By:
April 16, 2021

Figuring out who the heck is running network news this week has turned into a dizzying game of musical chairs.

CBS News president Susan Zirinsky is giving up her seat. Her No. 2, Kimberly Godwin, grabbed the big chair at ABC News. That left an opening at CBS News. When the music stopped again on Thursday, that open seat was filled by two people.

That’s not the only thing different about what happened on Thursday. Buckle up, because this is different. And surprising.

In an out-of-the-box move that has created as much skepticism as endorsement, CBS News has decided to go with two presidents. That’s not the only stunner. Both are coming from outside of CBS and neither was on anyone’s radar to take over a network news division.

So what happened?

Let’s start with the new business model. CBS announced Thursday plans to combine the journalistic and business resources of CBS News and the CBS Television Stations into one divisional and leadership structure.

To run this new division, it has picked Neeraj Khemlani, a vice president at Hearst, and Wendy McMahon, a former executive at ABC. The two will serve as co-presidents and co-heads of a CBS News division that will also include local stations owned by the network.

Like I said, this sure is different.

Khemlani was a producer at “60 Minutes” from 1998 to 2006, but hasn’t worked in television since then. He left CBS for Yahoo and then went to Hearst in 2009. McMahon oversaw local stations and newsrooms owned by ABC.

The two will now be in charge of not only CBS News, but the 28 local stations that CBS owns in 17 major markets across the country. They also will oversee CBS’s national and local streaming services. There are those inside of CBS News who told me they liked the idea of combining national and local divisions — and bridging what often was seen as a disconnect between the two.

In a statement, George Cheeks, president and chief executive officer of CBS Entertainment Group, said, “This is an opportunity to create a news and information structure that positions CBS for the future. It speaks to our ability to scale newsgathering, production, technical and operational resources to serve both national and local, linear and digital, with the agility to deliver trusted information to every platform. Wendy and Neeraj have the leadership background and cross-platform accomplishments that cover all these important areas, and they share our commitment for supporting superior journalism, optimal delivery platforms and the strongest of organizational cultures.”

In some ways, combining the divisions makes sense and it would be a big job for just one person. Yet it does raise questions about how responsibilities will be divided. In its official announcement, CBS said the two “will partner on managing all aspects of the division, bringing their wide range of broadcast, local and digital experience to their positions.”

The guess would be that Khemlani will handle the national news broadcasts, while McMahon would be in charge of CBS’s local stations.

In a memo to staff, Cheeks wrote, “They will run this division as a team with each having specific areas of focus. We’ll have more specificity on this, including reporting structures, in the near future. I appreciate your willingness to share your knowledge and thoughts about each organization with them throughout their onboarding process.  I know change can be difficult, hard work. I also know that we are up to the challenge of helping chart a dynamic and successful future for these storied and valuable brands.”

The news caps a wild week in network news that started with word that Zirinsky was stepping down to take another job at CBSViacom. That was followed by Godwin being named ABC News president on Wednesday.

As I wrote in Thursday’s newsletter, either Godwin wasn’t offered the job or she turned it down for what she believes is a better job at ABC News. As I also mentioned in Thursday’s newsletter, Cheeks wrote to staff in a memo that he and Godwin had been having “an ongoing discussion about her future, including new opportunities, at CBS.” But he never mentioned if that included her taking over as the big boss of CBS News.

Then came this scoop early in the day Thursday from Insider’s Claire Atkinson, who said Godwin was offered the job of CBS News “co-president” and Godwin found the offer to share the job insulting. Atkinson’s report was seemingly confirmed later in the day when CBS News announced that it would have co-presidents.

Now you have to wonder how all this — two outsiders sharing the same title — is going to go over inside CBS News.

The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, Maxwell Tani and Lachlan Cartwright report that Zirinsky and Godwin did not get along and that Godwin was one of Zirinsky’s biggest detractors. The story also said Zirinsky complained about Godwin, as well.

Up until Thursday’s surprising announcement, who would replace Zirinsky had been one of the best-kept secrets in the media. Journalist Yashar Ali, who has broken such stories before, tweeted this week, “CBS will be announcing soon who the new president of CBS News will be. Let me tell you, it’s been some time since a network has been able to keep a secret like this. It’s rather remarkable and frustrating. Everyone who normally would know truly doesn’t know this time.”

A few names were floated simply based on their job titles, but The Daily Beast wrote, “Amazingly, the real name so far has not leaked.” Maybe that’s because no one saw Khemlani nor McMahon as candidates.

Here’s another question: Is being a network news president still a desirable job?

CNN’s Brian Stelter writes, “The NBC, ABC and CBS newsrooms are still ambitious, but not the way they once were. Ratings are eroding. Audiences are gravitating to cable channels for breaking news and views. Digital efforts are a hard slog. The broadcast networks are covering the day’s top stories, but are they setting the news agenda? Is anyone, anymore? When I asked a senior exec if it’s apt to call these ‘caretaker’ jobs, the person responded with a different word, ‘undertaker.’”

Look, I wouldn’t turn down the job as network news president, especially if I worked in network news. And Stelter points out that millions of people still watch the evening news, morning shows and special coverage when there’s big breaking news.

So, yeah, it’s still a good job.

Then again, check out this juicy nugget from Page Six’s Oli Coleman, Emily Smith and Sara Nathan. They write that at a CBS corporate meeting, Zirinsky held up a piece of paper that said, “I hate my job.”

Actually, though, Zirinsky’s note is believed to have been an amusing protest because the meeting turned boring and was dragging on too long.

For what it’s worth, she won’t be in that job much longer. And she is being replaced by two people.

Like I said, it’s different.

The consequences of Carlson’s commentary

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Check out the disturbing headline on this story from Washington Post media reporter Jeremy Barr: “Tucker Carlson villainizes journalists on his top-rated show. Then the threats pour in.”

In his story, Barr details how some journalists have faced harassment and threats after Carlson calls them out on his show.

Barr writes, “Carlson cut his teeth jousting with the nation’s top elected officials and brand-name pundits on CNN’s ‘Crossfire’ 20 years ago. But as his influence within the conservative media ecosystem has grown, with some calling for him to run for president in 2024, he has increasingly found fodder in criticizing lesser-known media figures whom he presents to his audience as symbols of liberalism run amok. And a subset of viewers are inspired to personally harass those journalists with threatening messages.”

The threats, including death threats, are serious and specific enough that some journalists have had to contact local police, the FBI and hire personal security. Barr reported that many of the journalists who have been threatened were reluctant to be quoted in his story out of the fear that they would face a new round of harassment.

Check out Barr’s story for all the details to get a full understanding of just how troubling this all is.

Reuters going to a subscription model

One of the biggest news agencies in the world, Reuters, is the latest news outlet to begin charging readers for its online journalism. A story on its website Thursday said, “In addition to targeting its current global readership, the newly revamped Reuters.com is hoping to attract professional audiences prepared to pay $34.99 per month for a deeper level of coverage and data on industry verticals that include legal, sustainable business, healthcare and autos. Reuters.com will remain free for a preview period, but will require users to register after five stories. It is not immediately clear when it will begin charging.”

As The New York Times’ Katie Robertson notes, the Reuters’ subscription rate is the same as Bloomberg’s digital subscription. The Wall Street Journal’s digital subscription costs $38.99 a month and The New York Times’ costs $18.42 a month. Reuters has about 41 million unique visitors a month.

Reuters writes, “Reuters President Michael Friedenberg and newly appointed Editor in Chief Alessandra Galloni have said the success of the digital and events business is one of their top priorities.”

Galloni was named the new editor-in-chief just this week, becoming the first woman to lead the news agency in its 170-year history.

I asked my colleague Rick Edmonds, Poynter’s media business analyst, what his initial thoughts were and he told me, “Reuters is a financial services business at heart and thus probably leans paid as with Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal. I hope this doesn’t lead to a slowdown of some of their wonderful and brave international investigations.”

Remembering Prince Philip

All three major networks have special coverage planned for Saturday’s funeral of Prince Philip, who died April 9 at the age of 99. Coverage is expected to begin at 9:30 a.m. Eastern.

ABC’s coverage will be led by “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir with reporting from New York and Windsor.

“CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King will anchor CBS’s coverage. King will be joined by CBS News royal contributors Tina Brown and Wesley Kerr. CBS News correspondents Charlie D’Agata and Holly Williams will be reporting from Windsor.

Over at NBC, “Today” show co-hosts Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb will anchor the special report, “Remembering Prince Philip,” from New York. NBC News correspondents Kelly Cobiella, Keir Simmons and Anne Thompson and several contributors will be live from Windsor and London.

The Insurrection: 100 Days Later

(Courtesy: MSNBC)

MSNBC will have special programming today — the 100th day since the insurrection at the Capitol. “The Beat with Ari Melber,” “The ReidOut” and “All In with Chris Hayes” will examine Jan. 6 and the lasting impact on lawmakers, law enforcement and democracy. This all is a part of NBC News’ weeklong look at American extremism.

Melber’s show at 6 p.m. Eastern will focus on the legal angle and give updates on where the legal proceedings stand against those who have been arrested. Joy Reid’s 7 p.m. show will examine the lasting impact of the lawmakers who survived the riots that day. And Hayes’ 8 p.m. show will look at the member of Congress who helped stoke the insurrection and continue to spread misinformation about the 2020 election.

Lemon on Sway

CNN’s Don Lemon (Courtesy: The New York Times)

CNN prime-time host Don Lemon is the latest guest on Kara Swisher’s excellent podcast “Sway” for The New York Times. In the wide-ranging interview, Lemon talks about the network, its future, and Donald Trump.

Lemon praised Jeff Zucker, who is expected to leave as CNN president at the end of the year, calling Zucker the best thing to happen to CNN besides founder Ted Turner.

When asked by Swisher if a woman should be the next president, Lemon said, “Well, I think we have had women who have run the network. I mean, Janelle Rodriguez ran part of the network. My E.P. is a woman. … Erin Burnett’s executive producer, showrunner, is a woman. So we have plenty of women in positions of power in the network. Now at the executive ranks, I don’t know enough about the organizational chart to tell you that. But listen, my C.M.O. is a woman, Allison Gollust, and she is a huge influence on the network. So should the network be run by a woman? Of course, a very qualified woman. I would love to see a woman run the network.”

As far as the future of CNN and cable news, Lemon said, “I see cable news as more personality-driven than ever before. And I know people don’t like that. But when you have so much information on your devices, people are going to tune into things and people they relate to, and something that inspires some emotion and passion in them.”

Lemon believes the future of cable will be even more personality-driven. He didn’t say it, but it’s also cheaper for cable news to be personality-driven. It’s less expensive and easier to put an engaging personality in front of the camera and talk to commentators than produce detailed in-the-field stories.

And about Trump, whom Lemon has heavily criticized over the years, Lemon had to admit CNN had some culpability in the rise of Trump.

“Yes, and I think all news networks did,” Lemon said. “I don’t think the networks realized the assault on truth and reality that Trump was going to have. And if we did, we probably would not have put his rallies live on TV unchecked. Right? And just let him speak and spew his lies and garbage out there. But I think we started to catch on. Now individually, journalists of color, especially, were onto him from the beginning. Black people knew Donald Trump was racist from the very beginning. I did. There were people who I wouldn’t have on the show because they were spewing racist garbage. And quite honestly, Kellyanne Conway was one of them. And Stephen Miller and all of those people. I stopped having them on because they would only come on television to tell lies.”

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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