 15 stories from sites around the world and Rather was signing off with the nation. Fager was signing off with his crew. Praise and encouragement all around. "At the end of the day you have to be self-assured," he says.
Because tomorrow morning at 8:00 it all begins again.