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CBS Staffer Who Put Stamp of Reality on 'News'

December 18, 1987|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — In July, 1984, Susan Zirinsky, a CBS News producer at the San Francisco Democratic National Convention, was introduced by her boss to James L. Brooks.

She thought he was a print reporter covering TV reporters who were covering the convention--like Ed Bradley or Diane Sawyer.

No, he said. He wanted to talk to her. He mentioned something about research for a screenplay. Busy now, she said, how about next day? Fine, he said. The next day proved memorable for Zirinsky.

The convention over, she got the day off and that morning wed a colleague, Joe Peyronnin. Then she met with Brooks--and in due course became technical adviser and associate producer of his new movie, "Broadcast News," the sweetly wry look at network news and its inmates.

By the time Zirinsky and Brooks had their first chat, she at least had been tipped by CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl that he was legit and, in fact, had just received an Oscar for directing "Terms of Endearment."

Funny thing, though. Brooks didn't specifically discuss TV news, recalled Zirinsky, 35, at the time a White House producer for the "CBS Evening News" and now the program's senior producer in Washington.

"He asked some quite penetrating questions, more about women in roles than anything definite," she said. His questions concerned "women and professionals, women in jobs that are demanding of their time and energy."

He eventually asked her to help in his research on network news and be his technical adviser. The authorities at CBS News gave her permission. Thus began two introductions--hers to film making and his to TV journalism.

"He hung out with us," she said. "There were a lot of (network news) people he hung out with."

In a way, Brooks may have become Zirinsky's Boswell. A small, energetic woman, she is said to be one of the women on which the character of Jane Craig, the workaholic Washington news producer played by Holly Hunter, is based.

No, said Zirinsky, she may resemble Hunter in appearance, "but all the characters are composite characters; they really are."

(Several former and present CBS News staffers who have seen the movie say Hunter is remarkably close in looks and manner to Zirinsky.)

Zirinsky seemed something of a composite--or at least a many-splintered person--herself during a phone interview last week. She was frequently interrupted by queries from CBS functionaries in New York about pending stories. With unceasing good nature, she dealt with both interviewer and New York, and at one point juggled two phones. She was heard discussing a summit wrap-up, the Pentagon and muttering something about "a 15-second load." She then gleefully told her interviewer of an upcoming story about a House hearing involving Bullwinkle heads, but wouldn't divulge the details.

In aiding Brooks' research, she said, "I tried to give him real. And he would come with me when I shot the stories. When we'd go on the presidential trips to California, he'd come along and hang out.

"We'd talk, we'd process stories, and he sort of lived this for a while."

Part of the experience included three changes of command at CBS News in two years: The division's president, Ed Joyce, was removed and his successor, Van Gordon Sauter, was replaced by Howard Stringer.

Each time, she had to get permission to continue working as a technical adviser in what little spare time she had. She saved up her vacation time in 1985 and 1986 to work on the film earlier this year "in two-week chunks."

Her husband, who this year became CBS News bureau chief in Washington, also became part of the act, unofficially, of course. Much of that was in the wee hours when she was writing several of the make-believe news segments that appear in "Broadcast News."

"I occasionally went on overload, and Joe became my adviser," she said. "He'd go through my copy, rewrite it, change it. He was the technical adviser to the technical adviser."

The authorities at CBS News never looked askance at her double life, she said. "No . . . I got some very good advice from a couple of people in the hierarchy. Their words to me were: Remember, you're there as a technical adviser. You're there to make it technically accurate. Don't feel as if you have to be the champion of CBS."

Born and reared in Queens, N.Y., Zirinsky has been a full-time CBS News employee since she was 19. She began in Washington as a secretary-researcher for senior producer Ed Fouhy, who is now with NBC News.

But just as politicians sometimes get Potomac Fever, journalists who have brushed with film folk have been to known get Hollywood Hots.

"No," Zirinsky said when asked if she might some day give up the Pursuit of Truth and Light to write a Major Motion Picture. "I love journalism, and I'm passionate for it."

But a note of ambivalence did creep in.

"The creativity in the movies is remarkable to me," she said, "and as a producer who is working with visuals, it's a great challenge. Would I say that I'll never leave journalism and never do that?

"I'd never say never ." She paused, then fessed up: "I'd like to direct if I did anything."

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