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'The mission never changes': Susan Zirinsky looks to restore CBS News to past glory

“What we have at CBS is a legacy and a history,” Zirinsky told CBS News staffers on Monday.

Standing in the middle of the CBS newsroom on Monday, Susan Zirinsky addressed staff members of the embattled media organization with a microphone in one hand and a copy of Walter Cronkite’s broadcast the night President Richard Nixon resigned in the other.

The tattered, aged papers from 1974 had been saved from a trash bin by Zirinsky from a time when CBS News was a powerhouse in ratings and acclaim.

“What we have at CBS is a legacy and a history,” Zirinsky said, according to a CBS staffer. “The mission never changes. It deepens. It widens.”

Zirinsky is the newly appointed president of CBS News, the first woman to hold that role at the network at a time when the company is still trying to recover from sexual misconduct scandals that led to the departure of some of the company’s most notable faces — and amid a widening ratings gap that has left it a distant third to its broadcast competitors.

As staffers held smartphones to record the speech, Zirinsky reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to great reporting and its public service mission while promising a “reset.”

"It's time for a reset,” Zirinsky said, according to another CBS staffer. “The future and the success will be a collective one."

CBS staffers welcomed Zirinsky’s promotion and her speech.

“I think it’s safe to say there is no one in this industry like Susan Zirinsky,” tweeted Brinda Adhikari, senior broadcast producer for “CBS Evening News. “I am so lucky to work here. And, no surprise, she brought down the house with her speech.”

Zirinsky, who turns 67 in March, started working at CBS as a part-time production clerk in 1972, when the network and Cronkite were considered the pinnacle of U.S. news.

Zirinsky now faces a far different reality. CBS News is lagging in ratings for its major programs, while the company remains in the midst of a series of sexual misconduct scandals that have led to the departures of many of its most high-profile figures and producers. In the past year, many of CBS’ most notable figures have either been fired or left in the midst of scandal.

The most immediate challenge for Zirinsky is the network’s ratings. While broadcast news operations have generally struggled to maintain or grow their audiences, CBS has lagged behind its main competition: ABC and NBC

The CBS flagship news program, “CBS Evening News,” anchored by Jeff Glor, lost 10 percent of its audience in 2018 in the 25-54 year-old category of viewers that advertisers pay to reach, according to the media analytics company Nielsen.

Similarly, the audience for its morning show, “CBS This Morning,” fell by 15 percent in the same category, while the Sunday politics show “Face the Nation” also dropped 15 percent, according to Nielsen numbers.

Zirinsky has numerous important roles to fill. She must hire a new executive producer for “This Morning,” and determine if the company will keep Glor as its evening anchor.

Zirinsky will also have to decide who will run “60 Minutes,” CBS’ still-popular newsmagazine. It is a job she was also considered for.

CBS had held a series of discussions over the weekend finalizing a deal to have Zirinsky move up from her current role running long-running newsmagazine “48 Hours.”

“At 48 Hours, she reinvented the show and turned it into an hour long narrative and a crime show which saved it,” said a former staffer who spoke anonymously out of concern for professional relationships. “She saw where the audience wanted to go.”

Zirinsky’s first order of business on Monday was naming Judy Tygard as her replacement. Tygard’s office confirmed the news.

CBS News representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Zirinsky did not respond for a request for an interview but told The Los Angeles Times: “The #MeToo movement isn’t behind us. It’s alongside us in our thinking.”

Zirinsky told the paper that cultural changes would be coming to the newsroom.

“There will be a new and more powerful human resources person in the news division that is working on culture change,” she said. “It’s really important to me to have an environment where there is transparency, where you can talk, where there are reactions based on actions.”

Susan Zirinsky
Susan Zirinsky attends the CBS Upfront on May 15, 2013 in New York.Charles Sykes / Invision/AP file

Several current and former staff members at CBS News said Zirinsky would help restore lost morale at the division, which has been rocked by numerous departures over the past year under outgoing president David Rhodes, who joined eight years ago. Rhodes’ contract at CBS ended in February, though he will remain an advisor to the company to deal with any remaining legal issues, according to a former senior-level CBS news staffer who spoke anonymously to protect professional relationships.

In October, Rhodes hired Joanna Coles, a former Cosmopolitan magazine editor and content chief at Hearst magazines, as a creative advisor on “This Morning.” It’s unclear what will happen to her position.

Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather said in a phone interview that Zirinsky joined CBS News’ Washington bureau straight from American University and recalls she worked all night while helping him meet a deadline on a book he was writing.

“Even at that time she was a nuclear power plant of energy, which has been her trademark her whole career,” Rather said.

He praised her strong organizational capabilities, including finding the sources for the crew when the two covered the Tiananmen Square protests in China.

Zirinsky, often referred to by CBS staffers as “Z,” is well known in the TV news world and served as the inspiration for Holly Hunter’s character — a TV producer — in the 1987 movie “Broadcast News.”

Rather said Zirinsky’s first job is to restore a sense of tradition at CBS News while dealing with reduced resources.

“Part of the mission is she has to re-instill a certain esprit de corps,” Rather said. “CBS has been through a lot this past year.”

He explained that CBS staff always thought of themselves as “knights of journalism” and bringing that sense of pride back to the news division would be key to her success.

“That is the challenge for Z, it’s a challenge she’ll meet,” he said.