CNN chief Jeff Zucker abruptly resigned from the news giant Wednesday, throwing the management of one of WarnerMedia’s prized assets into utter disarray just weeks before the company is expected to be taken over by Discovery. His exit came after an investigation into fired anchor Chris Cuomo revealed that Zucker had not disclosed a consensual relationship with a colleague.
“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. I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong,” Zucker wrote in the memo to staff. “As a result, I am resigning today.”
Zucker also oversees Turner Sports, another critical asset, and was largely tasked with supervising the bulk of WarnerMedia’s live programming — seen as a bulwark against the migration of one-time TV viewers to on-demand streaming video.
The colleague who went unnamed in the memo is Allison Gollust, CNN’s chief marketing officer and a longtime Zucker lieutenant. She has worked closely with Zucker since his time at NBC News, where he enjoyed a quick rise to the top as executive producer of that company’s “Today” show, and subsequently went on to oversee NBC Entertainment and then NBCUniversal as a whole when it was owned by General Electric. Gollust was one of Zucker’s first hires at CNN when he came aboard in 2013, and was the source of some rancor between Zucker and WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar when he shifted her role so that she reported more directly to corporate.
“Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over 20 years. Recently, our relationship changed during COVID. I regret that we didn’t disclose it at the right time,” Gollust said in a statement. “I’m incredibly proud of my time at CNN and look forward to continuing the great work we do everyday.” Gollust has expressed an interest in staying at the company.
The pair’s relationship has been scrutinized for years. In her 2021 book, “Going There,” former “Today” and “CBS Evening News” anchor Katie Couric described the close relationship Zucker and Gollust had — and described how Zucker, who was once executive producer of her syndicated talk show, asked her to hire Gollust to help with the program. Gollust “and her husband and kids had moved into the apartment right above Jeff and Caryn’s [Zucker’s ex wife] — everyone who heard about the cozy arrangement thought it was super-strange,” Couric wrote. “By that point, Caryn had become a close friend and it made me really uncomfortable.”
WarnerMedia on Wednesday named Michael Bass, Amy Entelis and Ken Jautz to run CNN until the merger with Discovery is completed. “I have accepted Jeff Zucker’s resignation as Chairman of WarnerMedia News and Sports, and President of CNN Worldwide. We thank Jeff for his contributions over the past 9 years” said Jason Kilar, WarnerMedia’s CEO, in a statement. “Both of these organizations are at the top of their respective games and are well prepared for their next chapters.” Several observers believe Entelis would be a prime candidate to run the news operation, in large part due to her close ties with many of the anchors and personnel, and because of her oversight of CNN’s push into documentaries, original series and films. But there is also some speculation that she may not want the top role on a long-term basis. Bass is a longtime Zucker colleague who runs most of the network’s programming, while Jautz is viewed as essential to CNN’s logistics and operations.
Zucker’s departure comes as CNN is in the midst of several important business initiatives. The flagship network is grappling with a significant decline in viewership, as people who tuned in during the run-up to the 2020 election drift away from news programming. CNN continues to search for a replacement for Chris Cuomo at 9 p.m., a time slot that was once its most watched. Cuomo was fired last year after getting entangled in the defense of his brother, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was accused by multiple women of sexual harassment. And the company has ramped up staffing and programming efforts for CNN Plus, a new subscription-based streaming hub slated to debut in the next several weeks.
The news is said to have roiled people inside CNN, many of whom learned about it Wednesday morning.
“I am devastated,” Don Lemon, the network’s late primetime anchor, told Variety in an interview. “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. There are probably going to be a lot of nervous people at CNN because Jeff is really the glue there.” Lemon has gained new traction at CNN since being elevated from anchoring weekends to leading two hours of CNN’s programming each night. “He made us relevant again,” he added. Other CNN personnel were said to be angry at Cuomo, their former colleague, who is believed to have felt slighted by Zucker’s refusal to grant him a settlement after his separation from the network. There is also a belief among CNN staffers that Zucker’s previous antagonism of WarnerMedia CEO Kilar did not help when he and Gollust acknowledged their relationship.
Zucker was known to immerse himself in the details of every show — even the on-screen “chyrons” that appeared. Staffers give him credit for elevating more and new voices at the network and for letting reporters pursue longer, enterprise pieces when they could. The loyalty some personnel feel toward him is intense. Some employees are even wondering if Discovery CEO David Zaslav might consider bringing Zucker back after the deal to acquire Warner is completed. “He understood the news business and he took very good care of us and he supported us and he had our backs,” says Lemon. “He would tell us when we were wrong and then he would encourage us to continue when we were doing the right thing.”
When Zucker joined CNN in 2013, the network was lagging behind Fox News Channel and MSNBC, both of which focus much of their most-watched programming on partisans — typically conservative or liberals. During his tenure at the network, he allowed anchors, correspondents and contributors to add more voice to their reporting, and in the process adopted some of the tactics of the network’s rivals. Many of the most successful anchors at CNN in the recent past — Chris Cuomo, Brianna Keilar, Lemon, Van Jones — have been able to offer more analysis and commentary than past counterparts, like Bernard Shaw or Aaron Brown, might be allowed. Zucker’s CNN was also criticized for giving an abundance of coverage to President Trump early in his campaign, without more critical reporting, an assessment with which Zucker, in hindsight, agreed.
Taking CNN in that new direction added spice to its main recipe, a vanilla presentation of the news. Remember that CNN’s 9 p.m. slot was once reserved for the garrulous but easygoing celebrity interviews of Larry King. Under Zucker, it became the home to the in-your-face musings of Chris Cuomo.
Yet it has led to more pushback against the network, which has often found itself becoming a story rather than simply telling it. Under Zucker, CNN sued the Trump administration for barring its Washington reporter, Jim Acosta; allowed Chris Cuomo to interview his brother on air, a journalistic taboo; and has portrayed itself as a more aggressive purveyor of news and journalism. Some of it has worked, and Zucker may get as much credit as CNN founder Ted Turner once did for carving out a space in the media landscape for the network. But now CNN — and its soon-to-be parent, Discovery — must contend with projected declines in subscribers and a new world in which linear news programming is ceding ground to information provided online and via social media.
CNN’s new leader — whoever it is — may have to pursue a different course.