Despite being on the frontlines of the first Gulf War and part of a team that hunted for Deep Throat in garages along the beltway, Susan Zirinsky still gets anxious. But she doesn’t view this fear as a hindrance, rather as the first woman to lead CBS News, Zirinsky believes fear has made her better prepared for the job.
Zirinsky, who Dan Rather once said was delivered to the Washington, D.C. bureau of CBS News straight from the hospital, has gone from a 20-year-old desk assistant to, at 67, tasked with righting a news organization caught in the firestorm of the MeToo movement.
As both “CBS This Morning” and “CBS Evening News” struggle to turn around a ratings slump, Zirinsky made her first sweeping changes to the news organization earlier this month: She is moving the “Evening News” broadcast to Washington, D.C. and named “CBS This Morning” host Norah O’Donnell as anchor, while rejiggering the anchors of the morning show, led by Gayle King.
Zirinsky is the first recipient of Ad Age’s Vanguard Award, which honors a woman in media and advertising on her overall career achievements. (This conversation has been edited and condensed.)
What has it been like as a woman climbing the ranks in media and at CBS?
Having started at such a young age, getting hired two weeks after the Watergate break, my perspective in the beginning was not one where there weren't a lot of women. It was the opportunity of a lifetime being in the Washington newsroom on Saturdays, occasionally Sundays. I literally was a desk assistant. I was answering phones. I was so overwhelmed to being a witness to history while living in the dorms of American University, and going to garages in the Washington, Virginia, and Maryland area with camera crews, looking for Deep Throat because the assignment editor thought, "Oh, well, maybe we can find Deep Throat," or feeling excited that I was standing in the back of the Jefferson Hotel, staking out the Attorney General of the United States, John Mitchell. I'd go back to the dorm and be bubbling over, and everybody else will have spend their Saturday nights doing what most college people do Saturday nights, eating and drinking, and I'm wanting to regale them about the back alleys of the Jefferson Hotel or what garages I had been to.
It didn't really strike me, the division of men and women, in those early days. … When I found myself at the center of the Washington Bureau in a time where journalism was so important in the democratic process, it was like the best blind date ever. Who needed Christian Mingle or Tinder? I had my date. Who cared if I didn't date, which was actually beneficial.
When did you first realize the division between men and women in journalism?
One of the earliest moments for me is, I had to deliver an envelope to Lesley Stahl's desk. At that point, Lesley Stahl was a young correspondent in with Connie Chung. I couldn't find the desk. In the Washington Bureau, there was this front row, which was all the stars. It was George Herman, Roger Mudd, Dan Rather, Marvin Kalb, and Dan Schorr. I found the back row, which had these desks that looked like Alice in Wonderland, like you'd fallen through the looking glass. They were these tiny secretarial desks. I thought, "Wow, what's with that?"
I remember one specific incident where Lesley Stahl was asked to be on one of these primetime breaking shows. They never went to Lesley to ask a question. At the end, [Walter] Cronkite turned to Lesley and said, "So Lesley, what's the gossip?" She answered the question. She was very professional and everything else, but in the elevator riding up, it was mortifying.
So it was at that point you realized there weren't as many women doing what you were doing?
Well no, here was the interesting thing: The weekend news producer that I was working for was a woman. Rita Braver was a key person running the CBS News Washington radio operation on the desk. There were some really critical women in editorial positions; I wasn't alone. There were people to look up to who were women. [But] there was definitely a kind of a division.
What are the biggest challenges you've had to face in your career?
I always wanted to feel smart enough to do the job. Then I came to a realization, "You may never be the smartest person in the room, but [it’s about] the ability to engage colleagues, council, report, research, the ability to aggregate enough information so you can make an educated choice." Fear to me is empowering. I would love to tell you that as I've grown older that I've left fear at the door side. I haven't, but I actually think that it makes me better at my job. I think many times women are afraid to admit the fear factor. They think it makes them vulnerable. I think it makes me better prepared.
I've gone to a lot of war zones. Oftentimes, I found them to be—I actually want to say this in the right way—inspiring, because I witnessed normal people being heroes. I was a woman in the first Gulf War in Dhahran where Saudi men don't really want to touch women, and I found myself, I couldn't stop touching people. It was like an obsession. I'm sure there were men in Dhahran that had hands cut off because I had shaken their hands.
How much has really changed for women, both internally at CBS and in the overall media landscape?
I really believe that we are past the point of women proving themselves. Everything is equal. We are seeing women in higher positions. I think what we really are working hard on is inclusion, and diverse leaders at the top of the shows. It's reflecting who we are as a society… There is no sex to journalism. You are a journalist.
You said ‘there’s no sex in journalism,’ but have you been actively looking to elevate women?
It's really an organic thing. I'm looking for the best people for the job. It's not as if we said, "OK, we have to put a woman in that job." These people deserve these jobs. They're the best qualified.
How much pressure have you felt in rebuilding the news organization following the departure of [“CBS This Morning” and “60 Minutes” host] Charlie Rose, [“60 Minutes” producer] Jeff Fager and [former CBS CEO] Les Moonves?
I feel the pressure is preserving the best of CBS. The people in this organization are extraordinary. The pressure I felt was representing them and helping rebuild an organization that already had the great reporters. The journalism is here. I just had to help them function better, give better lanes, create an atmosphere where people could do their best work. That was the pressure.
Has all of these incidents at CBS News and the broader organization over the course of the past year or so overshadowed the mission of the news division?
Journalism was never put on the back burner. We had to deal with the issues that were in front of us. That's not a process that's ever going to be over…This is not only CBS's problem; this is society's problem. We are absolutely really taking this on by talking to people. But what has to happen is, one has to talk, become aware of an issue, and then effectively deal with it. Action has to have reactions and consequences. That's how you change the dynamic.
What mistakes have you made in your career and what have you learned from them?
My first executive producer job was “Eye to Eye with Connie Chung.” I felt, as an executive producer, you have to put your imprint on something. I learned very quickly that what your job is, is to allow people to do their best work… It's to be a collaborator; it's to aggregate as much information, not be afraid to make the final call, but be able to take in as much information as you can to make the best decision. I used to be afraid to let people know that I was scared of things, and I found that it didn't make a difference, that people appreciated my admission of vulnerability and that I seek counsel. There has been a critique that I've talked to too many people. I think a journalist's role [is] you can't talk to enough people.
What advice would you give to women climbing the ranks now?
Embrace the fear. Use it as your fuel. It's like a drug. It empowers you to ask all the questions. If you are putting on a front that isn't who you are, you're not going to succeed.
I think that embracing people and putting your arms around people to pull in ideas and make people feel valuable is the most important job as an executive producer—as an executive. When I would read a script for a special, or “48 [Hours],” or documentary, sometimes I'd be at home on the weekend, I would say to Noah, my husband, "Oh my God, this is so bad." Then I'd sit down, and I would start to redline the script. I would always begin with, "You have incredible elements here, fantastic elements. Let's talk about maybe a different structure." My advice is, encouraging people to do their best work.
Now that these anchor changes are in place, what are your next priorities?
I want to meet my bed. I'm just kidding. My dogs and my husband are very confused. I wake up a lot in the middle of the night. My husband, who has been in the business, has been extraordinarily helpful. I will even say it has fortified my marriage in a way I could never have anticipated, with advice and counsel. One night I'm like, "I can't sleep." I kind of lean over, and I hug him. It's not a usual occurrence for me. He rolls over, and he goes, "Are you OK? Do you have cancer or something?" Then he laughed, and he just hugged me, and he pulled the dogs up. I said, "Just don't say you got this, because if one more person says that, I'll punch them in the nose." He just held me, and we scratched the dogs, and we kind of laughed, and we went back to sleep.