It’s been an eventful year, to say the least, for Susan Zirinsky. Just after 2019 began, she was named president of CBS News, eliciting an emphatic roar in the newsroom. Joe Ianniello, president and acting CEO of CBS Corp., said no broadcast news producer in the biz is more highly respected.
It was a notable promotion for Zirinsky, who started in the CBS News Washington, D.C., bureau two weeks after the Watergate break-in back in 1972.
She got to work right away. In February, Bill Owens was named executive producer of 60 Minutes. In May, Norah O’Donnell was named anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News, succeeding Jeff Glor. “I really think we have the right person in the right job at the right time,” Zirinsky said about the anchor.
At the same time, CBS News announced that Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil were joining Gayle King on CBS This Morning.
Amidst it all, Zirinsky, known as “Z” to colleagues, was tasked with settling the unease at CBS News following sexual misconduct allegations against former 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager and morning anchor Charlie Rose, as well as former CBS Corp. chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves.
CBS News got a leader who had gotten to know many of the division’s 2,500 staffers exceedingly well across her tenure of almost five decades. “People are responding to the fact that I really know what they do,” she said. “I know what they give up, I know the pressure they’re under and I really understand the commitment.”
Zirinsky, speaking at the CBS Broadcast Center in Manhattan as several TV screens in her office depicted President Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry proceedings, noted a “dramatic shift in mood” at CBS News.
Born to Break News
Zirinsky was, in Dan Rather’s words, delivered to CBS News from the maternity ward in a CBS shipping bag. She was actually a college student with plans to direct films when she landed a desk assistant job at the network’s Washington bureau on Saturdays. As Watergate happened, Zirinsky saw the power wielded by a news organization when serious news hits.
“I thought, this is the ultimate job,” she said. “I called my father and said, ‘I think I know what I want to do. I’m excited every single day.’ ”
Zirinsky’s newsgathering exploits became the stuff of legend. She once jumped off a moving train to deliver footage to CBS Evening News. She was the inspiration for Holly Hunter’s producer character, Jane, in the 1987 film Broadcast News. She produced award-winning, and culture-changing, documentaries and programs, and covered a wide array of historic events, from the Gulf War to the 1989 student uprising in Tiananmen Square to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
In 1990, Zirinsky moved to New York to produce CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. Rather called her “a nuclear power plant of energy,” with a unique mix of brains, sky-high work rate, talent and leadership. “Susan is whip-smart and has an effervescent personality, and she is tough as titanium,” Rather added.
Zirinsky was senior executive producer of 48 Hours, 48 Hours: NCIS and Whistleblower when she was named president. A producer at heart, she kept her old title alongside the new one. “This is not a job I sought,” she explained.
Her mentors include a litany of heavyweight news figures, including Rather, Lesley Stahl, Ed Bradley and Roger Mudd. Stahl’s reaction when Zirinsky was named president? “I thought, perfect,” said the 60 Minutes correspondent. “She is the perfect one.”
As busy as 2019 has been, things will not lighten up for the CBS News president. In the coming weeks, CBS Evening News moves its base to Washington, D.C. Zirinsky said the biggest story for the foreseeable future will come out of Washington, and O’Donnell’s ties to the capital — she was chief White House correspondent before becoming an anchor — makes D.C. a savvy choice for a newscast aiming to get out of third place.
“I felt it was kind of a game-changer,” Zirinsky said. “How do I add a dimension that no one else has?” Jay Shaylor exec produces the evening newscast.
While CBS This Morning wins praise for delivering harder news than the competition, it too is looking to bust out of third place. Zirinsky said the new lineup has been “fantastic.” The anchor banter has been so effortless, she said, that she told the talent to tone it down a wee bit.
Diana Miller now executive produces the morning show.
Zirinsky mentions a “whole new attitude” at 60 Minutes, flagship of the CBS News brand. “People feel a freedom to do the work, and if something is wrong culturally, they speak and there is action,” she said.
The goal of every CBS News program, she said, is to tell viewers something they don’t know, with the right mix of context and perspective.
Zirinsky is also bullish on CBS News’s digital strategy. Earlier this month, the news division announced a take on 60 Minutes for mobile consumption. Partnering with Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi, 60 in 6 premieres in April.
Digital network CBSN sticks with the big story when the broadcast networks revert to scheduled programming. “We really consider ourselves a 24/7 brand,” Zirinsky said. “That’s something I’m working really hard on, because I don’t sleep much and need to be able to see us at any time.”
Indeed, Zirinsky’s workload is of some concern to her and to colleagues. But a staffer who cleans up at CBS News after hours is on the case. Betsy comes by Zirinsky’s office around 7 p.m. and asks her what time she plans to go home. “I say, I’m trying to leave at 9 p.m.,” said Zirinsky. “If it’s 11 or midnight, she sits on my couch and says, ‘I’m not leaving until you go. Pack your bag.’ ”
But if a CBS News staffer needs to chat, Zirinsky is sticking around. “My schedule reflects my impossible accessibility,” she said.