In 2005, after Dan Rather fell for that dumb story about George W. Bush avoiding service in the Vietnam war — Memogate, we called it, after the obviously forged memos the story was based on — CBS called in Susan Zirinsky to clean things up. The network pulled the regular broadcast of 60 Minutes Wednesday, the low-rated spinoff that Rather had poisoned with his terrible reporting, and replaced it with a one-hour special called Dan Rather: A Reporter Remembers. As Rather’s former producer, she was the perfect person to produce it, and she did a great job.
Susan Zirinsky always got the job done, whatever the circumstance. She once leaped from a moving train to deliver tape on deadline. Told she was shooting on federal land and that the fine was $10,000, she told the ranger, “Do you take American Express?” and kept shooting. Her handle around CBS is “Z” and she has been leaving her mark there for nearly 50 years. As the first woman ever to run one of the Big Three network news divisions, Zirinsky’s appointment came after a #metoo cluster bomb took out four of the most powerful men at the network, including her boss. The news of her promotion set off peals of joy across journalism. Really, the only surprise is that it took this long to hand over control of CBS's lifeless news division to the woman who is, as Dan Rather once put it, “a nuclear power plant of energy.”
Zirinsky’s early years were immortalized in the 1987 film Broadcast News, where she was the inspiration for Jane Craig, the blunt-talking, ferociously driven news producer played by Holly Hunter. In one scene, the division chief (a worthless suit played by Peter Hackes) sneers at her, “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you're the smartest person in the room.” Jane’s reply — “No, it’s awful” — got amens from every professional woman watching it.
I’d forgotten, until I sat down to write this story, that I once appeared in a segment of 48 Hours in the ’90s that Susan Zirinsky produced. No, I was not involved in a murder case. This was back when 48 Hours did light features that were thematically related, and that episode was on “cyberspace” and how it was changing our Touch-Tone world. I had my email newsletter about David Letterman and late-night TV, so CBS sent Susan Spencer (who is still doing this kind of thing for Sunday Morning) to my apartment for an interview. All I remember about that day is that Spencer came out of my bathroom holding the rod that was supposed to be holding up the sink. We all had a good laugh, because that’s what you do when you’re mortified.
Anyway, two years ago CBS News was a mess. It had some highly-rated shows and some longstanding cellar-dwellers. Within nine months of Zirinsky’s ascension, she had appointed new producers and new on-air talent to nearly every program. Most of these were women, making CBS the first news division in America to actively court female viewers by appointing leaders who knew what they were thinking.
Let’s see how Zirinsky’s transformation is going. We'll go from CBS’s weakest news show to its strongest.
CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell. O’Donnell is actually the third woman to get the nightly newscast gig at CBS. Zirinsky adored Connie Chung, but her pairing with Dan Rather in the 1990s never worked. Then there was Katie Couric, an interloper from NBC’s morning show — another misfire. In O’Donnell, hired away from NBC 10 years ago, Zirinsky was able to promote a battle-tested female who had the full support of the newsroom and the boss.
Before O’Donnell and Zirinsky, CBS had been trying to imitate ABC World News Tonight, with its fluffy, fast-paced format and excited puppy of an anchor, David Muir. Now, with O’Donnell at the helm, the Evening News moves at a brisk, confident trot, but O’Donnell doesn’t try to inject that phony constant urgency into everything. She’s by far the most lifelike of the Big Three anchors, and her current series on ending political polarization is way more edifying than the feel-good treacle that NBC and ABC lean on to wrap up their newscasts. (And now a public service announcement: The PBS NewsHour is a relentlessly serious and highly watchable nightly newscast, is the most female-centered of all the nightly news programs, and is twice as long as the others — with no commercials.)
Ratings tell a familiar story. CBS Evening News is in third place, right where it was when Dan left the building. But viewership is up 6 percent from a year ago, when Jeff Glor was the anchor. It’s far more watchable. And as CBS likes to point out, “Norah O’Donnell continues to be the most watched woman in television news.” The next move will take longer — changing the makeup of O’Donnell’s team of correspondents, which is certainly diverse but on the whole less interesting to watch than the anchor.
CBS This Morning. In the ongoing psychodrama that is Matt Lauer, one forgets that #metoo also blew up the CBS morning show, with Charlie Rose getting the heave-ho. That, and Gayle King’s cooler-than-cool takedown of R. Kelly, led to King getting the job of first-among-equals, flanked by two amiable white guys. Anyone living in a large American city knows that Black women are the best local anchors, and that’s basically what a morning network news show is, writ large. King, who shrewdly built her career at smaller CBS affiliates in Kansas City and Hartford, has tremendous command and seems to score exclusives no one else can, like her recent sit-down with FKA Twigs. And who else can let fly during anchor banter, “Yep, she’s a badass”?
Shawna Thomas, a veteran Black woman producer with NBC and Vice on her resume, was recently hired to run CBS This Morning. Earlier this month a broadcast of CBS This Morning beat NBC’s Today Show for the first time since 1993.
CBSN. The 24-hour streaming news channel is dominated by female anchors, as is ABC News Now, its main competition in this space. Having a streaming service is not only a good way to extend your brand to a more tech-savvy audience, but it creates a farm system for developing future network talent. So far, though, I haven't noticed any changes at CBSN, probably because Zirinsky has her hands full with more pressing business.
Face the Nation. Produced by a woman and anchored by a woman, Face (which still confusingly airs in different cities as either a 30- or 60-minute show) is the top-rated Sunday public-affairs program, and is up 22 percent since Margaret Brennan took over as host. Her exclusive with Dr. Deborah Birx, the top-ranking woman on President Trump’s coronavirus task force, was no surprise. Also no surprise: Brennan didn’t let Birx off the hook — she’s really good at interrupting pat responses, which is an art form — but she also let Birx have her say, and I learned some things.
CBS Sunday Morning. The most-watched Sunday show for 633 straight weeks (I get a press release every week with the updated total), Sunday Morning has always been the TV equivalent of reading the back sections of the Sunday newspaper. It’s comfort-food TV, and has been mandatory viewing in our house during the pandemic. Sunday Morning was already in Jane Pauley’s capable hands when Zirinsky was promoted. Since then, Pauley has dropped the opening segment with its unnecessary reading of the overnight headlines, which usually opened the show on a down note.
60 Minutes. The pandemic and the unraveling of the Trump presidency have been fabulous for TV news ratings, not just at CBS. CNN, for instance, just had the best quarter in its 40-year history. So it follows that the one TV newsmagazine still devoted to the hard news of the day has seen its ratings go up — a lot. This season 60 Minutes is one of the five most-watched shows on TV.
The only that’s happened at 60 under Zirinsky’s watch is the retirement of Steve Kroft, which meant there’s a new dean of 60 Minutes, the one who gets to say her name first in the opening credits every week — “I’m Lesley Stahl.” Which leads me to a story Sheila Weller has told about the time that Zirinsky, then a junior researcher at CBS, was devastated by a chewing-out from a (male) editor. Stahl caught wind of it and, being one of the only other women there, slipped her colleague a cheery note. “Don’t cry,” it read. “They’re f******s. And we can have a good time. Honest!”
They are still having a good time, and it shows.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.