Incoming CBS News Chief Outlines Top Priority: Repair Morale

John Paul Filo/CBS
Susan Zirinsky

"We want to make sure the right people are in the right places," says Susan Zirinsky, who has worked for the network since 1972.

Susan Zirinsky, the incoming president of CBS News, earned a huge round of applause at the 10 a.m. editorial meeting on Monday at CBS News headquarters on West 57th St. She stressed the "gold standard" of CBS News, a division built by Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. And she read from the script that Cronkite delivered on the night that President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974.

Zirinsky salvaged it from the garbage in the CBS News Washington bureau, where she spent nearly 20 years, beginning in 1972 as a part-time desk assistant mere weeks after the Watergate break-in. "It's one of my prized possessions," she told The Hollywood Reporter on Monday during a phone interview. 

Zirinsky's appointment is significant on multiple levels. Media reports in the hours after her appointment, announced Sunday night by acting CBS Corp. CEO Joe Ianniello, noted Zirinsky’s gender. She is the first woman to lead the division, and her ascension comes as CBS News has endured unprecedented roiling amid the #MeToo reckoning, which first hit the division more than a year ago with a flurry of serious misconduct allegations against CBS This Morning anchor and 60 Minutes correspondent Charlie Rose and culminated in September with the ouster of Leslie Moonves, the company's longtime powerful CEO who directed virtually every decision at the company, including the firing of Rose.

"I realize that there is a significance to it at CBS," she said, "But my male colleagues are in absolutely in the same lane that I am. The tectonic plates have shifted, they’re not locked yet. #MeToo is not behind us."

Continued Zirinsky: "I have been on the road since I’m 20 years old. It never mattered at all except that I looked like I was 10 years old and people would be looking for some tall, sophisticated White House producer and the cameraman would say, 'See that girl in braids and clogs? That’s my boss.'"

Zirinsky is among only a handful of women to lead a TV news division. (Suzanne Scott was named Fox News CEO last May.) She will replace David Rhodes beginning March 1, with Rhodes set to stay on through the transition period and then move to a consultancy role at the network.

For many at CBS News, Zirinsky’s experience as a hard-news producer is far more significant than her gender. She will retain her title as senior executive producer even as she transitions to president of the division. And, Zirinsky noted, she is approaching the job differently: "I’m looking at the broadcasts as a producer. How to we craft them? What needs to be adjusted? How do we create memorable programming? What are the things people want to see? Are we stacking the shows right? Are we involving the correspondents enough in the story? Are we doing franchise investigations that are having enough legs?"

Zirinsky certainly has a long to-do list. Among her immediate priorities are investigations and a strong political unit in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. She talked up the strength of the journalism at CBS News, but allowed that she will undertake a top-down assessment. "Every anchor at this network is a journalist who cares about the story, who does a really good job," she said. "We want to make sure the right people are in the right places."  

Zirinsky will be tasked with naming new executive producers of two broadcasts (60 Minutes and CBS This Morning), staunching ratings slides at three broadcasts (CBS Evening News, CBS This Morning and Face the Nation) and repairing morale at a division rocked by scandal. 

Zirinksy was briefly considered for the top job at 60 Minutes, and her ascension would seem to clear the way for Bill Owens to assume stewardship of the show. Owens, the newsmagazine's executive editor since 2008, has been running the broadcast since Rhodes fired Jeff Fager for sending a threatening text to a CBS News reporter covering misconduct allegations at the program. During that time, 60 Minutes has remained a strong broadcast, spending most weeks so far this season among TV’s top 10 most-watched shows. Zirinsky did not say directly that Owens would get the job, but when asked if there would be an announcement in the near-term, she allowed: "They deserve their independence, but Bill and I because we respect each other so much, [will have] an open line of communication. They will maintain their independence, but I’m not going to be a stranger."

Zirinsky’s more pressing tasks will be the unit’s flagship morning and evening shows, both of which have posted worrisome ratings declines. CBS This Morning, which had given the network its biggest morning news audience in 30 years, is down double-digits since Rose was ousted. Rhodes moved Face the Nation host John Dickerson in to replace Rose and in October tapped Bianna Golodryga as the show’s fourth anchor.

CBS This Morning is the major profit center at CBS News, and its struggles have been acutely felt among producers and anchors. Ryan Kadro, who succeeded Licht as the show’s executive producer and was a popular figure at the division, was forced out amid the ratings slide. His last day was Dec. 4. Gayle King, who debuted on CBS This Morning alongside Rose in January 2012, noted on Monday’s broadcast that the program is “taking on water.” But she praised Zirinsky’s appointment, adding, “I feel that she is someone who can right the ship, because she gets us, she knows us,” said King. “She is a smart cookie and a badass in every sense of the word.”

Meanwhile, CBS Evening News With Jeff Glor has seen its ratings decline since the transition from former anchor Scott Pelley. To be sure, virtually every broadcast news program has experienced declines in recent years, but CBS News’ erosion is more pronounced, especially in the 25-54 demographic that is important to advertisers. 

Zirinsky is part of the fabric of CBS News; she joined the division in 1972 while she was still an undergrad at American University and the Watergate scandal had yet to mushroom into a full-blown constitutional crisis. Zirinsky rose through the ranks, becoming a producer on the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite, where she covered the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. In 1987, she became a senior producer on CBS Evening News With Dan Rather. (In 1984, while covering the Democratic National Convention, filmmaker James L. Brooks interviewed Zirinsky about her job, and she became the inspiration for Holly Hunter’s character in 1987's Broadcast News.)

Zirinsky has also led coverage of myriad world events, including the Gulf War; the student uprising in Tiananmen Square; the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks; and numerous presidential elections, and she has continued as CBS' breaking news and events executive, producing specials on the Boston Marathon bombing; the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris; the inauguration of Donald Trump; and the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.

Zirinsky has run the weekend news magazine 48 Hours since 1996, but she has also executive produced dozens of documentaries, including Three Days in September, about the elementary school children taken hostage in Beslan, Russia, and the Showtime series The Spymasters, which included interviews with all of the living heads of the CIA.

Zirinsky gets paper copies of The New York Times and The Washington Post delivered to her Upper East Side apartment, and joked that she is trying to convince her local SoulCycle studio to add a 4:30 a.m. class.

"I don’t need a learning curve. I never lost interest in the day-to-day hard news," said Zirinsky. "I think the most important thing for me is to bring the organizing together spiritually. For the people that work every day in these jobs, it’s a calling. We’re idealists, and we’re really on this mission. And it’s a very deep public service. Our jobs are to unearth and reveal. We tell America about America and reveal it to itself. The platform changes, the people change. But our mission never changes. The core endures."