Jeff Zucker’s sudden exit from CNN linked to Cuomo connection

Jeff Zucker’s sudden exit from CNN linked to Cuomo connection

Under Jeff Zucker, CNN built a reputation for left-tilting news coverage with a combative spin, so it came as no surprise that his abrupt resignation Wednesday had the makings of a political soap opera.

Mr. Zucker said he resigned over his failure to disclose a “consensual relationship” with a colleague who turned out to be chief marketing officer Allison Gollust. But what he didn’t mention is that she previously worked as communications director for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

In December, CNN host Chris Cuomo was fired for helping combat accusations of sexual harassment against his elder brother, who resigned from the governorship in August. Mr. Zucker said he failed to disclose the affair during the internal investigation.

“As part of the investigation into Chris Cuomo’s tenure at CNN, I was asked about a consensual relationship with my closest colleague, someone I have worked with for more than 20 years,” Mr. Zucker said in his memo to staff. “I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong.”

The latest details about CNN’s tangled involvement with the Cuomos emerged alongside the back-and-forth over Mr. Zucker’s legacy as president of CNN Worldwide, a dynamic period in which the network abandoned its just-the-facts approach to become what critics have ripped as “MSNBC lite.”

“It’s no accident that in Jeff Zucker’s nine-year tenure that CNN has become one of America’s most hated news organizations,” said Curtis Houck, managing editor of the conservative media watchdog NewsBusters. “We’re beyond a crisis of confidence in the media, and Jeff Zucker is not a minor character in all of this.”

Those lamenting Mr. Zucker’s departure included several well-known CNN figures.

Anchor Alisyn Camerota described it as “an incredible loss,” and host Don Lemon said he was “devastated” by Mr. Zucker’s departure and called him “the best boss we have ever had, one of the best things that has ever happened to CNN.”

“There are probably going to be a lot of nervous people at CNN because Jeff is really the glue there,” Mr. Lemon told Variety.

Those criticizing Mr. Zucker’s nine-year run included a surprising number of prominent journalists not known for their right-of-center views.

“I feel like Jeff Zucker has done an objectively terrible job of running CNN. Its ratings are in the toilet,” tweeted Vox senior correspondent Ian Millhiser. “And I have no idea who they view as their target audience, or even if it has occurred to them to target a particular audience.”

CNN became, for conservatives, a symbol of media bias during the Trump presidency. It was the frequent target of President Trump’s attacks of “fake news,” but in terms of ratings, the network had a love-hate relationship with the blustery Republican.

CNN’s popularity soared during the Trump presidency and crashed after he left office. From January 2021 to January 2022, the network’s ratings plunged 76% in total prime-time viewers and 82% in the key 25- to 54-year-old demographic, Mr. Houck said.

Indeed, Mr. Zucker has long been blamed on the left for focusing too heavily on Mr. Trump in the year leading up to the 2016 presidential election. This decision brought in viewers but also gave the Republican an enormous media platform.

CNN was later accused of overcompensating with its intense criticism of Mr. Trump after his election victory.

Since Mr. Zucker’s arrival, CNN has dropped 3% in prime time and 29% in the 25 to 54 demographic, said Mr. Houck, unable to topple archrival Fox News, which notched in January its 20th year as the No. 1 cable news network in daytime and prime-time viewers.

Jeff Zucker could have managed this and stayed on the job if the ratings are up,” said conservative radio host Erick Erickson. “You can get away with a lot in entertainment if the ratings are up, but the ratings are down badly at CNN.”

Mr. Trump wasted no time with razzing. He called Mr. Zucker a “world-class sleazebag who has headed ratings and real-news-challenged CNN for far too long.”

“Now is a chance to put Fake News in the backseat because there may not be anything more important than straightening out the horrendous LameStream Media in our Country, and in the case of CNN, throughout the World,” Mr. Trump said in a statement. “Jeff Zucker is gone — congratulations to all!”

Mr. Zucker may be gone, but the story doesn’t end there. His sudden exit puzzled some media watchers, who said that the network honcho’s relationship with Ms. Gollust was an open secret.

Mr. Zucker hired Ms. Gollust shortly after he arrived at CNN in 2013, and their relationship dated back to their days working together at NBC’s “Today” show, former NBC anchor Katie Couric said in her memoir.

In her 2021 tell-all, Ms. Couric said Mr. Zucker, who was executive producer for “Today,” made a “huge push to bring on Allison Gollust,” even though there was no communications role for her. She said the two were “joined at the hip.”

“I had to wonder why Jeff was angling so hard to bring Allison on board,” Ms. Couric said in “Going There.” “She and her husband and kids had moved into the apartment right above Jeff and [his wife] Caryn’s — everyone who heard about the cozy arrangement thought it was super-strange. By that point Caryn had become a close friend and it made me really uncomfortable.”

Mr. Zucker and Ms. Gollust are now both divorced.

“That they can’t have a private relationship feels wrong on some level,” Ms. Camerota said.

The wild card in the latest string of events may be Chris Cuomo. Since being fired, he has reportedly sought to be paid about $18 million left under his contract, which may have touched off a “chain of events,” said CNN “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter.

“He is not going out quietly. He was fired, and there are reports that he was not going to get paid the millions of dollars that were going to be on the remainder of his contract,” said Mr. Stelter. “As a source said to me earlier today, he was going to burn the place down. He was going to court, trying to burn the place down, and claiming that he had incriminating information about Zucker and Gollust.”

The result could be a “domino effect that begins with Andrew Cuomo going down in the governor’s office and Chris Cuomo being fired from CNN and Jeff Zucker losing his job at CNN,” Mr. Stelter said.

The other moving part is that AT&T has sought to combine WarnerMedia, the CNN parent company, with Discovery as part of a $43 billion deal.

A key player is billionaire John Malone, chairman of Discovery’s major shareholder Liberty Media, who said in November that he wants CNN to return to its roots.

“I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing,” Mr. Malone told CNBC. “I do believe good journalism could have a role in this future portfolio that Discovery-TimeWarner’s going to represent.”

The company plans to launch a streaming service in the first quarter of 2022 called CNN+, featuring network personalities such as Mr. Lemon, Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper and former Fox News anchor Chris Wallace.

CNN invented cable news in 1980, defined online news in 1995 and now is taking an important step in expanding what news can be by launching a direct-to-consumer streaming subscription service in 2022,” Mr. Zucker said in a June statement.