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Norah O’Donnell named anchor as new CBS News president Susan Zirinsky announces shake-up

From left, CBS’s John Dickerson, Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King. (Richard Shotwell, Brent N. Clarke, Charles Sykes/Richard Shotwell, Brent N. Clarke, Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Susan Zirinsky announced her first big personnel changes as CBS News president Monday morning — declaring the moves a “start of a new era” for the news network after a series of high-profile departures of top male executives in the wake of accusations of sexual harassment.

Norah O’Donnell was named anchor and managing editor of “CBS Evening News” as well as the lead anchor of political events for the network. Gayle King will stay as the linchpin of “CBS This Morning,” and will be joined by Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil as co-hosts, Zirinsky said.

John Dickerson, who joined “CBS This Morning” after CBS fired Charlie Rose amid allegations of sexual harassment, is also leaving the show. On Monday morning, he termed his time in that anchor chair “a year abroad” in the morning slot. He had previously moderated the Sunday Beltway show “Face the Nation.” He is moving to report for “60 Minutes” and will also chair elections specials, the network said.

The odd man out in the shake-up is Jeff Glor, who anchored “CBS Evening News” after Scott Pelley was forced out of that slot. Glor is still in negotiations with the network over what, if any, role he will have.

Standing on an elevated platform in the middle of the network’s New York news hub, Zirinsky announced the changes to sustained applause from an otherwise dispirited newsroom. Zirinsky, who is known inside the building as Z, hugged each of the anchors after she made her announcement.

“My mission was to reset CBS News,” Zirinsky said in an interview Monday afternoon. She took over the news network two months ago facing a difficult task. Her biggest star, Gayle King, was being wooed by other networks and was a flight risk. King was consulting with her good friend Oprah Winfrey, who recently told the Hollywood Reporter that she advised King: “Get what you want. Get exactly what you want, because now’s the time. And if you don’t get what you want, then make the next right move.”

One veteran CBS News producer noted that getting King nailed down, which reportedly required more than doubling her $5 million contract to roughly $11 million, was the first step in establishing the lineup. “She’s getting carte blanche right now,” said the producer. “No question inside the building that she is the most important person at the network right now. This whole thing revolved around getting her locked down.”

Zirinsky said that King’s interview with disgraced singer and songwriter R. Kelly, which went viral, was not the reason she was crucial to the network nor was she the first priority in the shakeup. “The Gayle explosion after R. Kelly was just a happenstance. It was just kind of a crazy confluence of events as I was working with my kitchen cabinet to reset the new world order.”

What’s the new world order at CBS News? “The reality was that it’s like that children’s book, ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events,’ ” Zirinsky said, speaking on the phone from an awards luncheon where King presented O’Donnell with an honor. “A lot of stuff happened over the last couple of years, especially in the last year, and we needed to reset to let people know, ‘this is the plan.’”

Zirinsky declined to detail the plan other than to highlight the “tremendous group of reporters in the field, and the amazing series” that the news network produces. “But when there is instability at the top, the work gets buried.”

Bringing back stability, however, requires its own kind of uncertainty. Zirinsky praised Glor, for example, but could only say, “We hope he stays. We are offering him a position at the network. He’s a standup guy.”

These changeover rituals for the last TV news celebrities are well-established, though rarely executed without slights. When Ann Curry was forced from her chair on NBC’s “Today” show, her tearful goodbye sent the ratings into a dive and gave rival ABC’s “Good Morning America” the opportunity to take over the No. 1 position.

Zirinsky is trying to avoid the same kind of debacle. She was, however, under pressure to announce the changes before next week’s Upfront presentation to advertisers, and not all of the moves were determined at the time of the announcement.

The network’s series of unfortunate events started in late 2017. Charlie Rose was accused of sexually harassing women and CBS fired him. Jeff Fager, a former chairman of CBS News and executive producer of “60 Minutes,” was also forced out of the network after accusations of sexual harassment, as was the longtime chief executive of CBS, Leslie Moonves.

The latest changes, which have been rumored for months, are notable as the first woman-directed network news overhaul in the post #MeToo era.

Was Zirinsky thinking of those dynamics when she appointed King and O’Donnell to their roles? “There are two tracks to that question. We are dynamically working at changing the culture of CBS News,” she said, citing a new human resources executive. “But the reality is, I picked the best people for the jobs.”

Zirinsky, 67 and petite, was the model for Holly Hunter in the movie “Broadcast News.” A veteran producer, she resisted taking over the top job but eventually agreed to do it. She started in March.

“I’m a producer. I want to produce a situation where everyone can do their best work,” Zirinsky said. That entailed looking at how the shows were structured, who was anchoring what and asking, “Are they all in the right places? I stepped back to see how the world perceived us,” which led to the current changes, she said.

CBS News has long been in third place behind NBC News and ABC News, and after a period of climbing ratings in the morning, it saw ratings slide after Rose was fired.

O’Donnell’s new role entails a physical move back to Washington, D.C., one of Zirinsky’s ideas for how to juice ratings. She used the “reset” language again to justify the change. “Moving the show to Washington was a reset. . . . It gives us something that’s different than other people. It’s holding Washington accountable.”

She praised the existing Washington talent at the network, including Major Garrett and others. “We have big guns,” she insisted, but she said that “after the White House, the Pentagon and six presidential campaigns, Norah has such a big brain and she’s the best one” to take over that evening news slot.

Katie Couric, who was the first woman to anchor the evening news at CBS, congratulated O’Donnell by Instagram, noting she was “only the third woman to be the solo anchor of a network evening news broadcast . . . an important and needed step in representing more than half the population.” Diane Sawyer at ABC News is the other woman to have done so.

At 7 a.m., King announced the news to viewers by praising O’Donnell, who noted that it was “incredibly humbling” to accept the position. King specifically mentioned Zirinsky as the driver of the changes. She praised Glor and noted that “his conversations with CBS continue.”

King also briefly went off-script to address the report in the New York Post’s Page Six alleging that King demanded O’Donnell leave the show because of O’Donnell’s “toxic” presence in the division.

“You have no beef with me, I have no beef with you,” she said to O’Donnell. King then quoted Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and Talk magazine, who said, “This doesn’t happen to men — this kind of cutthroat business — that the reality is that it’s two great jobs for two great women.”

King also praised Zirinsky for her leadership: “She could have come in with a weed whacker,” and they all could have been out on 57th Street, hailing taxis,” King said. “This is a show about ratings and when ratings don’t work, we make changes.”

O’Donnell assented and added the advice she said both King and Winfrey gave her: “Don’t listen to those in the cheap seats. It’s not the critics who count.”