After 47-year career, alumna named first female president of CBS News
Award-winning journalist Susan Zirinsky discusses achievements, future of news
As an AU student in the midst of the Watergate scandal, Susan Zirinsky rode her moped along Massachusetts Avenue to and from the CBS Washington bureau. Knowing that history was unfolding right before her very eyes, she found her passion for journalism.
Now an Emmy and Peabody award-winning journalist with a 47-year career at CBS, Zirinsky was recently named the president of CBS News, becoming the first woman to hold the position.
She started at CBS as a part-time weekend production clerk, acquiring the job through a professor. Zirinsky said if it wasn’t for AU, she doesn’t know if she would be where she is now.
“AU was like ground zero for me. I was still living in the dorms and working at CBS and it was like an incredible production,” Zirinsky said in an interview with The Eagle. “Would I rather go to Mary Graydon or would I rather hang out at the news desk when the Saturday Night Massacre happens and the President of the United States is firing the Attorney General?”
Jeff Rutenbeck, the dean of the School of Communication, said Zirinsky’s experience mirrors what the University is concentrated on.
“She’s always been attracted to issues and stories that matter and to trends, developments and personalities that make a difference in the world,” Rutenbeck said. “I think that is what attracts people to come to AU.”
Zirinsky later went on to cover the White House, including the Carter and Reagan administrations. That is where she met Sharon Metcalf, an AU alumna and staff member, who worked as a press liaison for Carter.
“She was a young dynamo, of course we were all young at the time,” Metcalf said. “I was just really impressed at how she engaged people and there is a lot of pressure and stress in that environment, but she got people rallied and on board.”
Zirinsky said covering the Carter administration had a significant impact on her career. One of her most memorable moments at CBS was when the president unexpectedly motioned her over as he was walking toward his family’s cemetery in Plains, Georgia, days before President Reagan’s first inauguration.
“He said how sorry he was that he was unable to bring the hostages [in Iran] home and he went into this whole introspective thing and I’m thinking ‘I’m with the president of the United States, I’m a producer, I’m not a correspondent,’” Zirinsky said. “I got this golden interview about this man’s humanity and his depression about not succeeding as president in getting these people home.”
After a decade of covering multiple presidencies, she became the executive producer of 48 Hours. Her most ambitious role, however, came this past January when CBS News announced she would become its next president, replacing David Rhodes.
“I was thrilled that she broke that glass ceiling,” Metcalf said. “I think it was a smart-ass move on CBS’s part.”
Over the past two years, CBS has dealt with the fallout of misconduct allegations against its former chairman and CEO Les Moonves, who stepped down in September. The news division in particular faced revelations of sexual misconduct by former CBS This Morning anchor Charlie Rose and former 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager, both of whom were fired.
“I think at a time when behaviors of different executives are under scrutiny for a really good reason, to have someone who knows just how to run things, and who happens to be a woman, is great,” Amy Eisman, the director of AU’s journalism program, said.
Zirinsky, though excited for the challenge, said she was surprised by the decision. In her new role, she wants to restore the era where CBS was seen as a leader in terms of original content and breaking news.
In an era of political bashing and bullying, Zirinsky said she wants her organization to focus on the hard truth and facts without a point of view or commentary. She emphasized that journalists should not feel discouraged in today’s political climate. Rather, they should be more vigilant.
“If you feel that you want the courage to hold people accountable and you know democracy will wither without a free press, then you gotta put your big girl or big boy panties on and march on,” she said.
Eisman said Zirinsky has always been devoted to the the facts and knows the importance of journalism in a democracy.
“Honest to goodness, I’m not just saying this, she exemplifies who we are,” Eisman said. “I can’t think of anyone who could make us more proud to have as an alum.”
A version of an article originally appeared in The Eagle's March 2019 print edition.