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Tensions Erupt at CBS News Over Top ‘60 Minutes’ Post

Staffers at CBS News are growing anxious over which of two internal candidates is most likely to win the top post at “60 Minutes” — and it’s making some people more cranky than Andy Rooney delivering one of his famous monologues for the show.

The executive producer slot at “60 Minutes” has been open since longtime chief Jeff Fager parted ways with CBS in September over a threatening text message he sent to a CBS News reporter. Now, staffers supporting either Bill Owens, the show’s executive editor, or Susan Zirinsky, the veteran CBS News producer, are trying to stir up unrest.

Zirinsky, the executive producer of “48 Hours,” sent an email to the show’s staffers on Friday calling for calm after The New York Post reported she had potentially gained an edge with executives trying to decide who should lead the show into the future. “Don’t believe anything you read,” Zirinsky wrote in the subject of the email, according to people familiar with the matter.

A CBS News spokeswoman said executives at the CBS Corp. unit had yet to come to a decision over who should take the helm at “60 Minutes.”

The back and forth between supporters of Owens and Zirinsky reveals the allure of the job. Only two people have served as executive producer of “60 Minutes” over its 51 seasons, and whoever becomes the show’s third leader stands to exert much influence in the world of journalism.

A significant portion of the staff would like to see Owens take the reins, according to several people familiar with the program. These people also note that “60” has an insular culture that would be difficult for anyone who has not worked there to navigate. On the other hand, there are also supporters for Zirinsky, who has also supervised award-winning documentaries and breaking news specials. She even served as the inspiration for Holly Hunter’s high-standards news producer in the 1987 film “Broadcast News.”

The two executives have not been outwardly adversarial in the past, but the appeal of the job and the jockeying around it appears to be leading their supporters to campaign for one by dismissing the other.

In the meantime, “60 Minutes” ticks on. Last Sunday’s episode drew the show’s largest audience since last March 25, attracting 14.1 million viewers. “60 Minutes” is also feeding audience into the new CBS drama “God Friended Me,” which lured 8.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

David Rhodes, the president of CBS News, and Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews, a CBS News executive vice president, will decide who should lead the newsmagazine. If they are following any kind of timeline, it has not been made public.

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