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Inside the Battle to Run CBS News

Lloyd Grove, Maxwell Tani, Lachlan Cartwright
·9-min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

ABC News’ Wednesday announcement of the historic appointment of former top CBS News executive Kim Godwin as the first Black woman, indeed the first woman, to lead the Disney-owned network’s news division was the initial step in an unprecedented game of broadcast news musical chairs involving ABC and CBS.

Godwin’s departure from CBS, where she was the influential executive vice president in charge of global news gathering operations, comes a day after her immediate superior, CBS News President Susan Zirinsky, acknowledged her plans to step down after two troubled and tumultuous years capping a four-decade career as a star producer of such iconic CBS programs as 48 Hours.

Ironically, while Godwin was—on paper, at least—Zirinsky’s principal deputy, she was also one of her most powerful detractors at the network, according to multiple CBS insiders who spoke with The Daily Beast on condition of not being identified.

According to people with knowledge of the situation, executives gossiped that Godwin had actively kept tabs on some of Zirinsky’s missteps, while Zirinsky privately complained about Godwin, souring relations between the two prominent CBS executives.

A rep for ABC News did not respond to a request for comment on the Godwin-Zirinsky contretemps. A CBS News spokesperson said “we are not commenting on malicious gossip.”

Godwin will have a major challenge on her hands in trying to reset the frayed culture at ABC News while managing big personalities such as The View’s Meghan McCain and Whoopi Goldberg. On the plus side, she is taking the job during a boom time for ABC News, when its two most important and revenue-rich programs, Good Morning America and the flagship World News Tonight are both beating their rivals in the ratings.

Godwin’s appointment—which has been rumored for weeks and required ViacomCBS to let her out of a long-term contract—throws into high-relief the uncertain future of CBS News and who will be picked as Zirinsky’s successor. During her usual 9 a.m. conference call with CBS News staffers Wednesday, Zirinsky acknowledged her impending departure--first reported Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal--and advised colleagues that network entertainment president and chief executive George Cheeks would announce his choice “very soon.”

CBS News Chief Susan Zirinsky Scrambles to Calm the Storm Around Gayle King, Norah O’Donnell, and Jeff Glor

Industry speculation, both inside and outside CBS, has run from former CBS This Morning executive producer Chris Licht—who led the third-place broadcast morning program to robust ratings and is currently the showrunner of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert—to CBS News’ top digital leader, Executive Vice President and General Manager Christy Tanner. One person with direct knowledge of the situation said that neither person will get the job, but that Zirinsky’s successor is likely to be a woman who is especially equipped to develop CBS’ digital-news outfit in addition to overseeing its massive broadcast operations.

Amazingly, the real name so far has not leaked.

Zirinsky, the network news division’s first female president when she took the job in early 2019, along with the title of executive producer, was already an iconic industry figure who famously inspired Holly Hunter’s character in the 1987 movie Broadcast News.

CBS News was an organization in disarray but Zirinsky’s hiring was widely considered a smart decision for a network riven by sexual-misconduct scandals. In the months leading up to her hiring, CBS chief executive Les Moonves was ousted following accusations of sexual harassment and longtime 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager was fired after sending a threatening text message to a CBS News reporter looking into accusations of misconduct against him. Ratings were down across the network’s flagship shows following a months-long spate of abrupt switches in on-air talent: CBS Evening News host Jeff Glor continued to struggle following the departure of host Scott Pelley, and CBS This Morning co-host Charlie Rose, a parttime correspondent for 60 Minutes, was fired following a series of sexual harassment allegations, resulting in another talent reshuffling that landed Face the Nation host John Dickerson in the morning co-host slot vacated by Rose.

That reshuffling by Zirinsky’s predecessor, longtime CBS News President David Rhodes, was criticized at the time—Dickerson, an ace political journalist, was occasionally uncomfortable on the set of a chatty morning show—and didn’t improve viewership at either CBS This Morning or Sunday’s Face the Nation.

In one of her first moves as head of the news division, Zirinsky shook up the morning and evening news lineups, removing Jeff Glor, who only recently had replaced Scott Pelley, and installing CBS This Morning host Norah O’Donnell in the evening news anchor chair while spending additional millions to keep Gayle King on the morning show and boost O’Donnell’s salary, relocate the evening news broadcast from New York to Washington and build an expensive new studio there.

While the move was an attempt to juice lackluster ratings for both the morning and evening programs—an ambition that wasn’t realized—it was also an acknowledgement that a seemingly years-long proxy battle between Glor and O’Donnell, which seemed to be playing out in the tabloids, was frustrating staff and weakening morale at the network.

In fact, early ratings for the CBS Evening News were weaker under the glam and allegedly diva-esque O’Donnell, reportedly paid around $7 million a year, than under the journeyman journalist Glor, whose compensation reportedly was a fraction of that and now hosts the Saturday installment of CBS This Morning while serving as a special correspondent. More recently, however, during a period when viewership for the nightly newscasts have declined across the board, the third-place CBS Evening News has narrowed the gap with NBC’s second-place program.

Massive layoffs promptly ensued.

Less than a year into Zirinsky’s tenure as CBS News president, the coronavirus pandemic threw an additional monkey wrench into her hopes to restore ratings and morale to the troubled institution. CBS was also hit hard by the advertising market downturn immediately following the pandemic. During a staff meeting announcing dozens of staff layoffs last year, Zirinsky personally apologized to network employees, blaming the cuts on the impact of COVID-19 and an existing mandate from parent company Viacom to cut costs.

Despite her close personal relationships with many CBS News staffers, Zirinsky--whose success at the network, her only professional home, came from her work as a hands-on producer, not as an executive and manager--made no secret that the vagaries of leading a large, complicated and often-ego driven organization were wearing on her. She often complained to colleagues and friends that she hated her new job and made clear that, in her late-60s, she wasn’t planning to stay long.

Zirinsky also clashed with adversaries internally—executives who criticized her stewardship of the news division, such as Godwin. Zirinsky did not respond to a detailed text message from The Daily Beast seeking comment.

Publicly, the CBS exec was unfazed by the corporate gossip that often played out in the media. Just hours after announcing major changes that removed Glor from the top evening news job in 2019, Zirinsky told The Daily Beast she had tuned out the tabloid news melodrama.

“In the end, none of [the noise] matters,” Zirinsky said.

“It didn’t derail me. It didn’t sway me,” she added. “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.”

CBS News Chief Susan Zirinsky: ‘I Had to Keep My Focus on the Endgame’ With Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell

But Zirinsky’s distaste for the job was well-known in media circles, and the CBS News president at times didn’t bother putting on a happy face.

During a 2019 party hosted by Variety for the magazine’s “Most Powerful People in New York Media” list, Zirinsky joked with a Daily Beast reporter that she was working so many hours that on many nights, a member of the maintenance staff that cleans CBS offices would come sit on her couch until she left. Longtime friends of hers told Zirinsky she needed to present a more positive public face, as many people both inside and outside the network were aware of her lack of satisfaction with the job.

In recent months, the search for Zirinsky’s successor seemed to cross paths with ABC News’ similar search, as both networks seemed to express interest in a pool of at times the same candidates.

Executives at both ABC News and CBS News expressed interest in candidates including former CBS This Morning executive producer Ryan Kadro and top Late Show With Stephen Colbert executive producer Chris Licht. Licht has told people close to him that he remains happy with the Colbert job, in which he helped steer the show to No. 1 in late night, and never wanted the CBS News presidency, and at the moment seems more intrigued by a future overseeing entertainment ventures rather than running any news network.

But executives involved in the search for successors at both networks also acknowledged the importance of hiring a female candidate following a reckoning within the media over a lack of diversity in leadership positions. People familiar with ABC News’ search also said the network seemed particularly intent on finding a non-white male successor to James Goldston, whose longtime talent executive, Barbara Fedida, was forced out after reports of her racist remarks about GMA anchor Robert Roberts among other Black talent. Goldston himself left the ABC News presidency in late January after six years in the job and his apparent inability to prevent an embarassing, tabloid-ready clash of egos between star anchors David Muir and George Stephanopoulos.

Godwin, who reports to Peter Rice, Disney’s chairman of general entertainment content, started out 35 years ago as a newsroom manager in various local news markets from Cleveland to New York.

“Kim is an instinctive and admired executive whose unique experiences, strengths and strategic vision made her the ideal choice to lead the outstanding team at ABC News and build on their incredible success,” Rice said in an ABC press release.

“I have immense respect and admiration for ABC News,” Godwin stated. “As the most trusted brand in news, they are to be commended for the extraordinary work and dedication of the journalists, producers, executives and their teams across the organization. I am honored to take on this stewardship and excited for what we will achieve together.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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