Susan Zirinsky, legendary figure at CBS, makes history as first female executive to head news division
On Monday morning, incoming CBS News President Susan Zirinsky made an entrance worthy of a rock star.
Loud cheers and applause arose from elated staff members as she stepped into the newsroom at the network’s studios on Manhattan’s West Side for the first time since her appointment was announced Sunday.
Some of the people in the “news hub” have worked with the producer, who is known as “Z,” for many of her 46 years at CBS. Some were young women, who after seeing their company roiled by #MeToo scandals, were thrilled to watch the first female chief of the division take the reins.
During her speech to the troops, Zirinsky pulled out a copy of a script used by CBS News legend Walter Cronkite on the night that President Nixon resigned in 1974. As a staffer in the network’s Washington, D.C., bureau, she had taken the pages out of a trash bin and saved them.
“It was the most moving experience that I’ve ever had at CBS News,” a veteran anchor said of the speech.
Zirinsky, 66, replaces outgoing CBS News President David Rhodes, who was brought in by the network’s then- chief executive, Leslie Moonves, in 2011. She is faced with preserving the journalistic legacy of the network while boosting the ratings for CBS News, which has lost ground to competitors in recent years. She also will have to heal the reputational damage to CBS caused by the sexual harassment allegations that led to the firing of anchor Charlie Rose and “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager.
A legend at CBS News, Zirinsky is one of the last remaining figures linked to its glory years, when the broadcast networks were the dominant source of news for TV viewers. The promotion of a longtimer will be a morale booster for the rank and file, according to one company veteran. Her reputation as a strong collaborator has made her a popular figure throughout CBS.
Betsy West, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and a former network news executive, said Zirinsky’s experience, energy and passion make her an ideal choice for the task.
“Not only are they putting a woman as the head of CBS News, but she is also one of the most talented, hard-working people there,” West said. “Zirinsky commands respect across the division and the network news world in general. This is sending a great signal that it’s a new day.”
Zirinsky’s reputation as a dynamic, hard-charging producer was solidified by the Hollywood portrayal of her in the 1987 feature film “Broadcast News.”
Director James L. Brooks went to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984 and observed all three networks as he began to research a film about a woman working in the highly competitive news business.
After the convention was over, Brooks arranged a meeting with Zirinsky. It took place just after her civil marriage ceremony to Joe Peyronnin (both were producers at the “CBS Evening News” at the time and were working at the convention). Zirinsky was brought on as a technical advisor on the film and inspired the character of Jane Craig, played by Holly Hunter.
Not only did Brooks and Hunter immortalize Zirinsky but they also have remained friends with the producer and her husband.
Zirinsky is a native of Queens, N.Y., where her father was a commercial real estate mogul. She could have been a trust fund kid, but she saw journalism as a calling, an occupation that could make a difference in people’s lives. She joined the network in 1972 as a 20-year-old student at Washington’s American University, when Cronkite was still the lead anchor and the Watergate scandal was entering the country’s consciousness.
“It’s been said that I was delivered from the maternity ward to the CBS Washington bureau,” Zirinsky said in an interview shortly before her appointment was announced.
From Washington, she went on to oversee the network’s coverage of the student uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and the first Gulf War. In 2001, two filmmakers came to her with more than two dozen hours of footage shot during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She turned the footage into an award-winning documentary on CBS that drew 39 million viewers. She took a foundering news magazine, “48 Hours,” and converted it into an appointment program for true crime enthusiasts and a profit center for the company for the last 20 years.
Zirinsky’s versatility and willingness to take on any task led Moonves to offer her the top job in the news division nearly 10 years ago. She turned it down, becoming one of his few lieutenants to refuse an offer from the then-powerful executive.
Moonves was ousted in September over sexual misconduct allegations and recently stripped of his $120-million severance after a four-month investigation.
Zirinsky said she did not want the front office job, because it would take her away from the work she loves, which is producing.
But with CBS News struggling to maintain audiences amid the myriad choices viewers have in 2019 — and the prospect of monumental news coming out of the Trump White House that could rival the Watergate scandal — she accepted the offer from interim CBS Chief Executive Joe Ianniello.
Zirinsky said she thought about Cronkite and other CBS News journalists she’d worked with, such as the late Bob Simon and Ed Bradley. When talking about them, she choked up. Her emotion is rooted in the belief that their values have been instilled in the people she works with today, and she said she wants to give them a chance to succeed.
“I feel a pride in CBS News,” she said. “The people we have now embody people like Cronkite, Bradley and Simon. I’m not crying about the past. I’m pushing forward.”
One of Zirinsky’s top priorities will be to improve ratings for two key programs.
Ratings for “CBS This Morning” — which grew under the first five years of Rose and coanchors Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell — have eroded since Rose was replaced by John Dickerson, who had been successful as moderator of the Sunday program “Face the Nation” from Washington.
“CBS Evening News” has also become less competitive since Jeff Glor was tapped by Rhodes to replace Scott Pelley in the anchor chair in late 2017. The program has been running a poor third behind “ABC World News Tonight With David Muir” and “NBC Nightly News With Lester Holt.”
“We have to look at everything — what stories we are covering, how we are stacking the show, framing the scope of the broadcasts,” Zirinsky told her colleagues. “We have to make sure we’re at the top of our game.”
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