Norah O’Donnell’s future at the helm of the CBS Evening News has been the subject of much in-crowd media gossip and intrigue for some time now. This industry is always fascinated by talent moves, speculation about who’s in and who’s out and who’s next, no matter how relatively small the stakes. And in this case, part of the fascination, surely, is the sexism inherent in television news—an industry where anchor chairs have so often been held by men. Another part of it, though, has to do with the office politics inside CBS News.
O’Donnell’s old boss, Susan Zirinksy, stepped down from her role as the head of CBS News back in April. Zirinsky was the executive who selected O’Donnell to take over the diminished throne once inhabited by the legendary Walter Cronkite. She’d also greenlit the decision to move the show to D.C., a gesture that made sense in the Trump era when Washington was the world’s stage, but has since seemed out of step. During O’Donnell’s tenure, the Evening News has remained in third place, though for the first time in nearly three decades it has at least come within spitting distance of the competition.
But even that didn’t seem like enough. Earlier this week, CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported that Brian Williams, the legendary newsman, had turned down overtures from CBS to take over O’Donnell’s role. In many ways, the flirtation itself seemed like both a fool’s errand and a horrific example of media executive gamesmanship. Back in September, if you’ll recall, I noted that Williams would never take the job, a point I re-reported in November. Williams didn’t want to handle the corrosive nightly grind of TV news, and he presumably wouldn’t want to grind away on a third place show. One also imagines that, given his own decency and the graceful way that he recovered from his own career scandal, he wouldn’t risk his reputation by launching a third career act by defenestrating the only female nightly news anchor.