Susan Zirinsky: Making History of Her Own
By Aundrea Cline-Thomas
Susan Zirinsky, or “Z” as she’s affectionately known, walked into the CBS News Washington bureau at 20 years old, just two weeks after the Watergate break-in. It started what has been a whirlwind career that has given her a front row seat to history. In 2019 Zirinsky, became the first woman to be named president of CBS News. From overhauling the news division, to guiding production and coverage through a pandemic and racial justice uprising, Zirinsky is meeting the challenges with compassion and a steadfast commitment to both viewers and her colleagues.
“I learned this year that journalism is not a job, it’s a public service,” says Zirinsky. “We are separating fact from fiction every day –and the stakes couldn’t be higher. This may be a defining moment in our profession.”
Did you feel as if you didn’t get a chance to ease into your new role at CBS News?
The word easy is not in any dictionary I have ever used. First, it was establishing a new management team and HR team. Then overhauling “CBS This Morning” with Gayle King, Tony Dokoupil and Anthony Mason as the new anchor team, and installing a new executive producer and senior team. Next was remaking the “CBS Evening News,” tapping Norah O’Donnell as anchor and managing editor, bringing in a new executive producer and making the daring call to move the broadcast to Washington, D.C. 60 Minutes needed a new leader and appointing Bill Owens began our launch of the 60 Minutes of the future. At 48 Hours, I was succeeded as executive producer by a long-time colleague, who is one of the finest writers and producers I know.
What has been the biggest challenge?
COVID-19 hit CBS News like a bomb. We had one of the first clusters in New York City. Our main broadcast center was shut down on March 18. We had to stay on the air. The logistics would have scared General Patton. More than 100 days later, our first partial group has re-entered the building. Still, 60 Minutes, 48 Hours and CBS Sunday Morning are all being produced out of house, using cloud-based editing done in kitchens and at dining room tables. A piece from New York City might be edited in our Los Angeles or Dallas Bureau, then sent back to D.C. We have a new phrase — “Adaptive Creativity.”
There is a dramatic movement in this country, recognizing what so many have known for so long about the prevalence of systemic racism, implicit bias and unequal justice under the law. We have to actively and intentionally work against unconscious and implicit bias at CBS News. We cannot be defensive. We have to listen. We have to acknowledge this pain. We have to do something about it. Some initiatives we have launched include creating an Executive Task Force, a Race & Culture unit, facilitated conversations about race through training and workshops, and establishing an Advisory Board, which will become as important as our standards and practices group. We have a responsibility to our employees and our audience to reflect America and bring diverse voices and perspective to every conversation and every story.
What has brought you the most joy?
Taking over as the first woman president of CBS News. I also kept the second part of my title, Senior Executive Producer, CBS News. I never want to abandon being known as a creative soul. Having worked my way up doing every administrative and editorial job, I know what everyone does. I know what everyone gives up to be part of the driving forces of CBS News. A line I adopted from another Matrix winner: “I’m not a show pony, I’m a workhorse.”
Joy is getting a call from Oprah who had talked to Tyler Perry and they wanted to pay tribute to the late Congressman John Lewis. Creating a special television tribute to the lion of the civil rights era brought untold joy.
What goals do you have yet to accomplish?
I want to be known as an agent of change. Honest, transparent, dedicated to the mission of a free, inclusive press. The person you could call in the middle of the night when you were in trouble. A caring, loving, leader who finds sheer, unadulterated joy in the successes of those on her team.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
We are living in a moment that appears to have galvanized a nation. The death of George Floyd has energized us as journalists. Change will not be easy. It will be uncomfortable to some. It will alter every fiber in us. It will take time. We all must do a reset. We can help drive an end to the systemic racism and the policing of America through telling the stories that for too long have not been told. That’s what I want to change. It’s time.
Aundrea Cline-Thomas is a reporter at CBS New York.
To learn more about Ann Lewnes, read her NYWICI Profile here.