I’ve never met Neeraj Khemlani, and I’m not so sure it would be safe for either of us were that to happen. I’m not a physically violent person by nature, but frankly the mere sight of this man incites me to want to punch him square in the schnozz. Bare minimum, I’d borrow a page from the Jay Leno playbook and ask “What WERE you thinking?!?!”
Up until yesterday Mr. Khemlani was the president of CBS News. a job that until a scant few years ago would have been considered one of the pinnacle positions not only in media, but in the world. As their relentless promos of the Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather eras would brag, more Americans tuned to CBS News for information than any other source. Cronkite and Rather were the trusted souls of their generations, delivering a half-hour of world and international news with cadence and authority to tens of millions of dinnertime viewers each weeknight. The “Eye On” series of investigative reports, eventually repurposed from the network by their owned-and-operated stations, were honored and influential in their communities.
And although Khemlani was only two years into his job, taking over a far weaker CBS news operation that his predecessors had to work with, he had made measurable progress, as THE WRAP’s Jeremy Fuster reported and Khemlani was eager to deliver a few supporting facts to underscore it:
Khemlani joined CBS News in 2021 from Hearst, overseeing an overhaul of the network’s morning news programming including a new lineup of anchor Gayle King, former football player Nate Burleson and correspondent Tony Dokoupil. Under his leadership, CBS News also added new reporters like Robert Costa and Cecelia Vega and developed new streaming programs for Paramount+ and other platforms.
“We maintained the #1 position of our iconic weekend programs, successfully developed and launched business plans to grow digital revenue that will sustain CBS News for the next generation, and elevated and promoted so many of the people who work here day after day to deliver on our journalistic mission,” Khemlani said in his memo.
A memo he delivered to his staff after, per Fuster, it was announced yesterday that he is stepping down…he has signed a first-look production deal with CBS and Simon & Schuster to develop documentaries, books and scripted series that he says will “allow me to write, report and develop stories that I’ve long wanted to pursue.”
Which, of course, any staff member who had read any trade publication or, better still, the NEW YORK POST over the last two weeks knew was patently untrue.
The POST’s Alexandra Steigrad reported this back on July 30th:
CBS News’ sharp-elbowed, cost-slashing boss has landed in trouble after he allegedly dressed down two senior female executives in a tense, closed-door meeting over budget cuts at the embattled network, The Post has learned.
Sources said CBS News co-president Neeraj Khemlani — who has previously clashed with “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell over contract matters — allegedly unleashed a “rude,” “disrespectful” tirade aimed at Chief Financial Officer Stacey Benson and a female executive vice president at the April meeting, which was focused on long-term budget planning.
“They had a breakdown after the meeting,” an insider briefed on the incident said of the two women. “They were shaken.”
The source said the shell-shocked execs subsequently complained about the “rough treatment,” which prompted CBS to appoint Mehmet Dilsiz, senior vice president of human resources for CBS News & Digital, to closely monitor Khemlani and his meetings with co-workers.
And yesterday”s followup from Steigrad presented a more honest version of his departure:
The surprise shakeup was confirmed by CBS brass shortly after The Post published a story online Sunday that the mercurial network chief had been calling confidantes to tell them he’s out. Khemlani’s schedule for this week had been cleared despite the fact he was slated to return Monday from a week-long family vacation in Europe, sources with knowledge told The Post.
And just so you don’t think it’s just tabloid journos that spewed out this clickbait, THE ANKLER’s Claire Atkinson, most recently a New York Times business reporter, added this insight to a newsletter released in the same time frame as Swere teigrad’s Sunday stories:
A source confirmed to The Ankler that CBS brought in an outside law firm, Kauff, McGuire & Margolis, to investigate Khemlani’s behavior after complaints from women. It is unclear however if the investigation played any role in Khemlani’s departure from his position at CBS News. The firm is a labor law specialist in the entertainment world.
More than 30 women spoke to the law firm involved, one person said.
Now, of course, I don’t believe in verbal abuse to anyone, especially women. As a journalist, and as an employee of CBS, a company whose leadership was transformed as a result of the determination of a female CEO who inherited it from a father who was a documented misoygnist and enabler of executives who regularly intimidated females to change the culture–executives that at one time included the architechts of CBS–and its esteemed news division–that made it the “Tiffany network”, one would have thought Khemlani would have been able to read the room he was given the chance to command.
Especially in light of the fact that perhaps the most visible name of the ones that he supposedly infuriated, O’Donnell, already has a documented history of disruptive behavior, as anyone who seemed to adore any BFF of Oprah’s, the current face of Khemlani’s rising MORNINGS, should have already known. As AOL.com reported in 2019:
Norah O’Donnell is reportedly out at “CBS This Morning.”
Page Six reports that CBS’ premiere morning show is receiving a major overhaul, with a mostly-new group of co-hosts that doesn’t include O’Donnell. Gayle King is reportedly set to stay on...(t)he outlet cites sources who say that King was instrumental in pushing her “toxic” co-host out, claiming that a majority of people at the network find her “difficult” to work with.
So Khemlani, as a boss, should have known who he was dealing with. As a person of color, he should have realized the golden opportunity he was being given–indeed, he was the first of such background to have the coveted title of president of CBS News. And along with his champion George Cheeks, he was one of a handful of men still being given the chance to run a significant portion of a company now known as Paramount Global.
But he couldn’t hold his temper. He couldn’t read the room. A room not unlike those as the actual Tiffany’s, where glass is prominent. And a culture determined to shatter it.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that literally as we typed this, this wholly unexpected news of his successor–indeed, his co-head since he started–was dropped by Fuster’s fellow WRAP-per Lucas Manfredi:
Wendy McMahon has been become the new president and CEO of CBS’ News and Stations and Media Ventures units.
In this newly created role and structure, McMahon will now lead all of CBS News’ broadcast and streaming operations, 27 local television stations in major U.S. markets, 14 local news streaming channels and CMV’s first-run syndication programming, as well as its content licensing to television stations and the division’s national advertising sales business.
Now Ms. McMahon is a more than credible manager of stations, familiar enough with the content they carry to supervise the dwindling team of salespeople responsible for monetizing it, and an experienced marketer who has an upbeat attitude and can be the face of a company that is far more concerned with erasing the legacies of Sumner, Leslie and, yes, even Don Hewitt than they are preserving the legacy of CBS News.
See, I watch Ms. McMahon’s local news on a regular basis. The ones that she has rebranded to remove the iconic Eye and, for that matter, local call letters to reflect what she sees as the new realities of a company known as Paramount Global and a world where Channel 2 technically no longer exists.
This is Chris Holmstrom, the face of CBS Los Angeles’ midday newscast, the one that sits squarely between two of the most enduring and popular daytime franchises remaining on broadcast TV, THE PRICE IS RIGHT and THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS. Holmstrom reads copy with an annoying arrogance, persistently mentions what he and his husband did for fun, snarks at any references to sports and sets up seven-minute segments where products that pay for advertorial journalism are featured in an extended segment, with explicit instructions on how to purchase it via CBS’ websites. Personally, I don’t care. But I have to believe audiences with the profiles that his lead-in and lead-out have, given what we know about their age and tolerance, aren’t seeing him in the same light as a network anchor of the distant past. Or even a local one of the more recent past.
That’s what constitutes CBS News in McMahon’s eye. Apparently, the only one that matters. The eye of a brand manager. Not a journalist.
Heck, McMahon isn’t even a trailblazer as a female president of CBS News. Her and Khemlani’s predecssor, Susan Zirinsky, was. She had a 23-year pedigree as an award-winning producer of 48 HOURS, a Saturday night staple for the network since the last century. Zirinsky was cheered and supported by the overwhelming majority of her peers and colleagues, even including Ms. King. But she was replaced by the team that is now turning the ship over entirely to McMahon, along with several other divisions that seek to squeeze profits out of assets first and foremost.
Khemlani was in a unique position to at least keep some sort of integrity and experience on the job. And, frankly, to remind people that it should be the best PERSON for the job, not the best person of a certain gender.
And, bluntly, he blew it.
So no. I won’t punch him. Nor will I stop watching Holmstrom. And yes, were Ms. McMahon ever actually wanting to consider my ability to help her with her portfolio, I’d jump at the chance to do so. Just not in news. I know my limitations.
I wish Khemlani had. Glass jaws shatter easier than glass ceilings. Glass eyes even easier. And all that broken glass that he’s leaving behind is pretty tragic.
Hope McMahon has a large broom.
Until next time…
UPDATE: Roughly an hour after this dropped, VARIETY’s Brian Steinberg reported that McMahon has appointed an experienced, respected ally to get into the trenches on her behalf:
Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews will take direct oversight of CBS News, the latest move in a broader restructure of operations at Paramount Global’s CBS business.
Matthews, a CBS News veteran who once supervised the Washington bureau and had been put in charge of overall newsgathering, will now have top editorial oversight for CBS News across all platforms. She will oversee all CBS News programs, bureaus, global newsgathering, streaming and digital editorial, as well as standards and practices, special events, politics, elections and surveys, social, the race and culture unit and CBS News Radio. Ciprian-Matthews is a 30-year veteran of CBS News, having run operations in London and Washington, D.C., and worked on developing and recruiting CBS News staffers. She joined CBS in 1993 as a senior producer for live segments for its morning news programs. Before joining CBS News, Ciprian-Matthews was the managing editor of CNN’s New York bureau and a field producer, assignment manager and assignment editor for CNN. She started her career as a general assignment reporter for the National Public Radio Spanish-language news program “Enfoque Nacional.
Nice start, Ms. McMahon. No, seriously. She sounds ideal. Hand her an even bigger broom.