Jeff Zucker’s abrupt exit from his role as CNN president on Wednesday is the result of a high-stakes game of grudges among media power players, including ousted network anchor Chris Cuomo and WarnerMedia chief Jason Kilar, multiple media insiders have told TheWrap.
“This is Chris Cuomo’s revenge, and it worked,” one media veteran told TheWrap. “It was done deliberately.”
While the gossip mill is churning around whether Cuomo planted a story about Zucker’s romantic relationship with CNN chief marketing officer Allison Gollust in Radar last month, Zucker himself said Wednesday that the information came out because of an investigation into Cuomo over his ouster in December and a dispute over an $18 million payout to the fired anchor.
“As part of the investigation into Chris Cuomo’s tenure at CNN, I was asked about a consensual relationship with my closest colleague,” Zucker said in his statement. “I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began, but I didn’t.”
CNN’s representatives and Cuomo’s lawyer have remained mum. Media insiders, however, have a lot to say. “The Cuomo blast radius is incredible,” former New York Times media columnist Ben Smith tweeted.
The Cuomo connections here run deep: Though Gollust has worked at CNN since 2013, she was previously the spokesperson for former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the brother of the terminated anchor whose resignation amid sexual misconduct accusations last summer also ensnared his network-anchor brother.
Chris Cuomo was fired by CNN in December for failing to disclose the extent to which he had assisted his politician sibling with a communications strategy after the Democrat was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. Cuomo has been fuming over the fact that he won’t be getting severance, and has considered legal action to claim the $18 million remaining on his contract.
Zucker discussed Chris Cuomo’s ouster both publicly and privately, telling staffers in a December town hall reviewed by TheWrap that he was “comfortable” with how the firing played out. He and the company backed Cuomo for months after initial reports of his strategizing surfaced, but once the journalist lost Zucker’s support, he was hastily removed from the network’s primetime lineup.
Media insiders told TheWrap Wednesday that if Cuomo didn’t deliberately plant the Radar piece, the timing was at least fortuitous as it pressured Zucker just as Cuomo’s lawyer deposed Zucker about the relationship on the record.
In the current climate, CNN’s owner AT&T could not risk having a public relations fiasco as it seeks regulatory approval to spin off WarnerMedia and merge with Discovery in Q2. According to WarnerMedia’s Standards of Business Conduct, updated after AT&T’s 2016 acquisition, “employees must not hire or supervise (directly or indirectly) someone with whom they have a personal relationship” — and must “inform the HR department in advance” of starting any relationship with a staffer they supervise.
Jon Klein, a former president of CNN, said the stakes are high. “With all the glare of publicity on corporations on sensitive moments when they’re awaiting regulatory approval on mergers, the options in front of executives are very limited,” he told TheWrap. “Their behavior is constrained by the spotlight, now more than ever. You cannot speak with forked tongue. You have to appear principled. We are not living in the age of nuance anymore.”
Another media executive pointed out that WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar also had an ax to grind with Zucker, and may not be disappointed to see him fail. Zucker is close to Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who is poised to take over the merged Warner-Discovery company later this year. That merger is likely to force out Kilar, who was only promoted to WarnerMedia CEO in May 2020.
While Kilar may not have had a direct role in Zucker’s ouster, he could be a major beneficiary. “This was handed to Kilar, by Cuomo,” the executive said.
And Kilar demanded that Zucker exit immediately, rejecting the CNN leader’s request to stay on through the Discovery merger, or the spring launch of the CNN+ streaming service, or even the end of the week, insiders told CNN.
Reps for Chris Cuomo, Kilar and Zucker did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Oddly enough, the media edition of “Game of Thrones” led to some curious choices during the flurry of news on Wednesday. In her own statement Wednesday, Gollust said the relationship was a product of the COVID-19 pandemic, but references to the connection between the two top bosses predate pandemic lockdowns by years.
“They’ve been together for years and years,” one media executive who knows Zucker and Gollust told TheWrap.
A former media owner said more bluntly: “They’re lying. I’ve met both of them. The thing is going on for 20 years. It didn’t happen over COVID. They got divorced for this reason.” (The Radar piece, in fact, explored the dissolution of the pair’s respective marriages.) Zucker and his wife Caryn Nathanson separated in 2018 and later divorced; Gollust is also divorced from her husband, Tradewell Markets president William Hult.
The former media owner noted that top executives must sign documents each year attesting to the fact that they have not breached any company policy and are maintaining ethics, which tracks with Zucker’s explanation that he stepped down because he didn’t disclose the relationship when he should have.
Multiple insiders said that Zucker’s explanation for resigning — a lack of full disclosure that mirrors the rationale for Cuomo’s own firing — has the makings of a revenge plot by the former anchor. “There’s no doubt that Cuomo’s after him,” the former media owner said.
A third former media executive with direct knowledge of CNN’s operations pointed to the fact that Zucker and Gollust have long lived in the same apartment building — something that Katie Couric, an on-air star when Zucker was at NBC prior to CNN, disclosed in her 2021 memoir “Going There” — and that served as “a signal” to everyone who knew them that they were together. Cuomo would have easily known about the relationship, insiders said. That former executive, too, believes that Zucker’s forced resignation was the former primetime host’s doing.
Still, there are other reasons Zucker may have been pushed out.
CNN’s ratings have continued to lag behind those of rivals Fox News and MSNBC by a considerable margin during his nine-year tenure, despite numerous lineup revamps. According to Nielsen Research, CNN has lost 74% of its total viewership last month compared to January 2021 and 81% of its viewership in the advertiser-coveted news demographic of 25 to 54. The other news networks also saw declines, but not as steep. MSNBC lost 60% of its total viewership and 74% of its demo viewership — like CNN, it had seen a lift from the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, President Trump’s second impeachment trail and the inauguration of Joe Biden. Meanwhile, Fox News lost just 4% of its total viewership year over year and 6% of its demo viewership.
The final show to launch under Zucker was “Democracy in Peril,” a 9 p.m. ET program designed to replace Cuomo’s show, which was consistently the network’s the highest-rated hour despite lagging dramatically behind most of Fox News’ and MSNBC’s programming. In its first week, temporary host Brianna Keilar only pulled in about 556,000 total viewers — which was just a little over what Fox News pulled in at 9 p.m. in the key demo alone.
Gene Del Vecchio, adjunct professor of marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business, said the Gollust relationship may have taken a back seat to the network’s ratings woes. “I suspect that he might have been squeezed out due to the catastrophic ratings decline,” Del Vecchio said, noting he thinks CNN may have gone “too far left” ahead of WarnerMedia’s impending merger with Discovery. “It is the perfect time to clean house and build a stronger, more middle-of-the-road CNN that will bring back a more mainstream audience.”
Sharon Waxman contributed to this story.