5 Questions For… Susan Zirinsky

By Alissa Krinsky 

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Susan Zirinsky — or ‘Z’ as she’s called — is the Executive Producer of CBS’ 48 Hours, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Zirinsky has been with CBS News her entire career; highlights include covering the Carter and Reagan administrations, and serving in several capacities for the CBS Evening News. She has supervised coverage of political conventions, wars, and the Olympics, and, in addition to 48 Hours, now works on special projects for CBS’ News and Entertainment divisions. She was the inspiration for Holly Hunter‘s character in the 1987 movie Broadcast News.

1. TVNewser: While so many other magazine-genre shows have come and gone, 48 Hours has survived because…
Zirinsky: …of the creative core of talented reporters, producers and editors that take the audience on an incredible journey every week. 48 Hours was a maverick in the world of television news when it premiered some 20 years ago with 48 Hours on Crack Street.

Sir Howard Stringer of Sony, then President of CBS News — who by the way we called just “Howard” — invented a new form of television journalism. He wanted to take the viewer along for the ride, allowing the audience to see something unfold before their eyes. It was indeed the purest form of journalism — first hand — experiential — raw and unfiltered.

48 Hours survives and thrives because we have evolved — pushed the envelope while holding on tight to the basic tenets of our faith…good journalism, great writing and producing great stories.

2. TVNewser: Being with CBS for my entire career has been:
Zirinsky: A true test of faith, but one that has been totally and absolutely fulfilling. I began working at CBS when I was just 20 years old, taking a job on the weekends as a desk assistant. Quite frankly, no one else wanted the job. Two weeks after the Watergate break in, I was living in a dorm and working for CBS News staking out high White House officials and the Attorney General of the United States…pretty great for a college kid.

I have worked for almost every show CBS News produces, and covered everything from the White House, politics and wars in Central America to Tiananmen Square, Bosnia and even on the ground during the first Gulf War. I have found myself on more than one occasion at the gates of hell and as a witness to history.

Truth be told, I was even fired from one CBS News broadcast, but in the end, was held to my contract and not allowed to leave the company. Turned out I outlasted the man who fired me and I now have his desk. But the main reason I have stayed is Leslie Moonves — there isn’t anything I couldn’t do at CBS. There is a core loyalty that I have been able to hold onto. I’m grateful but I also know I give as good as I get.

3. TVNewser: My Favorite memory of working with Walter Cronkite:
Zirinsky: (It) was the night Richard Nixon resigned as the 37th President of the United States. This wasn’t just a story that came and went. This was about corruption in the White House at the very top. It was a living history lesson. After weeks of special broadcasts, it was over — the President had resigned.

I was doing research and scripts for Cronkite for the special. When the broadcast ended, Walter tossed his script into the trash. It began, “Good Evening, I’m Walter Cronkite. The 37th President of the United States resigned today.”

I said, “Walter don’t you want to keep this copy for historic purposes?”

“Oh, no,” he said.

I pulled that script with his hand-written notes out of the garbage and I still have it. I could probably get a lot of money for it, but to this day it is one of my most treasured pieces of history — a vibrant memory from a remarkable day.

4. TVNewser: After years of producing political coverage, watching this Presidential campaign season at a distance is
Zirinsky: …like eating lunch with a friend where you’re only allowed a salad and they’re having a hamburger and French fries. This campaign is delicious. It’s like the heavyweight championship of the world every day. You think you know who’s going down but then divine intervention — aka the voters — weigh in and everything is up for grabs.

This political season I think has shown the power of cable. With 24/7 airtime, their debates and coverage on primary and caucus nights give both the political junkie and the average concerned citizen the opportunity to consistently stay connected to what’s happening.

I also think Katie Couric has done an amazing job in her political series “Primary Questions”. Her provocative questions to the candidates get to the issues and reveal a personal side to them that no one ever gets. It’s riveting and incredibly insightful as to who they really are as politicians and people.

What this campaign has shown is that this is the best of our political process and it’s fantastic to watch. It’s hunting season and I wish I was still in the hunt for this one.

5. TVNewser: If there were a sequel to Broadcast News, Holly Hunter’s character, Jane Craig, would be…
Zirinsky: …right in the thick of producing long-form news. After witnessing the proliferation of traditional and entertainment news and how both have become a commodity, she would have gone the documentary route — saying no to management and continuing to produce broadcasts that touch people.

I also think she would be married and, while she may have waited a long time to make the commitment, she would have adopted a child — feeling that giving someone already on the planet a chance at better life was just the way to go. She would be successful, but never secure — always in awe of talent and grateful that she’s lasted this long.