CBS Legacy Flourishes
First CBS News President Richard Salant moved to town. Now other CBS executives have chosen to call New Canaan home, keeping alive a strong connection to the network.
Photograph By: Bob Capazzo
You may not know Patti Hassler by name, but if you live in New Canaan it’s possible you’ve seen her downtown at Ching’s, dining on the pot stickers she loves so much.
“You know what I like most? It’s a real town, with a downtown you can walk around. Having spent many years on the road, I’ve always appreciated towns with a real center, a sense of place,” she says.
Since June 2004 Patti has been executive editor of CBS News’s best-known program, 60 Minutes, where her duties include vetting ideas from segment producers and correspondents and ensuring fairness, balance and accuracy on each broadcast. But at the end of the day, she welcomes the opportunity to decompress in the home where she has lived for the past three years after twenty-five years as a Gothamite.
Patti’s boss, 60 Minutes executive producer Jeffrey Fager, has called New Canaan home for ten years. A father of three, Fager was involved in New Canaan Little League back before his two sons went to college. He still goes to Mead Park to watch the New Canaan High School Rams baseball team. There he sometimes sees another New Canaanite, Brian Williams, who once worked for CBS News’s New York affiliate and now is the anchor of NBC Nightly News and a neighbor of the Fagers.
That three of today’s most influential broadcast news executives live in New Canaan is really nothing new. Nor is it surprising that they should share an affiliation with CBS. In fact, the town’s connection to that network began decades earlier with another longtime resident — the man who for a generation made CBS the premier broadcast news operation of its kind and whose life’s work is still celebrated each day at the New Canaan Library. That man is Richard Salant.
The Salant Connection
Not that Salant persuaded Patti or Fager to move to New Canaan; in fact, he died before either came to town. But from 1962 to 1964 and again from 1966 to 1979, he was CBS News president, doing battle with politicians, affiliates and even the chairman of his own network, the mercurial Bill Paley, to produce excellence on a daily basis.
“He was our tribune,” says Mike
Wallace, whom Salant hired to CBS News in 1963. “He knew that unless the news division had the independence to do what he felt was best, it stood a chance of going to hell in a handbasket.”
Instead, CBS News went to the top of the ratings, with the help of people like Wallace and Walter Cronkite, whom Salant promoted to anchor CBS Evening News soon after taking over in 1962. The launch of 60 Minutes in 1968 was another CBS innovation, though in his memoirs Salant admitted he wasn’t all that sold on the idea initially. News was serious business to him, and he worried about the concept of a television magazine, fearing a surfeit of fluff pieces and celebrity stories. No matter. He trusted the advice of his producer Don Hewitt, and the result, a digest of investigative reports, human interest features and celebrity interviews, not only redefined the parameters of network news but became, after years of struggling, a regular visitor to the top of the Nielsen ratings.
The success of 60 Minutes meant that CBS News turned a profit in the latter half of the 1970s. For Salant, his widow Frances recalls, that meant “a little bit of power. You didn’t have to always beg. You could tell people to buzz off because you were doing all right.”
Salant and his wife lived in New Canaan from the beginning of their marriage. After he died in 1993, Frances gave her husband’s vast collection of letters, speeches, memorandums and other materials to the New Canaan Library. These were added to a smaller donation of books and papers Salant had made the year before in the name of his CBS News colleague Eric Sevareid. Library Director David Bryant’s corner office became the Salant Room, a special informational center for patrons studying the science of news gathering or just looking for a quiet place to read the local paper.
“There’s always someone in there,” explains the library’s assistant director, Cynde Bloom Lahey. “If you go in after lunchtime, the room is filled with people at the computers, reading the papers, watching TV. During 9/11, that room was filled. People came from all over town to watch it here. One woman told me she came from her house because she didn’t want to watch it alone. It was like that all day long.”
Salant’s New Canaan heritage is further honored by the Salant Lectures, a series of annual speeches on the state of broadcast news delivered at the library by an industry notable. The Salant Room opened in 1994 with a memorial address by Salant’s old friend and colleague (and Rowayton resident) Andy Rooney; in 2004 Fager gave the lecture. Others on the podium have included Cronkite, Wallace and Lesley Stahl; this month Connie Chung has been tapped to speak. The lecture will be at the New Canaan library on Sunday, November 6 at 5 p.m.
Setting the Standards
Whether Salant’s legacy survives in the news division he helped to define is another question. Fager, who came to CBS News in 1982, three years after Salant left, says the rules that Salant created remain in place. “His principles, in terms of fairness, accuracy of reporting and when to go on the air, are with us every day,” Fager says.
Not everyone at CBS News sees it like that. “His legacy is dead,” Rooney claims. “I see nothing left of Dick Salant here. You can also say that about Bill Paley and several other greats. I think there is a good deal more emphasis on profits.”
And less on standards, Rooney continues. “Today’s people would call Dick square, but he was impeccably honest. He would not have let some things happen that have happened. I’m not going to get into what, because I still work here. Well, that Rather thing, I guess.”
That Rather thing. Months after the election-eve broadcast on 60 Minutes Wednesday of a report focusing on documents that portrayed President George W. Bush’s National Guard service as fraudulent before the documents themselves were exposed as fraudulent, too, the ramifications still reverberate around the network.
“I would never have approved of that,” Fager says. “There were some re-porting mistakes made. One of Dick’s most serious rules was, When in doubt, don’t. I certainly live by that.”
Fager developed the 60 Minutes offshoot and brought it to air as its first executive producer from 1999 to June 2004, when he left to take over 60 Minutes. Last January he temporarily found himself pulled back into 60 Minutes Wednesday to try to salvage the show after the public-trust hit it took. His goal was to run the show until it was renewed for fall 2005, but in May the network announced its cancellation.
At 60 Minutes Fager knew that he had big shoes to fill. It helped that Hewitt, who created the show and ran it for thirty-five years, had worked with Fager when Jeff was one of the show’s producers.
A copious background as a news producer, working alongside correspondents in the field covering such events as the U.S. bombing of Tripoli in 1986, helps Fager well with the 60 Minutes staff.
“He’s done the hard traveling, covered the big stories,” says Wallace.
For Wallace, who is eighty-seven, there is a special sense of gratitude to Fager. “At my age, I’m not sure anyone would want me to keep working,” he says. “Jeff came to me and told me he wanted me to keep doing pieces at 60 Minutes. Of course, these days I do profiles, not the investigative stuff I used to do. I don’t have to get on that many airplanes.”
Rooney, too, had experience with Fager, when Fager produced a series of Rooney’s commentary pieces at the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2000.
“I found him to be very good at telling me what needed to be taken out,” Rooney says. “I don’t always take kindly to editing, but when he says something, I invariably have to agree he’s right.”
Patti Hassler calls Fager “funny, smart and very capable. He’s also a student of 60 Minutes. We’re both students of Don Hewitt. It’s in our bones and our blood, exactly what makes a 60 Minutes story.”
Like Fager, Patti tires of people telling her the program has gone soft, profiling entertainers. “I could take you back through the years — Mike Wallace interviewing Barbra Streisand or Ed Bradley with Lena Horne,” she says.
“There’s always been a steady diet of that in the 60 Minutes mix, but there’s a lot of hard news, too,” Fager adds. “A lot of war reporting. Iraq and Afghanistan,
I particularly feel that is important.”
Recent segments that Fager is proud of include Steve Kroft’s report on the potentially fatal lack of body armor among U.S. troops in Iraq and Ed Bradley’s examination of the continuing case of Emmett Till, a black teen murdered fifty years ago for whistling at a white woman. Most notable of the program’s stories aired since Fager took the helm was the exposé of U.S. military abuses at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, which unleashed a firestorm of controversy and garnered the program a coveted Peabody Award last spring.
For Patti, Salant is more than a legacy — he was a mentor. She started with 60 Minutes in 1978, Salant’s last full year as CBS News president. She was little more than a reception desk employee, but the eminent executive still solicited ideas from her. “What I remember so clearly is he listened carefully and took me seriously,” she recalls.
Soon Patti found herself moving up the ladder — first as associate producer, then as producer for segments reported by Harry Reasoner and Morley Safer. When Fager began the 60 Minutes spinoff, he hired Patti as executive editor; then in 2004 he brought her with him to continue as his deputy at 60 Minutes. It’s the first time a woman has held that title.
“When I started at 60 Minutes, out of twenty-five producers, there were three women, and all the correspondents were men. That landscape has changed dramatically. Maybe it was because Dick pushed everyone to think that way.”
Salant was aggressive in urging the hiring of more women and minorities to CBS News, though his hands-off style meant that this came most often in the form of memorandums and in-house discussions. The gloves came off after he was pushed out of the network in 1979, a victim of Bill Paley’s policy of not employing anyone over age sixty-five except himself. Salant began publicly decrying such obvious inequity.
A Legacy Continues
Now began the wilderness years for Salant. First he took a job as vice chairman of NBC, a position that sounded more important than it was. He buried himself in composing eloquent memorandums about the mission of the news for his new network while choking his administrative assistant Melissa Ludlum in plumes of cigarette smoke.
“It was such a different culture,” recalls Melissa, who came with Salant from CBS News. “NBC people didn’t like CBS people telling them what to put in newscasts; he ran into a lot of resentment for that. He was brilliant when it came to standards and practices. He basically made CBS News what it was, but he was not able to transfer that to NBC.”
His sojourn at NBC came to an end in 1983. His next job, as head of a nonpartisan media watchdog group, the National News Council, didn’t last much longer.
“The idea was that this would be an impassive overseer of how the news operated, but the New York Times and CBS wouldn’t subscribe to being observed and controlled by an ombudsman from the News Council deciding complaints,” Frances recalls. “It was honesty in reporting, which he cared about. Also, he didn’t want to retire.”
In a way, Salant never did. He stayed active, speaking at civic organizations about the role of the news media and toiling over a dozen thick binders of manuscript as he tried to carve out a saleable memoir. Wallace had a running bet with him every year that the memoir wouldn’t be finished, and every year Wallace collected on it.
While Salant had been active during his CBS years on the board of the New Canaan Country School, the community connection deepened after retirement. He took a role on the board of the New Canaan Library and became a member of the ROMEOs, a group of retired New Canaan men who gathered weekly to discuss whatever was on their minds. Not exactly a serious group, ROMEO is an acronym for Retired Old Men Eating Out.
“It was always very informal, no agenda,” says Hud Stoddard, a fellow ROMEO who was a television executive himself for years at public television’s WNET-13. “He was very witty. Not political, especially, but he had many observations about the current scene that he delightfully shared.”
Salant also befriended Stoddard’s son-in-law, a young television reporter named Brian Williams who came to his wife Jane’s hometown when he was hired by WCBS-2 News in New York.
“I think in me Dick saw someone he could get his ethical hooks into,” says Williams, who fondly remembers Salant’s raspy laugh, the result of years of smoking. “Our craft, our profession, meant something to him. ‘This is journalism,’ he would say. ‘We are publicly accountable.’ It breaks my heart to see how we have lost the trust of the American people.”
Salant’s last years were spent working on his memoirs, summering with Frances and the family in Martha’s Vineyard, and playing tennis until his legs gave out. The television in his den was normally tuned to CNN.
Then in 1993 Salant collapsed while giving a speech, dead of a heart attack. “He died during a standing ovation,” Williams says. “I can’t think of a better way to go.”
“So a group of his friends in town decided to name a room after him, that would have everything to do with the news,” Frances notes. “Its purpose is to not only honor Dick, but everything to do with the news.”
Frances still plays a key role in selecting speakers for the annual address and half jokes about “having literally gone through the Old Guard at CBS News.”
“I called CBS News one year, told them I was Frances Salant,” she says. “The woman on the phone asked me: ‘How do you spell that?’ I thought, ‘Oh, no.’”
For those who remember him, the speech is an opportunity to remind people of the high standards Salant aspired to. “He was not an innovator, but a great holder to standards,” says Rooney. “He was the most honest newsman I ever knew. He would tell you he wasn’t a newsman, but he was.”
For Fager, Salant’s legacy is a reminder that the importance of broadcast news goes beyond ratings or advertising. In his 2004 address, Fager quoted Salant: “Our paramount responsibility at CBS News is to present all significant facts, all significant viewpoints, so that this democracy can work the way it should work, by informed citizens making up their own minds on an informed basis.”
Those in the audience could almost hear a familiar raspy chuckle.