CBS combines news, TV stations group and taps new leaders after Times investigation

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NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 13: Signage for the CBS Broadcast Center is displayed outside the building on August 13, 2019 in New York City. Following years of on-and-off talks and negotiations, CBS and Viacom have agreed to merge. The new company will be called ViacomCBS, and Viacom CEO Bob Bakish will be the CEO of the new combined company. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
CBS has hired Wendy McMahon to run the CBS Television Stations group, which is based in midtown Manhattan. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

In a sweeping shift, CBS on Thursday combined its legendary news division and TV stations group, which provides local news to millions of Americans.

The company tapped Hearst newspaper and cable executive Neeraj Khemlani and former ABC Owned Television Stations president Wendy McMahon as presidents and co-heads of the newly formed division.

The new division brings under one roof CBS News, its digital streaming service CBSN, 10 local news platforms and the 28 CBS-owned stations in 17 major U.S. markets.

CBS Chief Executive George Cheeks announced the reorganization Thursday. He opted for two outsiders to shake up the divisions, including the CBS stations group, following the ouster of its longtime boss, Peter Dunn, in the wake of a Los Angeles Times investigation.

The company said the move marked a homecoming to CBS for both executives. Khemlani served as a producer on "60 Minutes" and “60 Minutes II” for eight years, while McMahon worked for seven years at the CBS-owned WBZ Boston and WCCO Minneapolis before she joined the Walt Disney Co.

Khemlani is an award-winning former news correspondent, covering the war in Bosnia. For more than a decade he has been an executive at Hearst, most recently as executive vice president and deputy group head at Hearst Newspapers, overseeing 3,000 employees who work at 24 daily newspapers and 52 weekly publications. Before that, he helped lead business, product and newsgathering efforts at Yahoo!.

While CBS News is known for its solid journalism, including "60 Minutes" and the most-watched weekend morning program, "CBS Sunday Morning," the network's weekday morning and evening newscasts have long trailed ABC News and NBC News in the ratings.

The new management team was announced one day after former ranking CBS News executive Kim Godwin left to run ABC News.

A rising star within the Walt Disney Co., McMahon, has been in charge of the eight ABC-owned TV stations since December 2017. Before that, she was senior vice president responsible for digital content and product technology for the stations. McMahon previously served as a vice president for programming and creative services at KABC-TV Channel 7, the top-ranked station in Los Angeles.

At CBS, McMahon will have a much larger job — leading 28 television stations, including KCBS-TV Channel 2 and KCAL-TV Channel 9 in L.A. — as well as overseeing CBS News and the digital news platforms with Khemlani.

“This is an opportunity to create a news and information structure that positions CBS for the future,” Cheeks said in a statement. “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."

Cheeks retooled his organization after the 2,800-employee CBS TV Stations group was rocked by allegations that Dunn and his lieutenant, David Friend, had cultivated an environment that included bullying female managers and blocking efforts to hire and retain Black journalists. The men have denied wrongdoing.

Last week, CBS ousted Dunn and Friend following The Times' series, which revealed problems in an often overlooked corner of the corporation that lacks the prestige of the CBS television network but remains a vital source of local news for millions of Americans — and a key source of revenue.

The CBS investigation into Dunn's and Friend's alleged conduct is ongoing.

Dozens of current and former staff members in Los Angeles, Dallas, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia and New York have complained of a hostile work environment. Journalists in New York alleged that managers often made news coverage decisions that neglected communities of color. The flagship WCBS station in New York lacked a full-time Black male reporter until March 2020, the same month that Cheeks, who is biracial, took the reins at CBS.

The Times' series also raised questions about a $55-million purchase of a TV station on New York’s Long Island — the only station acquisition during Dunn’s 11-year tenure overseeing CBS’ station group. The 2011 deal came with privileges for Dunn and other high-level CBS executives at an ultra-exclusive golf club in the Hamptons, where they hobnobbed with billionaires, including the owner of the Miami Dolphins, Stephen Ross.

Susan Zirinsky, who has served as CBS News president for two years, will stay on until the new leadership group takes the reins in early May.

A stalwart in the news division for nearly a half-century, Zirinsky made history when she became the first woman to lead CBS News in March 2019. She stepped into the leadership role at a time when CBS was reeling from a series of sexual harassment scandals that brought down the company's former chief, Leslie Moonves, and morning newsman Charlie Rose.

Zirinsky elevated journalist Norah O'Donnell to anchor "CBS Evening News" and tailored the morning news show around the popular Gayle King.

CBS said it was discussing with Zirinsky "a significant role" for the legendary producer to stay on at the CBS News Content Studio, which is planned for a launch later this year.

Times Staff Writer Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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