On March 5, Susan Zirinsky was in her “crummy little office” along a dark corridor in the labyrinth of CBS News headquarters on West 57th Street. It was just a temporary spot, since it was technically only her second day on the job as president of CBS News. In reality, she had been steering the 91-year-old division since early January, when acting CBS Corp. CEO Joe Ianniello announced that she would succeed David Rhodes.
Zirinsky was watching the live feed of Gayle King’s interview with R. Kelly, the R&B singer charged with multiple counts of criminal sexual abuse of young women. As the world now knows, an unhinged Kelly leaped from his seat in an explosion of tears, spittle and profanity. King remained almost motionless, offering a motherly entreaty: “Robert.”
“In this melee of histrionics, she did not lose the story — the accusations, the judicial ramifications, these kids, their parents,” says Zirinsky. “She was able to maintain editorial clarity in a situation that would have unnerved the best. And I just thought … Wow.”
At the time, King’s two-year deal with the network was set to expire in November. “It’s not like I planned it — like, ‘I’m in contract negotiations, I need to try to do something here,’ ” King says. “It didn’t work like that. But I am not naive. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me. It’s just one of those things. Thank you, Jesus, whoever that is.”
The well-timed interview was followed by a new deal worth $11 million annually, doubling her previous pay. King’s elevated position comes with the privilege — and responsibility — of a role as the de facto face of CBS News, a storied institution built by journalism’s old guard, but one recovering from turmoil and the scandalous exits of CEO Leslie Moonves and star anchor Charlie Rose. “There has long been recognition that she is a unique broadcaster, journalist, storyteller, humanitarian,” says Zirinsky. “Gayle brings a unique sensibility and sensitivity. What this represented was a sea change.”
King’s overriding attribute is her humanity (“pure sunshine,” as Norah O’Donnell puts it). But she’s also pragmatic. Even as she was starting out in local news in the mid-1970s, she was strategic in her approach, targeting stations in the 20th through 30th markets, not the top 10. “I asked to speak to the assistant of the news director,” she explains. “And I would say, ‘Hi, my name is Gayle King. I’m 22, I’m black. I don’t have a lot of money, so I don’t want to send résumé reels if you don’t think I have a shot.’ I knew if they already have two black women, they’re not hiring me. I don’t know if it was something in the sincerity of that, but to a T, people would say, ‘Well, maybe you shouldn’t send it this year,’ or ‘Please send it and I’ll make sure he or she sees it.’ “
Four decades later, as her sit-down with Kelly went viral, King, 64, was already fielding interest from suitors including CNN and ABC News. “I got the distinct sense that Gayle had at least one foot out the door,” says Anthony Mason, her friend and CBS This Morning co-anchor. “She wasn’t gone, so there was always a chance of keeping her. But there was a fair bit of momentum in the other direction.”
If Zirinsky was hoping to re-sign King with the intention of rebuilding the faltering CBS This Morning around her, after Kelly it became even more vital — and more difficult.
This wasn’t the first time King had flirted with leaving CBS. In 2014, negotiations between her lawyer, Lawrence Shire, and Rhodes (who was known to insert himself into contract talks) became strained. Then, in 2016, King advocated for equal pay with co-anchor Rose, who made nearly $5 million a year, more than King or O’Donnell, who’d joined several months after the show’s January 2012 launch. (Rose’s contracts were negotiated directly between his friend and longtime manager David Geffen and Moonves, a frequent guest on Geffen’s yacht.) At that time, King entertained discussions with ABC about joining The View. But the talks did not progress, because, as one source puts it, “we never believed she would leave CBS.” Now Zirinsky couldn’t be so sure.
“[R. Kelly] was a very telling and seminal moment for people to see her in a way that she hadn’t been seen,” says Oprah Winfrey, King’s best friend and a sounding board during the negotiation process. “But I will tell you, absolutely nothing about her ability to handle that interview surprised me. Because I had seen her do that in many other circumstances.”
To be sure, King had recently been showcasing standout journalism. She was among the first anchors to travel to the southern border in spring 2018 as the Trump administration’s child separation policy was coming to light. In early February, she landed a sit-down with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who was engulfed in a blackface controversy. Two weeks later, she conducted the first, explosive interviews with Michael Jackson accusers Wade Robson and James Safechuck ahead of the controversial HBO documentary Leaving Neverland. (She screened the film with Winfrey, herself an abuse survivor, who encouraged King to interview the men.)
In May, Zirinsky — the first woman to lead the news division — announced sweeping changes at CBS This Morning (an important profit driver) and CBS Evening News (a brand-defining broadcast). King would be the morning show’s lead anchor, flanked by Mason, 62, a three-decade CBS News veteran, and frequent correspondent and rising star Tony Dokoupil, 38. O’Donnell, King’s morning co-anchor for seven years, would become the Evening News anchor and managing editor. The announcements cemented a wholesale changing of the guard. Days later, King finalized her rich, new three-year deal worth more than $30 million. Following a career that had included decades in local news — in Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Kansas City, Missouri; and Hartford, Connecticut (where she spent 18 years at CBS affiliate WFSB) — King had now become the future of CBS.
“I feel a lot of privilege,” says King, calling up the legacy of Edward R. Murrow. “I am now a part of that history. Let’s see what we do.”
Arguably the biggest story on the horizon is the 2020 presidential election. And with the morning shows (and The View) now must-stops for candidates, it remains to be seen how CBS This Morning will compete with experienced political journalists like Savannah Guthrie at NBC’s Today and George Stephanopoulos at ABC’s Good Morning America. King says she has not had time to discuss it with Zirinsky. “I definitely would like to have a role,” she says. “But you know what, I want to get through the summer.”
She already has compiled a long list of newsmakers she’d like to book: Felicity Huffman (she’s reached out); North Korea’s Kim Jong-un (no contact there); Beyoncé and Jay-Z together; Trayvon Martin’s mother (who is running for office in Florida); Richard Reid, aka “The Shoe Bomber”; and kidnap victim Jayme Closs. “I stay in touch with the Closs family,” says King. “I would love to talk to her, if and when she may be ready, and she may never be ready.” (She also corresponds with the families of the child victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and wears a purple rubber bracelet to honor both 6-year-old Newtown victim Ana Grace Márquez-Greene and Bakari Henderson, the Austin college student who was beaten to death in Greece in 2017.)
“I’m at a photo shoot and they say to me, ‘Do you want to take off that purple thing?’ I say, ‘No, I don’t.’ These are more than stories to me; these are people. And I don’t ever want to become blase. I don’t intend to ever forget. I take this stuff very seriously.”
In 2011, when CBS News executives were mapping out the re-invention of the network’s morning show, King was not on their short list. It was Chris Licht, hired away from Morning Joe to be executive producer of the new CBS This Morning, who pushed for her, having had her on the MSNBC show as a contributor. At that point, King was largely defined by her friendship with Winfrey. She had a talk show on OWN, Winfrey’s cable network, and graced the masthead of O: The Oprah Magazine, where she remains editor-at-large. Not only did King’s brand seem antithetical to what they were trying to create — a hard-news alternative to the carnival atmosphere that pervaded much of morning TV — but the pairing of King (a pop culture savant) and Rose (interviewer of neurosurgeons and heads-of-state) was met with near universal skepticism.
“I said, ‘Holy Moses, that will never work!’ Who in the world thought of that?’ ” recalls Winfrey. Still, she knew that her friend would rather be in a newsroom than hosting a cable chat show. “I called her Gayle King Eyewitness News because I didn’t have to watch the news,” Winfrey says. “At the end of our conversations every day, she would inform me of everything that happened, with commentary.”
The news was a staple in the King household; her dad, an electrical engineer who worked for the government, made his daughters watch Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News. He wanted them to be informed about the world. King spent her childhood living in relative comfort in Turkey. Her mother had aspirations to attend law school, but her career ambitions were scuttled when she got pregnant with Gayle. “She was very smart. And she sort of gave up,” says King. “I wonder how that must have bothered her.”
While in college at the University of Maryland, King got a job at a local TV station. “I was fascinated at the way these people [in the newsroom] were running around to get the story on the air; screaming, ‘What do we know? Where is so-and-so? We’ve got to go on in five!’ To see the hustle and then see them come together, I was like, ‘Wow.’ ”
After she graduated in 1976, she was hired as a production assistant at WJZ in Baltimore, where she met Winfrey, an anchor there. The two became best friends, and remained so even as Winfrey climbed to superstardom with her Chicago-based daytime show. “Oprah was huge, and I was a local news anchor in Connecticut. She lived in this lavish apartment,” recalls King. “And I can remember going home and my [ex-husband, William Bumpus] and I, we didn’t even have $10 to go to the movies, the kids’ shoes are laying around, the house is not grand. But I was still so happy that I had that life.”
In the early aughts, when she was without a daily news perch, King was miserable, she says: “When 9/11 happened, I thought. ‘God, I cannot believe I’m not on television. I can’t believe I’m not telling this story somewhere.’ It was the biggest story of our generation and I had no place to tell it. And that was difficult. I just love the news. I do.”
Still, Licht’s bosses at CBS remained doubtful that King was a serious enough fit for the network. So they put her on the 8 a.m. hour of CTM, where softer feature segments traditionally air. O’Donnell, meanwhile, was distinguishing herself as the network’s chief White House correspondent. And when O’Donnell was tapped in July 2012 to fill in for a week, the chemistry between her, Rose and King was obvious. Whatever resistance that remained to King evaporated. “At a certain point we realized more Gayle was better,” says Licht. Soon she was on at 7:30 a.m., then 7.
Licht says she earned her spot. “She never lobbied for it. She never said, ‘I should be on earlier.’ We never got a call from her agent. She just put her head down and did the work.”
By the end of 2012, CBS This Morning had managed to reverse the entrenched perception of the network’s morning efforts as little-watched imitations of Today and GMA. The show also brought millions of dollars in new advertising to CBS News (more than $200 million in 2017, according to Kantar Media) and gave the network its largest morning audience in 30-plus years (still third place but peaking during the 2016-17 season with an average of 3.7 million viewers, the highest ever).
Then, in November 2017, it all came crashing down. Rose was fired amid widespread misconduct allegations. The revelations were devastating for King, who remains close to Rose. “Charlie is not on my you’re-dead-to-me list,” says King. “I saw him about a month ago.”
On CBS This Morning, King and O’Donnell were left to pick up the pieces.
“They still believed in what we were doing and what we could accomplish,” says Ryan Kadro, who succeeded Licht in 2016 as executive producer. “We had some momentum with Gayle and Norah’s interviews. But Gayle really gave people a sense of purpose. She was so essential in holding everything together.”
The CBS This Morning staff is mostly women, and many are young. Diana Miller, who was a senior producer before being tapped in April as executive producer, is only 38. “[The Rose scandal] really hit people even if they hadn’t worked directly with Charlie,” adds Kadro. “But the way Gayle talked so openly [on the air and in private] about how she was feeling really helped everybody to process it.”
Of course, the expulsion of Rose brought scrutiny to CBS, ultimately kicking off a series of investigations that culminated in the September ouster of Moonves. Longtime 60 Minutes chief Jeff Fager also was fired, and by the end of the year, Rhodes was negotiating his exit, too. The drip-drip of negative headlines engulfed the news division, sapping momentum and largely eviscerating morale.
“My morale was never in the toilet,” maintains King. “I knew that, ‘Houston, we have a problem.’ But that didn’t consume me. I just thought, ‘What can we do to make this right?’ ”
Moonves had made the decision to tap John Dickerson to replace Rose. But the erstwhile host of Face the Nation was miscast on morning TV, where playful banter is the secret sauce. And the new trio could not re-create the effortless chemistry of King, Rose and O’Donnell. By the end of 2018, CBS This Morning had lost more than 300,000 viewers since Rose’s firing. So when King found herself in Zirinsky’s office weeks ahead of the May 20 relaunch of CBS This Morning, she expressed a rare moment of pessimism. “I was lamenting, ‘This is so hard because now we’re starting from scratch,’ ” recalls King. “She stopped me mid-sentence and said, ‘I can’t let you say that, because we’re not starting from scratch. You have to understand what we have built here. Don’t lose focus of that.’ “
It will not be easy. GMA remains the most-watched morning show, while Today is No. 1 among the advertiser-coveted 25-to-54 demographic. It’s a notoriously entrenched audience to convert. CBS This Morning‘s impressive gains — for a week in July 2017, it was within 352,000 viewers of Today — have receded. This season, the gap has widened to more than 900,000.
After Moonves was ousted, the first thing Ianniello did was embark on a companywide listening tour. He made it clear that this is a new day at CBS (even as a re-merger with corporate sibling Viacom looms). He met with producers and anchors including King, O’Donnell, Scott Pelley and Steve Kroft. And before the holidays he sat Zirinsky down and offered her the job as president. She hesitated.
Zirinsky had declined the gig a decade earlier, when Moonves offered it to her. She preferred edit rooms to conference rooms; storytelling to number crunching. (After legendary HBO documentary chief Sheila Nevins in late 2017 announced her intention to step down, Zirinsky reached out to HBO’s then-CEO Richard Plepler about the job.) And now, with the unit rocked to its core, the challenges seemed insurmountable. “I knew the enormity of the job,” she says. “It was terrifying.”
Zirinsky, a 47-year veteran of CBS News, had been the senior executive producer of newsmagazine 48 Hours since 1996. She cut her teeth on Watergate, becoming the inspiration for Holly Hunter’s obsessive, highly ethical producer in Broadcast News. In a second meeting, Ianniello reassured her she would have creative freedom and financial support. This was especially important because CBS News has been known as parsimonious. It was a point of contention among talent agents who would point to Moonves’ eye-popping compensation (nearly $70 million in 2017). Ianniello also promised that unlike the reign of his predecessor, there would be no ruling by fiat.
“I lived on the edge of life at 48 Hours every flippin’ year,” says Zirinsky, slamming her hand on the table. Invariably, she would be forced to call Moonves’ office to ask if the show had been renewed. “His secretary would pick up and say, ‘Is this the pathetic once-a-year call to find out if you’re on the schedule?’ ” One year, when Moonves was out, she had to beg the secretary to sneak into his office and look at the scheduling magnet board (the show had made it).
King and Zirinsky have obvious similarities in temperament. They’re optimists. Neither is given to obfuscation. They are both extremely loyal. On Jan. 7, Ianniello announced Zirinsky’s ascension to the top job. “Susan was the right leader at the right time — a fact that was supported by every single CBS News employee I spoke with during the search,” Ianniello says in a statement. “Her enthusiasm is infectious, and she bleeds CBS blue.”
For King, it was a game-changer. Asked if she would still be at CBS News had Zirinsky not been named to head up the division, she quickly says: “No, I would not. I had other things that were interesting to me, and I was giving them serious consideration. But I believe in her and I think she believes in me. Let’s just start with that.”
Zirinsky chokes up recalling the first day she addressed employees as their new leader. “When I agreed to take this job, I didn’t really know the depth of anxiety,” she says. Her management style is quite different from her predecessor, Rhodes, whom one anchor described as “absent” during the crisis that engulfed the unit. Transparent and collaborative, she believes in inclusive decision-making. A byproduct of this — and of the instability at CBS overall — has been a series of media leaks. O’Donnell’s impending move to CBS Evening News was the worst-kept secret in the industry and led to some bruised feelings for former anchor Jeff Glor, whose last broadcast was May 10. (O’Donnell is expected to take his place in July, and the show will move to Washington in the fall. Glor is staying at CBS News as a special correspondent and anchor of the Saturday CBS This Morning. Bianna Golodryga, whom Rhodes put on CBS This Morning in October, declined to stay.) On May 2, days before Zirinsky was set to announce the sweeping changes, Page Six ran an item contending that King was pushing O’Donnell out of the morning show.
“Norah and I talked when the story came out,” says King. “Should we address it? And I said, nope. We always have the last word on how this turns out. So why are we going to get in there and feed speculation? What bothered me about getting that kind of negative press is that people would think I was capable of that.”
King’s favorite song is “Walkin’ on Sunshine.” Winfrey needles her that she needs to “take her yellow-colored glasses off.” But there’s little chance of that. Definitely not now.
“It’s a kick,” King says of her growing profile, “There’s no question about it.” In March, Elton John called her in the greenroom at Stephen Colbert’s Late Show to tell her how impressed he was with her Kelly interview. At Ellen DeGeneres’ birthday party, Amy Schumer encouraged her to try marijuana (she did not). She’s on Geffen’s yacht with the Obamas.
“But it’s not my yacht,” King notes. “It’s not my private plane. I’ll be at the airport getting on Jet Blue and people will say, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I’ll go, ‘Flying, just like you!’ ”
Colleagues say she remains unusually grounded for someone of her stature. It’s the main reason she is so beloved at CBS. Every year, during Black History Month, she hosts a catered ceremony at CBS This Morning where the crewmembers recite poems from black writers. When she was hosting her show at SiriusXM, she created a special appreciation day for the longtime receptionist. “She was asking me, ‘Oprah, do you have anything for Jackie Appreciation Day?’ A pocketbook I hadn’t used or something I could donate?’ ” Winfrey recalls. “Just creating these moments for people where they feel seen and heard is a part of what she does.”
King, who is single and lives on New York’s Upper West Side, and Southern California-based Winfrey don’t talk as much as they used to because King has “homework” (research notes from producers) before she goes to bed at 9:30 p.m. But King, whose children Kirby, 33, and Will, 32, live in Los Angeles, admits, “I ultimately want to be in L.A.,” but adds she has no set timeline.
“At one point I thought that would be something that would be happening in the near future,” says Winfrey. “Now I think she’s going to be at that desk for a while.”
On May 20, wearing a formfitting dress in electric yellow (her favorite color), King sits at that desk as the first installment of the new CBS This Morning wraps. The show’s staff gathers around the anchors for a first-day photo.
“On the count of three everybody goes, ‘Yay,’ ” King instructs. “Because it gives your mouth a natural smile.”
After the moment is preserved for posterity, King admits that this day may not have come.
“I did picture myself somewhere else,” she says. “But I want to see this through. And my heart is really rooted at CBS.”
This story first appeared in the June 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.