CBS News’ brand-new president, Susan Zirinsky, has been grappling for the past day with the fallout from Thursday’s New York Post story about on-air personnel changes that has driven some staffers in her already-nervous news division to the edge of panic.
“It’s hard. I get it, but you have to stay focused,” Zirinsky, who formally took the reins on March 1, advised rattled CBS Evening News staffers after the Post claimed, among other disruptions, that CBS This Morning star Gayle King is forcing Norah O’Donnell off the show as part her contract negotiations, positioning O’Donnell to snatch the job of CBS Evening News anchor away from Jeff Glor and move that program to Washington.
“When there’s something to tell you, I will tell you,” Zirinsky added, according to a witness. “When we’re ready, we’ll do it.”
CBS News pushed back hard against the Post’s claim in the story that King and O’Donnell were engaged in an epic catfight, objecting especially to the headline, “Gayle King pushes out Norah O’Donnell at ‘CBS This Morning.’”
“This headline is offensive and 100 percent false,” the Post quoted Zirinsky as responding, adding the assertion of “a person close to O’Donnell” that she and King “are close friends.”
O'Donnell's agent, Jay Sures, weighed in with a complaint about blind quotes in the Post story that described his client as difficult to deal with and “toxic.”
“If she was a man, these kind of unsupported accusations would never be reported,” Sures said.
O’Donnell didn’t respond to a request for comment.
On Friday’s installment of the morning show—for which King was absent, on assignment in London for a special on Harry and Meghan’s impending baby, as was John Dickerson, reportedly preparing to leave CBS This Morning to do political segments for 60 Minutes—O’Donnell told viewers: “We are reading lots of things with great interest. I just want you to know we will address them on Monday, when Gayle is back here, and John as well.”
O’Donnell’s comments suggested that Monday will be the day for an official announcement of the pending personnel changes, possibly including that O’Donnell and Dickerson will be replaced by longtime CBS News veteran Anthony Mason and newcomer Tony Dokoupil as King’s new cohosts.
The professional future of Glor—who was installed as CBS Evening News anchor in October 2017 by Zirinsky’s predecessor, David Rhodes—remained unclear. The Post reported that Glor will likely be demoted to correspondent or weekend-anchor status.
The CBS Evening News has not improved its relatively weak ratings performance since Rhodes booted Scott Pelley off the broadcast—largely out of pique, said insiders, because Pelley’s super-aggressive agent Ari Emanuel squeezed Rhodes during contract talks for more money.
Glor and his own high-powered agent, Olivia Metzger, are said to be resigned to the probability that his days of helming the weeknight newscast are numbered.
CBS News declined to comment on the past day’s revelations.
CBS News veterans, who spoke on condition of not being named, were divided on whether it’s a good idea to give the evening newscast to O’Donnell and move the program’s production center to Washington, where O’Donnell’s husband, Geoff Tracy, owns a chain of restaurants.
“I knew two months ago that this was going to be the plan,” said one, a self-described admirer of Zirinsky. “Rebuild the morning show around Gayle and get her to stay, and put Norah on the Evening News because she’s a better anchor than Jeff. And move it to Washington because that’s where the story is right now, through the election at least, and that’s where her family is and make it stand out a little bit. But long term, not a good idea. You don’t want to keep showing Washington.”
A second CBS News veteran, however, said basing the broadcast in Washington—where the network recently built a state-of-the-art studio in a new bureau—would create a host of problematic logistical challenges, unless Zirinsky decrees that the current New York staff must largely relocate to the nation’s capital.
“It’s not good if it looks like the move is simply trying to satisfy the desire of a single person. Why is it happening? Just because Norah O’Donnell wants to move to Washington because her husband lives there? Is she really that important?”
Meanwhile, television industry insiders told The Daily Beast on Friday that the Post story, along with the accompanying apprehension, is the inevitable result of Zirinsky’s habit of sharing her ideas with a wide array of friends and colleagues.
“She has been telling everybody too much stuff since even before she took over the news division,” said one of the people in whom Zirinsky has confided—including her plans for King, O’Donnell and Glor. “She’s a big talker, and she’s very trustful of all the people that she’s known a long time.”
In early April, barely a month into her new job at CBS News—where she started out 47 years ago as a weekend production assistant in the Washington bureau (and later became the inspiration for Holly Hunter’s type-A character in the 1987 romantic comedy Broadcast News)—Zirinsky was one of the honorees at The Hollywood Reporter’s celebration of the “35 Most Powerful People in New York Media.”
Christa Robinson, the news division’s senior vice president of communications, led Zirinsky through the glittering party crowd inside Manhattan’s The Pool restaurant, and listened approvingly as her boss smiled sheepishly and repeated to each conversational cluster: “I’m not allowed to think out loud anymore.”
Those words were surprising coming from a 67-year-old woman who is famously gregarious, media-friendly and voluble—that is, someone very comfortable thinking out loud—so much so that several witnesses assumed that Zirinsky had been the object of an intervention.
Not so, said a CBS News insider, who pointed out that Zirinsky has been transparent about her intention to make sweeping changes at the news division after widely consulting with employees.
“I will need some time—we have to do a top-down look,” she declared at a meeting of staffers as she took over. “And I know we’re not a patient bunch, but having the time to listen to you—what works, what doesn’t. Call me. Email. Find me. Your ideas matter.”
Zirinsky added: “We have an incredibly gifted group of people…But the important question...[is] we need to make sure eveybody’s in the right place. We’ll be having lots of conversations in the coming weeks to figure that out.”
Her preference, no doubt, was not to have them in public, however.