CNN President Jeff Zucker resigns, citing undisclosed relationship with colleague
The Washington Post February 2, 2022
CNN president Jeff Zucker abruptly resigned Wednesday morning after acknowledging a romantic relationship with a fellow network executive, a surprising announcement from one of the most powerful figures in media.
Zucker said in a statement that he was resigning over his failure to properly disclose to his company that he had entered into "a consensual relationship with my closest colleague" - revealed later to be Allison Gollust, the executive vice president and chief marketing officer for CNN Worldwide, and his longtime lieutenant dating back to their days together at NBC.
"I certainly wish my tenure here had ended differently," wrote Zucker, who took over CNN in 2013 and re-energized the struggling network with an all-in approach to covering the news that some critics said he took too far by relentlessly covering the rise of Donald Trump. "But it was an amazing run. And I loved every minute of it."
Gollust, who joined CNN in 2013 and plans to stay at the network, released a statement the same day: "Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over 20 years," she said. "Recently, our relationship changed during covid. I regret that we didn't disclose it at the right time."
Zucker's sudden resignation is the latest in a widening circle of high-powered individuals felled by the investigations into former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's conduct with women. The governor's brother, primetime host Chris Cuomo, was fired from CNN in December over his involvement in the scandal, and Zucker said he was asked about his relationship with Gollust during an investigation into Chris Cuomo's tenure at the network.
Staffers at CNN were shocked by the resignation, and the network interrupted its live broadcast to announce the news. A source familiar with the situation said that Zucker was asked to resign by Jason Kilar, the chief executive of WarnerMedia, which owns CNN.
Zucker and Gollust's closeness had been known to many inside CNN, and rumors sometimes even leaked out to the public. A 2017 item in the tabloid Page Six described a "heated exchange" between the pair at a media industry party in New York City. And former "Today" show co-anchor Katie Couric, who worked with both of them at NBC, dropped heavy hints about their relationship in her memoir.
But the evolving relationship re-surfaced after the network decided to fire star anchor Chris Cuomo in early December, concluding that he had not properly disclosed work he had performed for his brother last year, as the governor's battled sexual misconduct allegations that eventually led to his resignation.
CNN hired a law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, to investigate how he had aided his brother - focusing on documents released by the New York attorney general that showed Chris Cuomo had been extensively involved in the governor's damage-control effort, going so far as to phone other journalists for intel on potentially damaging stories.
Zucker framed Cuomo's lack of candor as a betrayal, noting that "he gave me his word that there was no involvement" beyond personal advice and support to his brother. But a spokesperson for the fired anchor said that Zucker and Cuomo had been in regular contact about the host's involvement with his brother's political crisis - a notion that CNN management strongly contested.
On Wednesday, Zucker said that he was asked about his relationship with Gollust as part of the law firm's investigation into Cuomo's time at CNN, prompting his decision to resign.
"I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years," he said. "I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn't. I was wrong."
An attorney for Chris Cuomo sent a legal hold letter to CNN around the beginning of the year, according to sources close to the situation. It asked CNN executives to preserve any communications they may have had with the former governor or members of his staff. Cuomo's team is hoping to prove that CNN executives, including Zucker and Gollust, knew about the extent of his involvement with his brother's clean-up effort.
Cuomo was once very close with Zucker, who had promoted him into the network's primetime lineup. A source with knowledge of the situation said that Cuomo did not lobby for Zucker's termination, though he was aware of Zucker's relationship with Gollust. He has not commented on Zucker's departure.
Zucker, who also served as chairman of WarnerMedia News and Sports, had initially been expected to leave his role at the network at the end of 2021, but decided to prolong his tenure after plans were announced last spring for media conglomerate Discovery, Inc. to combine with WarnerMedia assets. That deal has not yet been completed, but Zucker had told staff in December that it was likely to close "sometime this spring." Some industry observers expected Zucker to continue with the company due to his close relationship with Discovery chief executive David M. Zaslav, who will run the combined television and online media outfit.
Before going to CNN, Zucker spent four years as the chief executive of media conglomerate NBCUniversal, the capstone of a lengthy tenure at the company that saw him rise through the ranks and become an executive producer of the "Today" morning show.
He took over CNN in 2013 and quickly set about remaking it. At the time, the network that had defined 24-hour TV news was adrift, sometimes finishing not only behind rivals Fox News and MSNBC in the ratings, but also HLN, a sister network that specialized in lurid court trials. The network's annual advertising revenue had fallen alarmingly, by about 10 percent.
Under Zucker, CNN focused intently on Trump, starting with his presidential campaign in mid-2015. The network often aired Trump's raucous campaign rallies from start to finish, helping him emerge from a crowded field of candidates. Zucker later said he regretted giving Trump so much attention.
Trump returned CNN's attention by repeatedly calling its reporting and commentary "fake news." He occasionally went after Zucker directly, referring to him on Twitter as "Little Jeff Z."
The public feuding belied a long and mutually fruitful association for both men: As president of NBC's entertainment division in 2003, Zucker oversaw the network's launch of "The Apprentice," the boardroom reality show that featured Trump. (NBC is also where Zucker apparently met Gollust, who started working there in the 1990s.)
In 2020, CNN recorded its largest audience since its founding in 1980, buoyed by coverage of the presidential campaign and the raging coronavirus pandemic - though, like other cable news networks, it struggled to achieve those same viewership totals in 2021.
Trump released a statement on Wednesday celebrating Zucker's departure and calling him "a world-class sleazebag."
Zucker was largely popular with CNN employees, who valued his hands-on touch and passion for the news business.
Some of the network's biggest anchors and hosts expressed regret over his departure. "We are all shattered," afternoon anchor Alisyn Camerota told The Post. "Jeff is a remarkable person and boss - he has a way of making everyone at CNN feel valuable and special. I will miss his guidance and compassion in this challenging news climate more than words can say. "
"I am devastated," primetime anchor Don Lemon told Variety, calling Zucker "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."
Zucker reciprocated the warm words. "I came to CNN on January 28, 2013. Together, we had nine great years," he wrote to staffers Wednesday. "I am grateful to the thousands of incredibly talented CNN and Turner Sports employees who helped make this such a joy for me, and such a success for all of us. I wish each of you nothing but the best in the years ahead."
Zucker's sudden resignation comes at a particularly sensitive time for CNN, which is gearing up to launch the CNN+ streaming service by late March. The network has hired several high-profile news personalities for the service, including former Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, former "All Things Considered" co-host Audie Cornish and former MSNBC anchor Kasie Hunt.
Kilar told employees on Wednesday afternoon that CNN's "interim co-heads" will be executive vice president of programming Michael Bass, executive vice president for talent and content development Amy Entelis, and executive vice president Ken Jautz. The executives will oversee the network "through the close of the pending transaction with Discovery," he said, adding that he "has full confidence" in them.
Tension between Zucker and Kilar had been building for years, according to a CNN personality close to Zucker. As first reported by The Wall Street Journal, once Kilar took on the top job WarnerMedia job, he reorganized CNN and trimmed some of Zucker's responsibilities, including oversight of CNN's finances, human resources and communications. One effect of the move was to remove Gollust from Zucker's direct oversight in the company structure.
In a memo to employees Wednesday, Kilar wrote that he "accepted Jeff Zucker's resignation" and thanked him "for his contributions over the past 9 years."