David Rhodes will step down as president of CBS News after an eight-year tenure and be replaced by veteran producer Susan Zirinsky, CBS announced Sunday night, a maneuver executives and anchors alike no doubt hope will end an era of turmoil at the famous news division. Zirinsky will become the first female chief in the storied history of a unit whose journalists have included industry titans like Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly and Walter Cronkite.
“The media is intensely scrutinized every day in this country, but what matters most is that we hold ourselves to the highest standards possible,” acting CBS CEO Joe Ianniello said in a note to staffers Sunday. “With this in mind, we called upon Susan and look forward to the next chapter for CBS News. In the coming weeks, Susan will be determining the needs of the organization and her executive team.” Zirinsky will start her duties in March.
In a note to employees, Rhodes said he had decided to try something new. “The world we cover is changing, how we cover it is changing, and it’s the right time for me to make a change too,” Rhodes said, noting that he would serve for a time as a senior advisor to both Ianniello and CBS News.
Under Rhodes, CBS News expanded into new digital territories and placed more emphasis on its roots as a trusted hard-news outlet, refashioning the network’s morning show and launching streaming-news outlet CBSN. But the ouster of Charlie Rose in late 2017 after allegations were raised of unwanted sexual advances opened a new era of uncertainty at the news unit, which became the subject of a corporate probe. Rhodes had no connection to those accusations, but they threw CBS News into tumult. Meanwhile, ratings have slipped at “CBS This Morning,” CBS Evening News” and “Face The Nation,” all of which have had new anchors put in place in recent months.
Ianniello made the decision to replace Rhodes with Zirinsky after finding out Rhodes hoped to try something different, according to a person familiar with the matter. Rhodes’ contract was believed to be coming up sometime in February.
In Zirinsky, CBS News has a veteran who is respected by senior executives across the industry. A CBS News employee since the weeks of the Watergate break-in, she even served as the inspiration for Holly Hunter’s high-standards news producer in the 1987 film “Broadcast News.”
At present, she is the senior executive producer of “48 Hours” and oversees CBS News breaking news specials. But over her career, she has had a hand in everything from “39 Days,” a recent documentary looking at the movement that formed in the aftermath of shootings in Parkland, Florida, to “9/11,″ a documentary on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that included the only footage of the first plane going into the north tower of the World Trade Center and of activity inside the Trade Center before the towers fell.
“I have been honored to work closely throughout my career with great CBS News journalists,” said Zirinsky in a prepared statement Sunday. “This may be a new role, but the mission is the same: deliver quality, in-depth journalism and engaging storytelling. CBS News has an incredible legacy to build on. The public’s interest today for news and information is intense, and CBS News is uniquely positioned to expand its reach.”
Not everything she had done has been so serious. She has also produced a primetime special that looked back at David Letterman’s career and was executive producer of two specials for Tyra Banks’ “America’s Next Top Model.”
Zirinsky has in the past also expressed a willingness to experiment. In 2014, she tried to counterprogram NBC’s Olympics coverage with a two-hour “48 Hours” that focused on the plight of a New Orleans marching bands made up of schoolchildren. The key factor behind that, she told Variety at the time, was to find the best way to show what her staffers could do: “The creativity and power of people I work with allows me to take chances and push the envelope.”
Even before she takes on new duties, Zirinsky has a list of heady tasks ahead of her.
She had been in the running to take over as executive producer of “60 Minutes,” a role that seems increasingly likely to go to Bill Owens, who currently serves as executive editor at the storied newsmagazine. Owens was put in charge of the show after the ouster of Jeff Fager, the program’s most recent executive producer. Some staffers had alleged Fager tolerated a tough culture at the program, but he left CBS after responding harshly to a text message from a CBS News reporter doing a story about his tenure at the network.
She will also have to fill the top producing role at ‘CBS This Morning,” which will be vacant upon the departure of Ryan Kadro; look for ways to bolster viewership at “CBS Evening News” and “Face the Nation”; and fend off new international muscle growing at NBC News, which will work more closely with Sky News of Europe as parent Comcast digests its recent acquisition of majority control of European satellite broadcaster Sky PLC.