In a rehearsal room in the CBS Broadcast Center, Susan Zirinsky is a firecracker, with a personality and presence almost too large for her small frame. Choosing not to sit in the directors chair offered to her, she opts for the folding table and remarks that she hopes it doesn't collapse. In the first few minutes she is in the room, you are aware of an energy that was not there before.
Susan Zirisnky chose to open her session with the CBS News interns by having the room of interns, myself included, stand up.
"Repeat after me," she said.
Susan: I will get.
Interns: I will get.
Susan: A pretty good job.
Interns: A pretty good job.
Susan: When I get the hell out of college.
Interns: When I get the hell out of college.
Susan Zirinsky knows this to be true, having spent almost her entire career at CBS News in some capacity after graduating from American University. Around CBS and in the industry, she is affectionately known as 'Z'.
In addition to her producing credit, Susan Zirinsky was also a technical advisor on the film Broadcast News, and is still friends with Holly Hunter to this day.
Like many reporters who started when Z did, she credits the central core feeling of responsibility in her reporting to the Watergate scandal. This reminded me of something NBC correspondent Mark Potter told me in my time at NBC, which was that my generation gave him faith in reporting because we were finally angry again. The Mark Potters of the world grew up angry about Vietnam, Watergate and Civil Rights, and my generation is angry about Iraq, (slightly different) Civil Rights and hot topic issues such as abortion and immigration reform.
Z says content and original reporting are the mantle of strong journalism, in an expository statement revealing why she has been a great fit at CBS News for such a long time. What she said next reminded me of a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: Do what you feel in your heart to be right - for you'll be criticized anyway. In other less gentle terms, damned if ya do and damned if ya don't. Z was of course speaking about sticking to your own mission- as a journalist, as a show and as a network. One of my favorite parts of television to read into and find research on is the cutthroat morning television wars, mostly between Today Show and Good Morning America. But Z says knowing your shows' identity and mission is the only way to be successful, and that you just can't worry what's airing on a competitive network in the same minute.
This strategy has proven to be successful for Susan Zirinsky, whose show 48 Hours' 27th season starts Saturday, September 27th, 2014, and is the third longest-running prime time network show behind only 60 Minutes (CBS) and 20/20 (ABC). The latter two are TV magazines but 48 Hours is not. 48 Hours is a law and justice show which Z is quick to point out has gotten people out of jail, sought justice and righted wrongs, making a personal impact on people's lives and histories.
Z gave me faith in a reporting tactic I've used as a Resident Assistant before. Picture this: I'm standing in a dorm room on the University of Miami campus confronting students for possessing alcohol underage. They might have been drinking the alcohol, too, so when I ask them to put everything that is considered a policy violation in the center of the room, I have a feeling they're not being exactly forthright with me. Little do they know I am a journalist. "I have a feeling you're not completely honest with me," I'd say after they'd let me know proudly that everything sitting in the center of the room was everything they had. It wasn't long until everything they really had was sitting there with it.
Z's show has made its living by holding people accountable. She speaks of the power of seeing somebody, talking to them, sitting across from them in order to find the truth. And she let me know in this career it is entirely okay to tell someone you have a feeling they aren't being completely honest with you.
Susan Zirinsky tells the room of interns she is "envious" of us because nothing will hold us back except the limits of our own imagination. She says the one trait she sees in all successful people in her field is a desperate need to know and insatiable curiosity. But the thing she said that struck a chord with me the most was that "democracy can't exist without independent fact gathering." If it sounds familiar to you also it's because in a completely different session, Scott Pelley said the same thing.
Though I asked Scott Pelley on his experiences covering Newtown, CT, Susan Zirinsky spoke to us about her experiences covering the September 11th attacks. What she actually said was that she felt she had trained her whole career to cover 9/11. It's a good thing, too, because a documentary she produced on the attacks had a viewership of 52 million people. The documentary re-aired on the 1, 5 and 10 year anniversaries… and it was a project she had to go over her bosses heads to make happen. In hindsight, Z considers this her most proud and most important moment.
As gracious with her time as all of our other guests at CBS News this summer, Susan Zirinsky closed her speech with a bit of advice: take the baton, run hard and have a good life. And not said, but perhaps implied, that someday you, too, might have a Emmy-nominated-movie starring a character based on you.
You heard it here first,