A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
Jeff Zucker is a singular figure in American media. That’s why his sudden undoing is a seismic moment — and why we’re going to unpack it as best we can.
We have been at the CNN office in New York for the past 14 hours, and we have been speaking with dozens of sources, including people close to WarnerMedia management and close to Zucker.
Outside these walls, Zucker is a larger-than-life figure in the news business, but here in the office, he was the boss right down the hall. So this is admittedly a very strange story to cover. But here’s what we know so far…
– Zucker, the president of CNN Worldwide for the past nine years, was forced out of his job with very short notice. Zucker said he resigned, but if he had not, he would have been terminated, according to two sources involved in the matter.
– CNN parent WarnerMedia’s official reason for Zucker’s removal is that he failed to disclose his romantic relationship with his closest colleague, Allison Gollust, CNN EVP and chief marketing officer. This was a violation of the company’s Standards of Business Conduct.
– Zucker admitted that “I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong.” Gollust said the relationship “changed during COVID” and “I regret that we didn’t disclose it at the right time.” So, again, the critical point was the lack of disclosure.
– Upon learning of Zucker’s exit, many CNN staffers felt, as Dana Bash said during a tense DC bureau meeting with WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, that “the punishment didn’t fit the crime.” Internally, there is a lot of confusion about why this happened.
– With that in mind, is another shoe about to drop? Some observers think so, but no one knows, and nothing has dropped yet. “For many CNN staffers, something isn’t adding up,” NYMag’s Shawn McCreesh wrote.
– One of the prevailing theories involves Chris Cuomo, who was fired by Zucker in early December amid revelations about Chris aiding his governor brother Andrew. (Gollust briefly worked as Andrew’s communications director before joining CNN.) Zucker’s memo said he acknowledged the Gollust relationship when he was asked about it during “the investigation into Chris Cuomo’s tenure at CNN.”
– Cuomo’s camp pushed back on any suggestion that he had anything to do with this chain of events.
– Zucker has always had detractors inside CNN, but they are outnumbered by his loyalists, and none of that loyalty eroded today. Staffers who were initially shocked by WarnerMedia’s action turned disappointed and angry later in the day, and they felt Kilar’s answers were far from sufficient.
– Zucker was fond of reminding everyone that we play for the team name on the front of the jersey, not the individual name on the back. CNN is so much bigger than any executive. But there is a sense in the newsroom that the organization needs a decisive leader to steady the ship. In the words of one anchor, “I just don’t want us to be rudderless.”
– Kilar named three interim co-heads of CNN: Michael Bass, Amy Entelis, and Ken Jautz. All three bleed CNN red. Bass has worked closely with Zucker going back to their “Today” show years. Entelis and Jautz both pre-dated Zucker at CNN. They joined Kilar in DC on Wednesday evening and will hold further meetings at CNN Center in Atlanta on Thursday.
– All of this is happening while CNN needs a new 9pm program to replace Cuomo; while it prepares to launch the CNN+ streaming service, one of the most important ventures in the network’s history; and while AT&T prepares to spin off WarnerMedia so that it can combine with Discovery. Some sources suggested on Wednesday that the pressure to complete the deal was a factor.
The Cuomo angle
Before Zucker fired Chris Cuomo, CNN retained Cravath, a white-shoe law firm, to review the matter. That probe has been ongoing, while at the same time Cuomo has pursued a legal battle with the network, reportedly in a bid to get paid the millions that remained on his contract. Numerous staffers have been questioned by Cravath lawyers, sources said, and it was Zucker’s turn last week. So all of this came to a boil in the past seven days.
When Zucker acknowledged the Gollust relationship, his “violation was subsequently brought to” Kilar, “with whom he had a frosty relationship during their brief time working together,” Puck’s Dylan Byers wrote. Kilar then brought it “to the attention of John Stankey,” the AT&T CEO. “No matter what he thought of Zucker or Kilar, Stankey surely had no appetite for tolerating any scandal that might scuttle the impending WarnerMedia-Discovery deal. And so in the end, now both Kilar and Zucker will soon be in search of new jobs.”
About the timing
As we wrote in this CNN Business story, employees had no idea what was coming before Zucker’s email landed in their inboxes at 11:01. Zucker spoke with some of CNN’s top execs earlier in the morning, and said he would have liked to stay on for a short period, to help with a smooth transition, according to sources familiar with the conversations. He proposed to stay through the WarnerMedia spin-off, or through the launch of CNN+, or through the end of this week. Kilar said his exit had to happen immediately, the sources said.
CNN DC grills Kilar for answers
Kilar began his day in New York, where he met with some of CNN’s senior leaders. Then he traveled to the DC bureau, where some of the network’s top anchors and correspondents drilled him for details about what just happened and why. Kilar was asked a number of blunt questions, including whether “any past conflict” he had with Zucker played into the decision-making process, according to sources in the room. Kilar said that “the facts are the facts” and repeatedly declined to “get into details” about certain questions.
When one reporter pressed Kilar on whether he had consulted other execs during the process, Kilar said he would not answer. He later commented that he does not usually “canvas” people outside HR and legal teams when making such decisions. Kilar repeatedly cited company “values and principles” in his answers, and said “I feel comfortable in my decision. I do.” The staffers sounded unpersuaded.
Giddy reactions in right-wing media
Zucker’s foes in politics and media took glee in celebrating his exit. Trump put out a predictable statement attacking Zucker. And the coverage in right-wing media was downright giddy, with news of his departure leading the homepages of top sites. The hourly coverage on Fox was a bash fest.
>> Related? During the DC meeting, one of the chief concerns was about who will protect the integrity of CNN as it continues to face sustained attacks from Trump and his allies. One anchor said that without Zucker, CNN could have caved to political pressure and become something like “Fox News lite.” That type of unease is very much alive in the organization now that Zucker is gone – especially with a new owner looming…
A sudden turn
CNN staffers have known Zucker as a survivor: He has survived colon cancer, heart surgery, and other health setbacks. He climbed the highest levels of NBCUniversal, fell to the bottom, then became the most impactful leader of CNN since Ted Turner. Not long ago, it seemed as if he’d lost a battle with Kilar and AT&T and would leave CNN – and then suddenly, with his friend David Zaslav’s Discovery taking over, Kilar was out and Zucker was in and it looked like he’d survived again. That sudden turn made today’s news all the more surprising…