Even before she was offered the job of president of CBS News, colleagues were lobbying Susan Zirinsky to take it.
“Help us,” one correspondent implored her via email.
It would be a challenging moment for anyone to manage: Charlie Rose had been fired from “CBS This Morning” and “60 Minutes” after being accused of sexual misconduct. Leslie Moonves, CBS’s chief executive, had been pushed out amid accusations of sexual misconduct. Jeff Fager, a longtime executive producer of “60 Minutes,” had been fired after threatening a colleague.
“Things were unraveling,” Ms. Zirinsky told attendees of the New Rules Summit, an annual New York Times conference. “The debts of history were coming due.”
But once the top job was on the table — again, as she had been asked about it years earlier — Ms. Zirinsky had an adage in the back of her mind: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
“The company needed a major reset,” she said. “I wanted to take the organization functionally and spiritually to a better place.”
Ms. Zirinsky, a highly respected producer who was the inspiration for Holly Hunter’s character in the movie “Broadcast News” and who was described by Gayle King of “CBS This Morning” as “a badass in every sense of the word,” has applied her trademark work ethic to helping her organization adjust its course.
Her calendar can be booked from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., she said, sometimes without a lunch break but with a laser focus on listening, including to small groups of colleagues convened specifically for that purpose.
“It was so unsettling to me” to hear about some colleagues’ experiences, Ms. Zirinsky said during a conversation about unconscious bias.
“I felt that I needed to listen — to hear what really people thought,” Ms. Zirinsky said, emphasizing that action must follow. “There have to be consequences for behavior that isn’t acceptable.”
To that end, she said, CBS News has put in place a more robust human resources operation staffed with “real H.R. people who are listening and making recommendations and acting.”
That focus on action has extended to personnel decisions, in which she said she was conscious of reflecting “a balance of who we are as a country.” It is gratifying, she said, that “the effort is leveling the playing field.”
But, Ms. Zirinsky added: “We’re not putting people in because they’re diverse. We’re putting people in because they’re talented.”
One of her first big moves as president was making Norah O’Donnell the anchor of the “CBS Evening News.”
Ms. Zirinsky, who joined CBS more than 40 years ago as a desk assistant answering phones on Saturdays, said her wide-ranging experience was crucial to the transition. “People feel that I had credibility because I had done their jobs,” she said. “I knew what it takes. I know the sacrifices men and women make.”
Those sacrifices are top of mind amid charges of “fake news” and attacks by President Trump on the news media. “The next two years as journalists are the most important two years,” Ms. Zirinsky said. “It’s time for us to reveal America to itself.”
“The hunger for real, straight news is desperate,” she said.