In 1984, then-CBS Evening News producer Susan Zirinsky, who primarily covered the White House during the Carter and Reagan administrations, was in the ready room just off the Democratic National Convention floor, 20 minutes away from a live telecast. The president of CBS News introduced her to a man who looked very familiar.
“He stopped and asked what I did, and what it was like being a White House producer,” Zirinsky recalls today, sitting behind a desk twice her size in her New York office. “I said, ‘I’m here producing for Ed Bradley and Lesley Stahl, but I can’t talk now.’ He said, ‘Would you be able to meet tomorrow? I’m doing some research on a screenplay.’ We made plans to have coffee the next day and I said, ‘Have we met? I think I know you.’ ” Stahl turned to Zirinsky “and said something like, ‘Of course he looks familiar to you … because he got seven Academy Awards for Terms of Endearment. That’s [writer-director] James L. Brooks. He did Mary Tyler Moore!’ And I said, ‘Ahh!’ ”
Sit with Zirinsky—or “Z,” as her colleagues affectionately refer to her—and stories like this keep coming. Snapshots, awards and photos from her formidable career take up every inch of office wall space. She opens an album to reveal pictures with Gerald and Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Henry Kissinger, to name a few.
“I’ve been at CBS longer than God,” she says with a laugh. “I’m still in awe of some of the people I get to work with. They’re inspiring. The 48 Hours correspondents and production staff are incredible reporters and extremely creative, but there’s something else—there’s a camaraderie here, and a soul. I think this is the most unique shop in television.” 48 Hours, celebrating its 25th anniversary this season, is the third-longest-running show in prime time.
1982: Stephen Studdert, special assistant to President Reagan and director of the Advance Office, calls Zirinsky to a meeting at the White House to help determine coverage for diplomatic arrivals. When given the choice of white or blue uniforms for the trumpeters, it was “blue all the way,” Zirinsky tells Studdert. “Otherwise, you won’t see them on camera.” And so it was, for eight years of Reagan receiving diplomats at the White House.
1986–87: Zirinsky looks at the new, working computer on the newsroom set of Broadcast News with star William Hurt, standing, and producer, director and writer James L. Brooks.“The film crew took actual newspapers, typewriters that were being discarded because of the switch to computers, and event rash from the CBS Washington news room to give the Broadcast News newsroom a real feel,” Zirinsky recalls.
1986–87: (with Broadcast News actor Jack Nicholson, Brooks and former executive producer Polly Platt) Zirinsky decided that if they had Jack Nicholson shooting for one day, she would triple the amount of copy he was slated to read. “Nicholson was a bit thrown,” Zirinsky recalls, “but that element would allow Richard Marks—one of Hollywood’s top editors—the option of threading Nicholson’s voice doing a newscast through other scenes in the film.”
CREATING A LEGACY
Zirinsky graduated cum laude from American University in Washington, D.C., and joined CBS News as a part-time production clerk in 1972. Ever since, her résumé has read like a list of dream assignments for any television producer: Travel overseas with Carter and Reagan. Assignments in Russia, China, Japan, Europe, Central and South America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Zirinsky ran CBS News’ operations out of Panama during the U.S. invasion of that country,and in Beijing during the news division’s critically acclaimed coverage of the Tiananmen Square student uprising and military crackdown. She was the senior producer responsible for setting up and overseeing the network’s 24-hour news operation when the first Gulf War broke out. Zirinsky then went into Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, to run CBS’ operation in Kuwait. It was under her stewardship that CBS News was the first network to enter Kuwait, just behind the Allied forces.
In 1992 Zirinsky went from the battlefield to the playing field as CBS News’ senior producer at the Olympics in Albertville, France. And from the playing field to the political frying pan, she came home to run CBS News’ political coverage for the race for president between President George H.W. Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
Zirinsky’s career is both storied and enviable, but she’s quick to recall her greatest accomplishment at the network: 9/11, the riveting documentary that first aired in March 2002. Two French brothers, Jules and Gedeon Naudet, and their firefighter partner were making a documentary about a young fireman when terrorists struck the World Trade Center. They captured the only picture of the first plane going into the North Tower and wielded the only camera inside the World Trade Center. “When I saw the raw footage, I knew CBS had to lock it up,” Zirinsky says. “I emailed Leslie Moonves (who was then network president and CEO at CBS Television) and said, ‘This is the document of history. No one else has anything like this. We should close this deal immediately. I would be proud to put together a team.’ ” The documentary has been honored with multiple awards, including a George Foster Peabody Award, Emmy Award for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special, Radio-Television News Directors Association Edward R. Murrow Award, a Christopher Award and a Writers Guild of America Award. The 9/11 presentation, which aired originally six months after the tragedy and again on the one-year, five-year and 10-year anniversaries, has been watched by more than 60 million people in the U.S. alone, and broadcast in more than 103 countries. Zirinsky was the one who spearheaded the project.
“I had done war coverage,” she begins. “I’d been in Panama for the invasion, the first Gulf War. But it had never happened on our soil. I felt like I’d trained my whole life to cover 9/11. If I do nothing else in my career, that’s the work I’m most proud of. And Leslie has said the same thing to me. After the 10th-anniversary special, he called me and said, ‘One of my important legacies at CBS is this documentary.’ ”
“Susan is the ultimate journalist and producer,” says Moonves. “I saw it firsthand when she produced our 9/11 documentary—there just aren’t a lot of people, or even a few, who can match her instincts, talent and dogged deter-mination. In addition to what she’s doing at 48 Hours, which is superb, she’s also produced some of the most seminal moments in tele vision, from presidents to the Gulf War to the Winter Olympics. She’s also absolutely fearless—while covering Tiananmen Square she actually hid our video from the Chinese military in a ceiling tile. She reflects the very best aspects of CBS News.”
1983: Deputy White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes, left, CNN correspondent Dean Reynolds (now a veteran CBS News correspondent working in the Chicago bureau) and Zirinsky take a run in Santa Barbara while President Reagan vacations at his ranch nearby. “What better way to get information and keep tabs on the competition than running with the White House press secretary?” Zirinsky recalls. “CBS got a fair amount of information this way, and I got in great shape.”
1989: Wu’er Kaixi, megaphone in hand, leads a group march asone of the protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. “Kaixi was one of several student leaders who galvanized a revolution,” Zirinsky says. The demonstrations grew until thousands of students were living in Tiananmen Square. As the protests gained momentum, Kaixi became Zirinsky’s key source in the square.
1989: In a CBS office, Zirinsky shows Kaixi stories of the protests that were being broadcast in the U.S. Kaixi and other student leaders were deep into a hunger strike to convince China’s leaders that they weren’t going to back down; Zirinskywas accused of secretly feeding the hunger strikers. After the government massacre occurred in June 1989, Kaixi escaped to France, then studied at Harvard. He now lives in Taiwan.
1991: Zirinsky and a news crew report the first morning in Kuwait after the Allied forces drove out the Iraqis. “The Americans and our allies were now in control of Kuwait and the Iraqis had fled to Baghdad,” Zirinsky recalls. “We were broadcasting live from a restaurant called Shrimpies that the Iraqis had left just hours before; cans of food were still open.”
PROJECTING THE FUTURE
Since 1996, Zirinsky has been the executive producer of 48 Hours and produces special projects for both CBS News and CBS Entertainment. Her team has produced a documentary for Showtime, and a reality show and specials for The CW network. They created a successful crime blog for CBSNews.com called Crimesider and most recently were part of the team that revived the historic CBS treasure Person to Person.
But she’s not all hard news, all the time: Zirinsky recently worked with Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour for a behind-the-scenes look at the fashion industry’s Fashion’s Night Out. The two bonded over early morning emails. “I had to write her something, and I finished it at 2 a.m., and I thought, ‘Should I send it? It’s Saturday morning.’ But I did, and by 6 a.m. she had sent it back with notes,” Zirinsky recalls. “We began dialogue over a year where we would communicate really early in the morning. I once asked her around 5:10 a.m., ‘Do you think we’re the only two girls up and working?’ And she wrote back, ‘Actually, I’m en route to my tennis lesson.’ And I wrote back, ‘Actually, I’m going to spin class. And the only reason I’m not running is because it’s pouring.’ It was great.”
Zirinsky says Wintour is one of the most inspiring professionals she’s ever worked with, and Wintour thinks just as highly of Zirinsky: “When I worked with Susan, we were staging a global project with so many moving parts that to us it felt like a military operation,” the Vogue editor says. “Now, throughout her career Susan has produced segments on actual military operations. But she brought the same remarkable focus, levelheadedness and sense of humor to what we were doing as I imagine she brings to everything she does.”
1984: Zirinsky interviews Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at the Republican National Conventionin Dallas.
1984: The CBS News team at the Democratic National Convention. Top row, from left: Ed Bradley, Diane Sawyer,producer David Browning, producer Richard Cohen, Don Hewitt.seated, from left: Zirinsky, producer Brian Healy, Lesley Stahl, Bob Schieffer. Zirinsky eloped the day the convention ended; that day, 1••• hours after she was married at City Hall, she had her first meeting with James L. Brooks.
1991: (with CBS This Morning anchor Paula Zahn) As President George H.W. Bush and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev meet for a historic summit in Moscow, CBS anchors of both its morning news and evening news report from Moscow.
ALWAYS AWAKE AND WORKING
Zirinsky, who wakes at 4:45 a.m. and works out seven days a week, says she doesn’t get much sleep. Smiling, she says, “On a good night? Four hours. There are many three-hour nights. And I can still get up and work out.” Even after a lifetime at CBS, she admits she’s moti-vated to work hard because she wants tomake a difference. And thanks to that long-ago meeting with filmmaker Brooks, Zirin-sky’s journalistic influence has been immortalized on the silver screen. That conversation led to the acclaimed 1987 film Broadcast News, starring Holly Hunter as a Washington network news producer.
“It was an extraordinary experience,” says Zirinsky, who was technical adviser and associate producer on the film. “Jim Brooks and I spent two hours on a park bench talking about producing, being on the road, the dangerous things you encounter … but also who sleeps with whom, what drugs are on the road, everything. The people on that movie remain my best friends to this day, which doesn’t usually happen.”
“The key to Susan’s speed is that she’s actually going slow,” says Hunter, who used Zirinsky as inspiration for her character and went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance. “The great martial artists and Susan. The Iran-Contra affair was going down in late 1986, and news about John Poindexter, Robert McFarlane and Oliver North was flooding the bureau. Susan let me listen in on the conversations when the ‘red phone’ rang with the news that Bill Casey was being checked into the hospital. I trailed her for the month of January 1987 as the Reagan administration dodged the damning information of its scandal and Gadhafi tried for a hostile takeover of Chad. It was a fun time for me. And for Susan, too—like I said, she was over there going slow. She took care of me like I was the only one in the room.”
Asked if Hunter’s character is based on her, Z lets out a wry smile. “I think it was a conglomerate; there were a couple of people threaded through there. But I got to write stories that appeared in the movie and background dialogue to help with continuity. It was an amazing experience. Holly to this day is a friend of mine and even wore some of my clothes in the movie.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about the storytelling and a commitment to journalism that drives Zirinsky. “I love that I have worked for every division within the CBS Network,” she says. “I feel like my career has been a gift. Great journalism is uncovering the truth. Sharing stories that people may have never heard about—or stories that you can add a dimension to, original reporting that can perhaps make a difference—that’s what we work for every single day.
“Reporting, digging as deeply we can … that’s what CBS News is about now. Jeff Fager and David Rhodes have done more in the past year and a half to bring back our credibility and give the entire news division a mission that I’m proud to be part of.”
JANUARY 2009: Zirinsky flew to Washington, D.C., for an interview with Barack Obama on a primetime special before the presidential inauguration. After the interview, Zirinsky asked Obama to sign something for her daughter; he wrote “Dream big dreams, Zoe.” The inspirational message hangs in her daughter’s room.
1985: Zirinsky, a CBS technician, White House staff, some friends of President Reagan and a White House Communications Agency camera crew gather at Reagan’s ranch to record his Saturday radio address to the nation. Reagan had gotten in hot water several times for joking while a microphone was live—most famously on Aug. 11, 1984, when he said,“My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” “After that incident, I got the president an ‘Open Mic’ sign that would light up when the microphone was hot,” Zirinsky recalls. “The president said to me,‘Susan, I’m not sure it’s big enough.’”
NOVEMBER 1993: “The good news was that the White House granted Connie Chung an exclusive interview with President Clinton,” recalls Zirinsky, then producer of Chung’s series Eye to Eye. “The bad news was the subject was about the North American Free Trade Agreement. But, hell—it was the White House, prime time, and all went well.”