In 2019, it was announced that David Rhodes would be stepping down as president of CBS News. Stepping into his shoes would be Susan Zirinsky, a CBS stalwart for over 45 years and the first woman to lead the division. In network TV news, senior female executives aren’t just few on the ground, they’re basically nonexistent. With the exception of NBC’s Deborah Turness and Fox News’ Suzanne Scott, all of the top jobs are occupied by men – something which makes Zirinsky’s appointment all the more extraordinary. To find out more, keep reading as we take you through ten things you didn’t know about Susan Zirinsky.
1. She’s worked at CBS for decades
If there’s one thing you can’t accuse Zirinsky of, it’s not earning her stripes. She joined CBS at the tender age of 20 while still a college student: as the Watergate break-in had happened just two weeks prior, she couldn’t have picked a better, or more tumultuous, time to break into reporting. Over the next few decades, she covered every major event in the world, from the Watergate scandal to the Gulf War to the Tiananmen Square protests. For the past two decades, she’s served as the senior executive producer of the news program ’48 Hours’ and has executive produced numerous documentaries, including ‘9/11’ and ‘Beslan: Three Days in September.’
2. She’s CBS News’ first female president
On March 1, 2019, CBS confirmed David Rhodes would be stepping down as president of CBS News. In his place would be the network’s first female president, Susan Zirinsky. Up until the announcement, Zirinsky was believed to be the front-running candidate to replace Jeff Fager as the executive producer of the network’s newsmagazine ’60 Minutes,’ But as the LA Times reports, CBS Corp. acting Chief Executive Joseph Ianniello thought she was up for a bigger challenge. “‘60 Minutes’ is the No. 1 news program and will continue to be that,” Ianniello said in an interview. “Susan can add more value creatively on some of our other broadcasts and have an impact that’s much greater on the entire organization.”
3. Her most prized possession came from the trash
Zirinsky will stop at nothing to get a good story. Apparently, she’ll stop at nothing to get a good memento either. When she landed her first job at CBS, the Watergate Scandal was just breaking. On August 8th, 1974, Water Cronkite fronted a very special CBS news report to confirm the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. It was groundbreaking stuff… so groundbreaking, in fact, that the then 22-year-old Zirinsky felt compelled to dig around in the trash to recover a copy of Cronkite’s script, something she now describes as her “most prized possession.”
4. She was almost fired
As thecut.com reports, Zirinsky may have a long and distinguished career at CBS, but that didn’t almost stop her getting fired once… although, in a pretty piece of poetic justice, she managed to outlast the man who tried to show her the door. During a 2008 interview with TV Newser, Zirinsky spilled the beans. “Truth be told, I was even fired from one CBS News broadcast,” she said, “but in the end, was held to my contract and not allowed to leave the company. Turned out I outlasted the man who fired me and I now have his desk.”
5. She’s committed to improving CBS
CBS hasn’t had the best few years. Rocked by sexual misconduct allegations and under scrutiny for the now-ousted Jeff Fager’s toxic behavior, it clearly has a lot of cleaning up to do. Fortunately, it’s now got a president who’s committed to doing just that. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Zirinsky laid out her plans to bring CBS up to scratch. “The MeToo movement isn’t behind us, it’s alongside us in our thinking,” she said. “There will be more powerful HR person in the news division that is working on culture change. It’s really important to me to have an environment where there is transparency, where there are reactions based on actions.”
6. She’s inspired a film
Zirinsky’s early years as a dynamo reporter didn’t just lead to promotions, it inspired a film- 1987s ‘Broadcast News,’ to be exact. In it, Zirinsky is portrayed by Holly Hunter. Zirinsky acted as a consultant on the film, helping to prepare Hunter and even loaning her some of her own clothes. The help clearly paid off: after the film’s release, Hunter managed to land a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.
7. She’s married to a journalist
Zirinsky isn’t the only journalist in the family. In 1984, she married Emmy Award-winning reporter Joseph Peyronnin. They later went on to work together during the coverage of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The couple adopted their daughter, Zoe, from China in 1996.
8. She’s won multiple awards
Zirinsky is one of the most revered and respected figures in TV journalism. It stands to reason, then, that her trophy cabinet is fit to burst these days. Just a small selection of her awards and honors over the past few decades include Peabody Awards for Excellence for ‘9/11′ and ’48 Hours: Heroes Under Fire’; the First Amendment Service Award from the Radio Television and Digital News Foundation; a News & Documentary Emmy Award for the CBS specials ‘Hostage’, ‘Grave Injustice’, and ‘Perilous Journey’; the Christopher Award for ‘9/11’ and ‘In God’s Name’; and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Television & Film Awards.
9. Covid -19 has been her biggest challenge
Speaking to nywici.org about her experiences at CBS, Zirinsky explained that since becoming president, her biggest challenge has been dealing with the impact of COVID on the network’s normal operations. “COVID-19 hit CBS News like a bomb,” she said. “Our main broadcast center was shut down on March 18. We had to stay on the air. The logistics would have scared General Patton. Still, 60 Minutes, 48 Hours and CBS Sunday Morning are all being produced out of house, using cloud-based editing in kitchens and dining room tables. We have a new phrase — “Adaptive Creativity.”
10. She’s big on fan engagement
As vulture.com writes, unlike most senior CBS executives, Zirinsky is all about engaging with the viewers in a way she knows will get their attention. She’s got a reputation for live-tweeting all her shows to encourage fan engagement – she’s even been known to hide in the bathroom at events so she can live-tweet from her iPad.