“People are just shell-shocked.” That’s how one CNN source described the stunning downfall of Jeff Zucker, who announced Wednesday morning he was resigning from CNN after failing to disclose “a consensual relationship with my closest colleague.” He was referring to Allison Gollust, who has worked alongside Zucker for some 20 years, first at NBC before following him to CNN in 2013 and becoming the network’s powerful head of communications and marketing. The news has absolutely stunned the media world, like an episode of Succession playing out in real life.
Reading between the lines, everyone’s interpretation of this is that Chris Cuomo knifed Zucker. Zucker fired Cuomo late last year over the former anchor’s deep participation in the strategic response to the sexual harassment scandal of his brother, Andrew Cuomo—after Zucker initially stood by Chris Cuomo for months when the first revelations of his involvement came to light. (In a small-world twist worth noting, Gollust briefly worked for Andrew Cuomo between jobs at NBC and CNN.) Politico reported that, according to sources, Chris Cuomo’s lawyers “raised issues about the relationship between Zucker and Gollust. Cuomo’s legal team asserted that Zucker was hypocritical to suggest Cuomo had a personal conflict of interest when the relationship with Gollust represented a potential conflict as well.”
I’ve heard similar things, including from someone with direct knowledge of Cuomo himself bringing up the relationship in conversation. Lawyers retained by CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia, have been conducting an investigation into the Cuomo matter for the past couple of months, since Coumo was fired, and I’m told they began asking about Zucker and Gollust in recent weeks. Sources also told me Cuomo’s team had been shopping the story around, which could explain how it ended up in a little-noticed gossip item published by Radar Online on January 4. Cuomo’s spokesman didn’t have a comment on any of this, but basically everyone I’ve talked to is saying the same thing: Zucker has effectively become the latest casualty of the Andrew Cuomo scandal. As one former TV news honcho put it, “It’s like the ending of Reservoir Dogs.” Another media executive texted me: “I knew it from the minute they fired Cuomo.”
Zucker has retained crisis-communications pro Risa Heller, who also declined to comment. I’m told that WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar made it clear to Zucker in a phone call within the past few days that he could not remain at the company. Calls were scheduled between Kilar and Zucker’s direct reports on Wednesday afternoon, and Kilar told CNN staff in a memo that he’d appointed an interim leadership team comprising three of Zucker’s deputies—Michael Bass, Amy Entelis, and Ken Jautz—who will run the network “through the close of the pending transaction with Discovery.” Which brings us to the timing: It’s bad. WarnerMedia’s merger with Discovery is expected to close in the next few months. CNN is also gearing up for the launch of its direct-to-consumer streaming service, CNN+, in which it has invested heavily. And they’re also still in the midst of figuring out a 9 p.m. replacement for Cuomo, who was the star of CNN’s prime-time lineup. “Why would you want to hand Discovery a scandal-ridden CNN? There is no reason to do it this way,” one of my CNN sources said. Sources acknowledged that speculation and rumors about Zucker and Gollust’s relationship were no secret within CNN (or outside of it for that matter), but as one of them noted, “Once those facts are presented to corporate, it sort of ties their hands. It’s just really unfortunate.”
Some CNN talent has gone public in support of Zucker. “I am devastated,” Don Lemon told Variety. “I just think so highly of Jeff, and he is the best boss we have ever had, and one of the best things that has ever happened to CNN.” In similar comments to The Daily Beast, Alisyn Camerota said, “We are all devastated. Jeff is beloved here. We all know we’ll never find a smarter or more compassionate boss.” A future without Zucker is something the network had been staring down for some time. As I’ve previously reported, Zucker and Kilar had come into conflict in the past. In the fall of 2020, Zucker lost oversight of CNN’s financial, human resources, and communications departments, and sources back then told me he was given less than a day’s notice about the change before it took effect, which infuriated him. He came close to leaving, but decided to stick around at least through the end of his contract. After the merger with Discovery was announced, it was presumed Zucker would be in it for the long haul given his friendship with Discovery CEO David Zaslav. Now, for CNN—faced with a sharp post-Trump ratings downturn, the launch of a major strategic initiative, a gaping prime-time hole, and a looming corporate integration—the future looks uncertain once more.
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