CBS News senior executive producer Susan Zirinsky (affectionately referred to as “Z” by many fellow CBS Newsers) has called CBS News her work home for decades. In an era of constant movement, particularly in the media industry, that type of job stability is incredibly rare.
“My career here has been one where I have been able to work for every division within CBS, and my roots are firmly planted at CBS News,” Zirinsky told TVNewser. “CBS has allowed me to produce programming on every platform imaginable. This network has allowed me the creative freedom to do every kind of television program possible. The breadth of the people I get to work with, the richness of the talent, the creativity of the ideas shared on a daily basis are amazing. Why would I leave? From covering the White House to working on every broadcast in the CBS News division to producing documentaries, prime-time series, specials, I have one word to sum up my time at CBS: grateful.”
Zirinsky is best known for her work as the senior ep of 48 Hours, which is embarking on Season 31 in the fall, and has been Saturday’s most-watched nonsports program for 12 years running. We caught up with Zirinsky to learn more about the process for crashing stories, how the news has changed over time and the new show she’s producing for CBS called Whistleblower, debuting tonight.
TVNewser: Tell me about Whistleblower. What attracted you to this project, and how did you get Judge Alex Ferrer on board?
Zirinsky: CBS Studios asked me to talk with Alex Ferrer and Ted Eccles, who had contacts and some very solid story ideas about whistleblowers. It is a rich subject that hasn’t been done as a series. What was so powerful was the courage and the morality of people who want to do the right thing. These are stories of people who risked everything, from losing their jobs, to retaliation, to sacrificing their careers. Several lost their homes. The idea of doing the Whistleblower series feels so right for right now. These are David versus Goliath stories that will surely give strength to people facing issues of their own.
48 Hours returns for its 31st year in the fall. How have you been able to keep the show fresh over time?
Crime and punishment is as basic a human action and reaction as Adam and Eve. The storylines—the people, the families, the issues—around the crimes are what keep the broadcast current and fresh. True crime is stranger than any Hollywood plot. We look for subjects that reflect the times. Death by Text, a game changing story for us, is one example. The story was about a young woman who allegedly coaxed her friend to kill himself through texts, even though she wasn’t even in the same city. We are constantly looking at way to draw in different types of viewers. Using social media as a way to help solve crimes—or as a general outreach asset—is also a main source of keeping it fresh.
What is the production process like when you have to crash a story for the show with only a few days time, or less?
When an event of great magnitude happens we jump at the chance to crash in with an hour whether it is the night of the event or the next day. The immediacy of covering a cataclysmic event has a set of challenges by its nature. You know the story has great impact, you know there is an emotional toll, but we must have the facts correct. We also have the responsibility of giving the story context and perspective.
We have a process for crashing stories. The process is like being ready for a battle. We have battle stations. Each station knows what to do and they work well with each other. We ask ourselves, what can we do it advance this story? Also, our tech team is so important to the operation. It amazes us at times that we are able to put together a cohesive, emotional, fact-filled hour, sometimes just hours after an event has occurred. I’m extremely proud of what we’ve done.
The most important story over the 30 seasons of 48 Hours is? . . .
Such a tough question. I must pay tribute to the original show 48 Hours on Crack Street, the brainstorm of Sir Howard Stringer. It started a genre of experiential journalism that continues today. I can’t pick one show, but what I would say is that the broadcast has had an impact. We have helped get people out of prison for wrongful convictions. Marty Tankleff was convicted of killing his parents. He spent more than 17 years in prison before his conviction was vacated. We did six hours on the story. He’s out of prison and is now a lawyer, husband and father. The West Memphis Three credit 48 Hours for helping get their convictions overturned. Ryan Ferguson, a young man from Missouri, was convicted of killing a sports writer. We did five hours on his case. He spent a decade in prison before he was released. He and his family credit 48 Hours with getting his case into the public eye and eventually overturned. The correspondents Erin Moriarty and Peter Van Sant are the powerhouses behind what we now call 30 years of impactful journalism.
How has the news division changed over your tenure here?
We are a different society today. The technology and proliferation of news sources makes breaking through the cacophony of voices difficult. But, at the heart of it all, is the core values of CBS News. We are about content, breaking stories and storytelling relevant to the viewer. At every point we have broken through the old to embrace the new. CBSN, our 24/7 digital news network, is growing every day. TV, radio, digital, social—we are everywhere. Everything has changed, but the core of who we are and what we do hasn’t changed. Democracy can’t exist without a free press. Yes, it’s tough to be under extreme scrutiny from powerful people. But we, as journalists, are accountable. We as journalists have to speak truth—whatever the consequences.