CBS Names Legendary Producer Susan Zirinsky As Head Of News

Jan 7, 2019
Originally published on January 7, 2019 11:30 am

The legendary CBS News producer Susan Zirinsky will replace David Rhodes as the president of CBS News in March, the network announced Sunday evening.

Rhodes' decision to step down follows a tenure of great change and great turmoil, marked by shifts in personnel and formats, along with bumpy ratings and searing scandal.

"The world we cover is changing, how we cover it is changing, and it's the right time for me to make a change too," Rhodes wrote in a statement.

Zirinsky, most recently the senior executive producer of the true-crime-driven newsmagazine 48 Hours, will be the first woman to head CBS News. She has held significant roles at almost every element throughout the news division. She was a producer of CBS Evening News and has led the network's coverage of the White House.

According to the network, Zirinsky has led several special reports, including coverage of the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989. CBS was the only major television network to have a news crew broadcasting live from the Chinese crackdown on the anti-government protests.

Zirinsky is also an admired documentary producer for CBS and its corporate cable sibling, Showtime.

Rhodes led significant change over eight years as president, during which he sought to evoke the journalistic legacy of the storied network and embrace a no-drama ethos. Rhodes emphasized hard news, launched the digital news service CBSN and helped reinvent CBS's morning news show CBS This Morning, which won new viewers and critical acclaim.

He also named new hosts for the Sunday morning shows, Margaret Brennan for Face the Nation and Jane Pauley for CBS Sunday Morning.

Other choices fared less well. The replacement of Scott Pelley with Jeff Glor as anchor of the CBS Evening News caused some internal dissent. It was also accompanied by falling ratings.

Then there were the scandals.

Rhodes fired star host Charlie Rose in the fall of 2017 after accusations of sexual harassment from multiple women. Rose had been not just a contributor to 60 Minutes but a fixture on the reinvented CBS This Morning as well as his eponymous PBS program. The morning show tailed off in the ratings after his departure. (Rose apologized for his past conduct but said he does not believe all of the allegations are true.)

Rhodes replaced Rose on CBS This Morning with the well-regarded John Dickerson, then host of Face the Nation, but ratings have tapered off.

In September 2018, Rhodes' boss, then-CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves, stepped down as he faced multiple accusations of sexual harassment and assault (which he denies). Days later, Rhodes fired then-60 Minutes Executive Producer Jeff Fager, who had sent a threatening message to a CBS journalist reporting on accusations that he tolerated a hostile workplace for women. Fager would ultimately face allegations of sexual harassment as well, which he also denied.

Many staffers at 60 Minutes angrily defended Fager to network executives after his firing.

Zirinsky had been strongly considered by Rhodes and acting CBS Corp. CEO Joe Ianniello to run 60 Minutes, by far the network's most prestigious and most profitable news program. Instead, she will oversee the news division, and choosing 60 Minutes' top executive will be among her first and most important decisions.

Zirinsky is known as a tough leader who inspires loyalty. She also inspired the lead character of the 1987 movie Broadcast News, played by Holly Hunter. She was a consultant on the film.

In real life, Zirinsky is to become the network's first female news chief in March.

Rhodes will remain as a senior adviser to CBS and CBS News.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The president of CBS News is stepping down. David Rhodes gives way to Susan Zirinsky, the first woman to lead that news division. In the TV world, she is well-known as a CBS producer and documentary maker. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Last night, Rhodes announced, quote, "The world we cover is changing. How we cover it is changing. And it's the right time for me to make a change, too." He had emphasized hard news, launched the digital news service CBSN and helped reinvent CBS's morning news show, winning new viewers and critical acclaim. Then there were the scandals.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS THIS MORNING")

NORAH O'DONNELL: CBS News has suspended our co-host Charlie Rose over allegations of sexual misconduct.

FOLKENFLIK: Rhodes fired Rose in Fall 2017. Ratings sagged in the morning without Rose and in the evening under new anchor Jeff Glor. CBS's corporate Chairman Les Moonves stepped down last year after accusations of sexual assault that he denies. Days later, Rhodes fired former "60 Minutes" executive producer Jeff Fager over his threat to a CBS News journalist reporting on allegations against him. Some "60 Minutes" staffers angrily defended Fager. Zirinsky has worked throughout CBS News for more than four decades but represents a new start.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUSAN ZIRINKSY: It was uneventful until 8:46 on September 11.

FOLKENFLIK: In 2006, Zirinsky based a documentary on footage that filmmakers captured by chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZIRINSKY: These were amazing guys that found themselves at the gates of hell. But they had the wherewithal to not stop shooting.

FOLKENFLIK: Zirinsky says she'll champion hard news and compelling storytelling. Fun fact - she inspired a character on the movie "Broadcast News."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROADCAST NEWS")

HOLLY HUNTER: (As Jane Craig) What? We only have 10 minutes left. How can you talk to me about parking problems? No - not you'll try. You'll do it.

FOLKENFLIK: Holly Hunter played a hard-driving executive producer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROADCAST NEWS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I had no idea she was this good.

FOLKENFLIK: That punchline delivered by her fictional news chief - in March, Zirinsky becomes the first female president of CBS News for real. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.