CNN staffers grill WarnerMedia boss over Jeff Zucker resignation
The sudden resignation of Jeff Zucker as president of CNN has shaken up the troops at the cable news network.
Jason Kilar, chief executive of the cable news channel’s parent firm, WarnerMedia, heard it firsthand during a meeting at CNN’s Washington bureau hours after the Wednesday announcement that Zucker was gone.
Many expressed fear for the outlet’s future and frustration and anger that Zucker — who over nine years led the network to its most successful business years and gave it a more aggressive personality — was abruptly removed.
Zucker stepped down after he acknowledged that he failed to disclose that he was having a romantic relationship with Allison Gollust, a longtime aide and CNN’s chief marketing officer.
Zucker and Gollust said their friendship “evolved” into an intimate relationship during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020.
He was questioned about the matter by attorneys investigating the WarnerMedia unit’s handling of Chris Cuomo, the prime-time anchor fired in December over his involvement in his brother Andrew’s sexual misconduct scandal that forced him to resign as New York governor.
During the 90-minute meeting, Kilar was repeatedly pummeled with questions by the network’s Washington journalists who felt a deep affinity for Zucker, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by The Times. Three of Zucker’s deputies — Amy Entelis, Michael Bass and Ken Jautz — are running CNN on an interim basis.
During the last five years, CNN bore the brunt of former President Trump’s attacks on the media, which became so intense that some journalists at the network felt unsafe in public settings. Zucker never relented to the ongoing pressure, keeping the network’s aggressive stance in its coverage while making sure his staff was protected.
Veteran Washington correspondent Jim Acosta, who at one point had his White House press credentials revoked, expressed concern that a manager without Zucker’s toughness might have relented to the pressure.
“If we had not had Jeff here during the Trump administration, we would have probably been taken out and you would have something like Fox News lite on the air right now,” Acosta said. “It’s a rather delicate time, not just for this country but this business.”
Washington anchor Jake Tapper said the network would have become “benign, vanilla gruel” if not for Zucker’s leadership.
Chris Cuomo was fired over his role in his brother Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s harassment scandal. On Wednesday, Jeff Zucker resigned as CNN president.
Tapper was particularly confrontational to Kilar during the meeting, suggesting that WarnerMedia was caving to Cuomo, who is said to have vowed to retaliate against Zucker for firing him without pay. Cuomo is expected to file a lawsuit over his compensation, said to be $6 million annually.
“He threatened,” Tapper said. “Jeff said we don’t negotiate with terrorists. Chris blew the place up. How do we get past that perception that this is the bad guy winning?”
A representative for Chris Cuomo declined to comment.
Kilar avoided giving details of his personnel decisions beyond saying the company’s values were more important than the business considerations of Zucker’s departure.
The company is on the verge of launching a new streaming service, CNN+, which Kilar himself said will be the predominant platform for CNN in 10 years.
Kilar said the work being done by the CNN journalists, which he repeatedly lauded, would get the public past the Cuomo scandal and any collateral damage related to it.
The executive repeatedly praised Zucker’s achievements, adding that the network’s strategy or approach will not be altered under his watch.
Kilar assured the staff that Zucker’s departure would not alter CNN’s “journalistic values.”
The remarks didn’t satisfy Washington correspondent Jamie Gangel, whose association with Zucker dates to her early years at NBC when she was an up-and-coming 26-year-old producer.
“I think we’ve heard a lot of corporate double talk,” she said. “I think the company has made a terrible mistake by doing this.”
Gangel said she received calls from four members of the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol “who felt devastated for our democracy” now that Zucker has exited CNN.
“I do not think you have any appreciation for what you’ve done to this organization,” she said.
While CNN’s top stars are unhappy about Zucker’s departure, the revelation about his involvement with Gollust is drawing further scrutiny.
New York gossip outlets have chased rumors about the nature of the Zucker-Gollust connection for years and are now reporting that former employees and some insiders at the company are skeptical about the timeline presented in Gollust’s statement.
“I find the ‘it started during COVID’ claim pretty amusing,” said journalist Soledad O’Brien in a tweet. O’Brien worked for Zucker at NBC and CNN.
A spokesperson for Zucker and Gollust said the couple stands by the timeline presented in their statements issued Wednesday.
While Gollust remains employed by CNN, several people familiar with her status who were not authorized to discuss it publicly said she will likely not stay with the company once Discovery’s merger with WarnerMedia is completed in a few months.
Zucker and Gollust first worked together at NBC when he was executive producer of “Today” and she was publicity executive for the morning program. She handled his communications when Zucker ascended to president of NBC and exited several months after he left the company in 2010.
Gollust joined CNN after Zucker was named president of the network, after her short stint as communications director in Andrew Cuomo’s office.
Gollust and Zucker were frequently seen together on the New York media party circuit, although it’s not unusual for communications executives to spend seemingly exhaustive amounts of time around their high-profile bosses.
They also lived in the same cooperative apartment building in Manhattan when they were both still living with their spouses. Both are now divorced.
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