CBS News Chief Susan Zirinsky: ‘I Had to Keep My Focus on the Endgame’ With Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell
CBS News boss Susan Zirinsky said ‘none of the noise mattered’ over her high-profile staff shakeup. Jeff Glor’s future remains unclear after he was booted from the ‘Evening News.’
CBS This Morning star Gayle King might find “a lot of bad press coming from inside the building…very disturbing to me,” as she complained on the air during Monday’s episode, without citing the New York Post’s claim last week that King had forced her longtime cohost Norah O’Donnell off the broadcast.
But King’s new boss, veteran news producer Susan Zirinsky, insisted that she is unfazed by all the leaking and lurid publicity that has accompanied her first public moves as the recently-named president of CBS News.
“Look, I had to tune out the noise to keep my focus on the end game,” Zirinsky told The Daily Beast in a wide-ranging interview, a few hours after announcing sweeping personnel and structural changes at CBS This Morning, the third-place network morning program, and at the also-ran CBS Evening News, which O'Donnell will soon take over anchor duties from Jeff Glor.
King will become lead anchor on CBS This Morning. The other anchor on the morning show, John Dickerson, will move to 60 Minutes as a correspondent.
On Monday’s show, in what observers called a highly unusual bit of ad-libbing—on a day when CBS News would have clearly benefited from message discipline—King went off-script and pointedly criticized newsroom colleagues who apparently talked to the New York Post; she even cited the poor ratings that had occasioned the on-air shakeups—which some took as a swipe at Dickerson and Glor.
“I’ve never seen somebody do that publicly on national TV,” said a CBS News veteran who asked not to be further identified. “Basically she told 3 million viewers, most of whom never even heard of Page Six, that people are fighting with each other and leaking bad press about CBS News. But why? It makes CBS look like a loony bin, and it’s laying land mines for more trouble.”
But Zirinsky insisted otherwise.
“In the end, none of [the noise] matters,” said Zirinsky, who spent some of last week toiling to calm frayed nerves in her news division over the coming staff shakeups.
“It didn’t derail me. It didn’t sway me,” Zirinsky said about the tabloid-ready melodrama. “I knew what the truth was. I stayed on point to get to the end, to finish the plan—and that’s what’s happened.”
Saying she is “excited” and “inspired” by her new responsibilities, Zirinsky said she felt she had to act decisively, after only two months on the job, because “people needed to feel there was a plan and a purpose.”
The changes include taking King’s longtime cohost O’Donnell off the morning show and, beginning this summer, installing her as anchor and managing editor of the network’s flagship weeknight newscast and moving it to Washington—while booting Glor off the show with no clear destination.
“You may have heard about changes taking place here at CBS News—about moves that impact colleagues, the unmatched Evening News team and me,” Glor, looking subdued, told viewers in a pretaped comment at the end of Monday night’s newscast.
“The outpouring of support from you has been everything—so thank you for that. I like to think we’re all guided by something bigger than one moment and one broadcast. I have always wanted to do work that matters, and still do. This is something that will never change.”
Adding that he’ll have “far more to share with all of you” in the future—“It will be great, I promise,” Glor said—he made no specific mention of his impending departure from the newscast or career plans, other than to say “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Glor’s comments were greeted with a long ovation in the studio, said a witness.
Zirinsky told The Daily Beast that she has offered Glor another newsroom position that she didn’t identify, but that he has yet to accept. Glor has more than a year left on his CBS contract, but it’s unclear how long he will continue to anchor the newscast, or whether he will even stay with the network. “He’s taking it day by day,” said the source, adding Glor hopes to stick it out at least till Friday.
Zirinsky, who praised Glor’s work ethic and willingness to travel at a moment’s notice to cover breaking news, insisted that she had told him from the beginning that she was considering major changes. But Glor was left with the impression that he was very much in the running to keep the anchor chair.
Glor, who was appointed to replace Scott Pelley by Zirinsky’s predecessor, David Rhodes, had been helming the evening newscast for the past year and half.
He had an emotional session earlier Monday afternoon with his CBS Evening News coworkers after flying in from Arizona’s Grand Canyon, where he had been shooting a segment for the show, and rushing into the newscast’s offices on West 57th Street for a delayed staff meeting.
According to a source, Glor apologized for keeping everyone waiting, said he was “grateful for the amazing team” he‘d had the privilege of working with, and choked up.
During the meeting, Glor made sure to wish the “the best of luck” to his replacement, O’Donnell; on Monday’s installment of CBS This Morning, however while King and Dickerson had praised Glor’s journalism and stewardship of the newscast, O’Donnell didn’t speak his name.
“I will be fine, you will be fine,” Glor reassured his apprehensive colleagues.
“I apologize for looking like shit,” he joked to the staff after his long plane ride, adding that he had to go “freshen up” for Monday night’s show.
In the fall, O’Donnell is planning to relocate from New York to anchor the CBS Evening News from her old stomping grounds of Washington, D.C., where she spent years as a White House and Capitol Hill correspondent and her husband, Geoff Tracy, owns a restaurant chain.
O’Donnell will also receive the title of chief political anchor.
“I felt we needed a game change on the Evening News, and the idea of moving the show to Washington was my first thought,” Zirinsky told The Daily Beast. “I’m very close to [retired CBS veteran and former Face the Nation and Evening News anchor] Bob Schieffer, and we just talked about it…I was very sensitive that this not be [about] an insular Washington, but the truth is that Washington is the center of gravity for everything that’s happening, almost everything that impacts everyone in the country and everyone in the world…and by taking the show and moving it there we will be holding the government accountable.”
Zirinsky said that once she decided to move the evening newscast to the nation’s capital—with a bifurcated staff that straddles Washington and New York—O’Donnell was her first choice to be anchor and managing editor.
“She’s covered the White House, she’s covered Capitol Hill, she’s covered six campaigns. It felt like she was the right person. She has a big brain.”
Zirinsky, named the first woman to run CBS News at moment when the network has been plagued by embarrassing publicity concerning an allegedly pervasive corporate culture of sexual harassment and discrimination, insisted O’Donnell’s gender was not a factor in her promotion.
“We put the right person in the job,” she said. “It wasn’t an agenda item.”
Zirinsky said she considers the Washington move a “long-term,” not a temporary, change; so far staffers, especially the production crew, are in the dark concerning how they will be affected by the geographical shift. It will be a massive departure from a nearly six decades of tradition in which the CBS Evening News and the other two broadcast networks’ weeknight newscasts have always been anchored from New York.
Zirinsky, who only since March 1 has been running the network news division where she began her storied broadcast career 47 years ago as a weekend production assistant in the CBS Washington bureau, declined to discuss what, by most accounts, is the near-doubling of King’s salary—an increase to somewhere reportedly in the $11 million range—with O’Donnell’s pay raise, after her reported demand for “Gayle money,” supposedly a close second.
“I’m not going anywhere near that question,” Zirinsky said when asked about the salary speculation. While CBS News traditionally has paid its top talent significantly less than the star salaries at ABC and NBC, “I have had great support from [CBS Corp.’s acting chief executive] Joe Ianniello, [who replaced alleged sexual harasser Leslie Moonves] and it’s interesting, in this company, they really feel that CBS News is the jewel in the crown of the network as a whole,” Zirinsky added.
Former Face the Nation anchor Dickerson will, as well as joining 60 Minutes, play a role in the network’s political and 2020 campaign coverage.
Meanwhile, longtime CBS News veteran Anthony Mason and newcomer Tony Dokoupil will slip into the co-host chairs previously occupied by O’Donnell and Dickerson beginning on May 20.
Zirinsky acknowledged that Dickerson, who had been gaining traction and making news as anchor of Face the Nation, seemed less than effective on the weekday morning show, but predicted he would do well at 60 Minutes.
“John Dickerson is a writer. He is a thoughtful guy…60 Minutes is such a good fit, and his political acumen on all our election specials…will be phenomenal,” she said. Calling Dickerson a “political guru,” Zirinsky added: “We really felt he didn’t get that chance on CBS This Morning.”
As for Tony Dokoupil, Zirinsky praised his “authenticity,” and extolled Anthony Mason’s versatility and “magical chemistry” with the 64-year-old King.