For the first time, a woman will be at the helm of CBS News—the network announced on Sunday that longtime producer Susan Zirinsky is set to take over as president, after a long string of sexual misconduct scandals that bled into the news division. In addition to her news bona fides, Zirinsky also has pop-culture cred: She was one of the inspirations behind the Holly Hunter character in Broadcast News, James L. Brooks’ beloved 1987 film.
In the movie, Jane Craig (Hunter) is nothing short of a journalistic heroine. (Joan Cusack’s character even says as much, telling Jane, “Except for socially, you’re my role model.”) Not only is the character a preternaturally gifted news producer, but she’s smart, principled, in command, and unafraid of being unlikeable. What makes her seem so real is that she really pushes you on the unlikeable part: She’s a know-it-all who’s addicted to work, she falls for the wrong people, and she regularly suffers emotional breakdowns. (She also has some of the best lines ever: If you’ve seen the movie, the words “No, it’s awful” should mean something to you.)
Another important quality of Jane’s, of course, is that she’s fictional. She exists as a kind of feminist fantasy, a type scripted by Hollywood screenwriters but never actually promoted to the top rung of the ladder, nurtured, mentored, or given the same opportunities afforded to the opposite gender in real life. Men continue to hold most of the leadership positions both in network news and elsewhere in American life. Now, though, the real-life Jane Craig is taking over a major news division.
The real Zirinsky sounds like she could hold her own with Jane Craig. She started at CBS at 20 (she’s 66 now), has won just about every broadcast award in her career there, and is reportedly idolized by fellow women internally. She first met with James L. Brooks to discuss what would become Broadcast News on her wedding day. (She eventually served as a technical adviser and producer on the film.) She’s even got wisecracks: In 1987, the Washington Post reported that once,
[W]hen Zirinsky was getting scenic footage of the Salmon River during Jimmy Carter’s rafting vacation, she had her helicopter land in the wilderness. She was suddenly surrounded by four rangers who told her she was in an illegal area and that the fine would be $10,000. “Do you need it now?” she asked, not missing a beat. “Or will you take American Express?”
Brooks and Zirinsky always said the character was a composite of several women—“practically every unmarried woman in her thirties with a decent job and an occasional anxiety attack thinks the movie’s about her,” Jonathan Alter told the Washington Post in 1988—but some people who knew Zirinsky never bought that line, seeing her in everything about Hunter’s performance down to the gestures.
Zirinsky’s promotion is also a victory, if indirectly, for the #MeToo movement. Zirinsky, known as Z around the newsroom, will replace David Rhodes, who was appointed by recently ousted Les Moonves in 2011 and oversaw the newsroom during the scandals that led to the dismissal of Charlie Rose as well as the former head producer of 60 Minutes, Jeff Fager. In addition to these ignominies, the news shows faced declining ratings. Though the man Zirinsky is replacing wasn’t at the center of his own #MeToo scandal, it seems right to give her honorary status in the legion of women who have succeeded men brought down by allegations of sexual harassment and assault: In October, the New York Times reported that of 201 powerful men who lost positions as a result of the #MeToo movement, nearly half of their replacements were women.
For a long time now, CBS’s toxic culture has seeped out from behind the scenes into its programming. Female leaders aren’t a panacea, and the network faces a steep road to change its culture. But putting a female leader in charge is a great first step—and you can’t do much better than the real-life Jane Craig.
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