Jeff Zucker’s Complicated CNN Legacy: Leaked Insider Texts Say He ‘Destroyed’ the Network

“Cover the news. Don’t f— your subordinates. Jesus, how hard is that, anyway?” one former staffer writes

Zucker CNN texts
Zucker CNN texts

Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman On the Business of Entertainment

The founder and editor of TheWrap’s take on life on the left coast, high culture, low culture and the business of entertainment and media. Waxman writes frequently on the inside doings of Hollywood, and is is also the author of two books, Rebels on the Back Lot and Loot

Just hours after the stunning news that CNN’s indomitable leader Jeff Zucker had resigned — immediately — over a consensual affair with a subordinate that absolutely everyone had known about for years, the venom started seeping into news chat rooms and network threads. 

“Who says there’s never any good news on CNN?” one former staffer wrote in an acid text shared among a group of CNN alumni on Wednesday and obtained by TheWrap. “Too late to save the network he destroyed.”

“Cover the news. Don’t f— your subordinates,” another responded. “Jesus, how hard is that, anyway?”

CNN Zucker chat
Texts from former CNN staffers discussing Zucker’s ouster obtained by TheWrap

On the air, the star anchors who owed Zucker their careers professed their admiration and regret. Primetime host Don Lemon called Zucker “the best boss we have ever had, and one of the best things that has ever happened to CNN.” Alisyn Camerota said that Zucker “has this uncanny ability to make, I think, every one of us feel special and valuable in our own way.” 

Meanwhile, Fox News gleefully plastered the news of their rival’s exit across its news feeds, a triumphant spike of the football in the endless cable news wars, while naturally Donald Trump had to pile on by calling Zucker a “world-class sleazebag” who got what he deserved.

That’s Zucker in a nutshell — some love him, some hate him — and sometimes for the very same decisions. His legacy will be equally complicated. Some believe he’s a villain who hollowed out a trusted news brand by favoring opinion over reporting, while others believe he’s a hero who brought the sizzle of entertainment to a faded, vanilla news operation. 

Similarly, some will never forgive Zucker for elevating Donald Trump the candidate by favoring the former “Apprentice” host over others (when Zucker ran NBC Entertainment), while others consider him heroic for going mano a mano with Trump-the-abusive-president during the tycoon’s tenure in office. 

The dichotomy between seething insiders celebrating his demise and Zucker’s fan base rallying at the network’s NYC headquarters in Hudson Yards and the network’s Washington, D.C., bureau is emblematic of how divisive he figure he has become.  

“He did bring a sense of swagger to CNN — a big leaguer, fighting to win,” said Jon Klein, a former president of CNN who knows Zucker well. “His people loved him. He didn’t shy away from Trump’s challenges, for better or worse. And he leaves having hatched CNN+, a crucial strategic initiative. It takes Jeff’s kind of force of will to say we’re going to throw all our resources here and push this.”

On the other hand, it wasn’t all swagger. Another former executive said Zucker got lucky when it came to early successes as ratings rose early on but he ultimately couldn’t solidify those gains. “His timing was great. Jeff came in when CNN was at an historic low. He got the Trump wave, the Trump bump. But they lost share during the Trump years. Everyone else’s bump was bigger than theirs. Yes, ratings and revenues rose — but MSNBC’s and Fox’s rose more.”

When it comes to ratings, it’s hard to call Zucker a success. CNN is still in third place among the cable news networks, back where it was when he took over. As TheWrap’s Tony Maglio reported Wednesday, Zucker leaves the network down 25% in ratings among adults 25-54 since 2013. And in prime time that demographic is even worse, down nearly 30%. 

And this former insider faulted Zucker for his apparent inability to nurture new talent at the network.  “CNN hasn’t had a breakout hit during this time,” the individual said. “Chris Cuomo was the highest rated show because he was on at 9 pm. He wasn’t beating Rachel (Maddow) or Sean Hannity. And he (Zucker) damaged the brand by letting the Don Lemons and Chris Cuomos opine about the state of the country, instead of telling people what was going on.”

The fact that Zucker hasn’t landed any big, new stars during his tenure is now acutely felt with a hole in the 9 p.m. timeslot that Cuomo filled until he was fired in December for failing to disclose the extent of his assistance to his brother, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, following accusations of sexual misconduct by the Democratic politician. 

Few were really upset about Zucker’s affair with CNN chief marketing officer Allison Gollust, an open secret at the network and in media circles, except for the dubious statement by both on Wednesday that their affair started during the COVID pandemic. “Hell — Ray Charles could’ve seen these two people were dating,” one staffer wrote on the chat.

That said, the vitriol among current and former staffers mainly stems from Zucker’s decision to program primetime with opinion-led anchors, instead of featuring the hard-core reporting that once distinguished CNN among the cable news networks. 

And Zucker’s role in pumping up Trump as a candidate — including the decision to run the Republican’s rallies during the 2016 campaign end to end — still rankles CNN insiders deeply.

Billy Hult and Allison Gollust
Allison Gollust with then-husband Billy Hult in 2008 (Photo by WILL RAGOZZINO/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

“Sure, he could be very charismatic,” one former producer said of Zucker. “But the thing people will never get over is how he elevated Trump. It’s not liberal or conservative, it was all about ratings. He could care less what it would do to the country. That should be his legacy. He delivered four years of a bigot in the White House.” It should be noted that Zucker is hardly the only media leader who has faced criticism for inadequate scrutiny of Trump the candidate. 

Still, on Wednesday there were plenty of CNN staffers who rushed to defend Zucker, and who took offense at the swift, no-appeal ouster demanded by WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar. At the DC bureau, Kilar fielded “blunt” questions about whether his past conflict with Zucker was a factor in the immediate dismissal, according to CNN’s own Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy.

CNN reported that Zucker pleaded to stay on at the network until CNN+ launched this spring, or the summer merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery -– or even just the end of the week — but was rebuffed by WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who insisted on a resignation effective immediately.

And so the mockery of a fallen media chieftain continued through the day, some coming from journalists laid off by Zucker, and others who worked for him but despised the stunts that occasionally helped the network beat the competition, like an early gambit when Zucker bombarded viewers with coverage of a foul-smelling, damaged cruise ship. “His career at CNN started with the poop cruise and ends with this,” one member of the alumni chat group said.

Said a former CNN producer who left to make documentaries: “In just a few years, he destroyed decades of journalistic excellence. He made it known for its talking heads.”