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CNN president Jeff Zucker resigns over relationship with network executive

Jeff Zucker resigned Wednesday as chairman of WarnerMedia and president of CNN, telling staff he had failed to disclose a romantic relationship with a colleague when it began.
Mike Coppola
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Getty Images for WarnerMedia
Jeff Zucker resigned Wednesday as chairman of WarnerMedia and president of CNN, telling staff he had failed to disclose a romantic relationship with a colleague when it began.

After a memorable nine years leading CNN through triumph, controversy and scandal, Jeff Zucker abruptly resigned as president of the network Wednesday morning, saying he had failed to acknowledge a romantic relationship with another senior executive at its outset.

"I was wrong," Zucker wrote in a note to CNN's staff. He said he disclosed the nature of his relationship with the network's chief marketing officer when asked as part of the network's investigation into former star host Chris Cuomo.

Several CNN staffers said they were shocked by Zucker's announcement. Few were surprised by the identity of the executive, however. In a statement, marketing chief Allison Gollust said their relationship, which she described as a close professional and personal rapport built over more than two decades, had deepened into a romantic tie during the pandemic. Gollust wrote that she would be staying at the network.

Both Zucker and Gollust are divorced. Their relationship had inspired tabloid coverage; Gollust had previously worked closely with Zucker during his tenure at NBC. Former Today Show host Katie Couric, who had been a close friend of Zucker as he rose through the ranks at NBC, wrote in her recent memoir that she suspected a relationship between Zucker and Gollust years earlier.

Zucker had been at CNN since 2013 and had been expected to leave later this year. But, he said he would stay through AT&T's sale of parent Warner Media to Discovery. It is projected to happen this spring following a review by federal regulators.

"I certainly wish my tenure here had ended differently," he wrote to CNN employees. "But it was an amazing run. And I loved every minute."

Gollust had been mentioned as a strong internal candidate to succeed him.

Zucker the latest domino to fall in Cuomo scandals

Zucker's fall is best understood as the latest shoe to drop in the sexual harassment scandals that took down former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Chris Cuomo's elder brother. Zucker defended the CNN anchor as it emerged that he had helped the governor strategize how to contain the damage of accusations of sexual assault, even though it was national news. Zucker fired Chris Cuomo when it turned out the star had not disclosed the extent of his involvement. A former colleague also alleged that Chris Cuomo had sexually harassed her when he worked at ABC News years earlier.

Zucker had previously come in for criticism for allowing Chris Cuomo to invite his brother on his primetime show during the first wave of Covid that hit New York particularly hard. The Cuomos' camraderie served as a comedic interlude, even as Chris held up his elder brother as an exemplar of capable leadership during the pandemic.

Subsequently, lawmakers condemned Andrew Cuomo for a policy that forced nursing homes to take in residents returning from hospitals even if they had not tested negative for Covid-19. An investigation by the state attorney found that his administration had undercounted nursing home deaths from Covid.

Gov. Cuomo has apologized for his conduct but denied sexual harassment and the claims of wrongdoings on Covid-19 policies; Chris Cuomo has denied sexually harassing the former colleague at ABC News. The younger Cuomo has reportedly threatened to sue CNN if it does not fulfill the $18 million left on his severed contract. Matt Belloni of Puck News reported Wednesday that Cuomo's attorneys have told CNN to preserve all communications between Zucker, Gollust, and Andrew Cuomo.

Following #MeToo, media company standards are 'set very, very high'

After her stint at NBC, Gollust worked for former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and subsequently joined CNN. Since 2020, Gollust has no longer directly reported to Zucker, but to communications executives at Warner Media.

"These are important inflection points, crucibles, for corporations," Jonathan Klein, president of CNN-US from 2004 to 2010, tells NPR. "Companies seize these moments to define themselves in these ways."

Klein points to the series of sexual harassment and misconduct scandals that have played out in larger American corporate life, but especially in the U.S. media industry over the past six years.

"This is the world we are living in today with standards set very, very high," Klein says. "These issues have been in the culture long enough every executive understands what the ground rules are."

"Everything is taking place out in public, and every constituency has a voice they can raise," he says. "It's tough for a corporation to have to weather these things. These stories don't die."

AT&T had wanted largely to get out of the entertainment business and to divest its relatively new acquisition of Warner Media; Warner Media CEO Jason Kilar was blindsided by its sale to Discovery. Zucker, a friend of Discovery CEO David Zaslav, was said to be likely to take on a greater role at the company, assuming the sale went through.

CNN faced intense challenges under Zucker's tenure. He led it from wall-to-wall coverage of disasters, including cruise-liners with backed-up toilets and missing airplanes, to the maiden presidential campaign of Donald Trump. As head of NBC's entertainment division years earlier, Zucker had been integral to establishing Trump as a national household name by building the Apprentice reality show franchise around the bombastic real estate developer.

CNN sought to beef up its enterprise reporting during the surge of scandals and outcry during the Trump years; the network also came in for sustained critiques over the latitude it gave its hosts, including Chris Cuomo, in voicing their personal opinions and hot takes.

"He loves news because people talk about the news," Klein says of Zucker. "Jeff has his ear attuned to what people are talking about - and he loves to be at the middle of this conversation."

Kilar named a trio of senior execs to lead CNN until a permanent successor is named. They are Michael Bass, who oversees programming; Amy Entelis, who handles talent and content development; and Ken Jautz, currently over business affairs and the HLN channel.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.