UPDATED with additional details: Jeff Zucker has resigned as the president of CNN, citing his failure to disclose what he characterized as 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,” Zucker wrote Wednesday. “I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when I began but I didn’t. I was wrong.”
He did not name the colleague, but Allison Gollust, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for CNN, said in a statement that CNN’s Brian Stelter read on air, “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 indicated that she would be remaining with the company. Warner Media CEO Jason Kilar had a call with Zucker and made it clear he would need to leave the company either voluntarily or not, confirming one of Stelter’s reports.
WarnerMedia has named three executives — Michael Bass, Amy Entelis and Ken Jautz — to serve as interim co-heads of the cable news operation.
Zucker and Gollust previously worked together at NBC, and their relationship had long been the source of rumor and speculation. In her 2021 book Going There, Katie Couric wrote that Zucker and Gollust were “joined at the hip.” She said that when she and Zucker launched her syndicated talk show Katie in 2012, Zucker was adamant that Gollust be hired for PR. Couric wrote that she and Zucker’s wife, Caryn, had become close friends and “it made me really uncomfortable.” The Zuckers divorced in 2019. Soledad O’Brien, who left the network in 2013, wrote on Twitter that the relationship was a “company-wide open secret.”
The news today surprised CNN employees, many of whom had worked closely with Zucker for years. Although his decisions for the network generated some controversy and pushback, he also drew praise from some current employees.
Kasie Hunt, who Zucker lured to the network and its upcoming streaming service last year, wrote on Twitter, “Jeff Zucker’s support has meant the world to me, both at work and in life, when I was suddenly faced with my biggest ever personal challenge: getting a brain tumor. I’m so proud of what we’ve built @CNNplus under Jeff’s leadership and I can’t wait to share it with you.”
Zucker’s departure ends a nine-year tenure at the network, as he transformed the 24-hour news channel into one that highlighted personalities and single, “flood the zone” storylines, such as the network’s blanket coverage of the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner in 2014. Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, though, proved not just a ratings getter, but the network also was one of his No. 1 media foes. The network played up its adversarial relationship, and its primetime hosts veered heavier into commentary and opinion.
Zucker had been expected to depart at the end of last year, but that was pushed back as Discovery completes the purchase of WarnerMedia. His future after the acquisition was completed, expected this spring, was unclear. Zucker is close to David Zaslav, who will lead the new company, but Discovery’s top shareholder, John Malone, has been critical of CNN. In an interview last year with CNBC, Malone said he wanted the network to “evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with.”
In addition to his transformation of the network, Zucker has been instrumental in developing CNN+, its upcoming subscription streaming service, with huge sums poured into luring new talent and creating new programming. The network will be a mix of news and lifestyle content, with shows featuring CNN personalities like Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper but also newly hired hosts like Chris Wallace.
During his tenure, Zucker elevated Cuomo to one of the network’s primetime stars. During the early months of the Covid pandemic, Zucker defended and even championed the network’s decision to allow Cuomo to interview his brother, then-new York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, characterizing it as a kind of human interest feature. When Andrew Cuomo faced allegations of sexual harassment, Zucker continued to stand by Chris Cuomo even after revelations that Cuomo assisted the governor’s team in managing the fallout from scandal.
After the New York attorney general released more details on Chris Cuomo’s involvement as an adviser to his brother, the network hired an outside law firm to conduct an investigation and eventually fired him. The network indicated that “additional information” came to light, and the New York Times soon after reported that it was an allegation of sexual misconduct against Chris Cuomo. He said that “these apparently anonymous allegations are not true.”
A spokesperson for Cuomo did not immediately return a request for comment. The former CNN anchor has hired attorney Bryan Freedman to represent him to collect the remaining money on his contract, which reportedly is $18 million. Zucker’s reference to the Chris Cuomo investigation suggests that Zucker’s own conduct was raised as an issue. In other words, if Cuomo violated company policy, what about Zucker?
Gollust briefly served as an adviser to Andrew Cuomo, departing after four months in 2013 to join Zucker at CNN.
CNN’s ratings have fallen significantly since Trump left office, with its primetime in January off by 77% from the same month a year earlier. Part of it is due to the extraordinary news month of January 2021, with the U.S. Capitol siege, Trump’s second impeachment and Joe Biden’s inauguration. But Cuomo’s departure has left the network with a big hole to fill in its schedule.
Zucker led NBC when he scheduled The Apprentice on the network in 2004, a show that had a hand in elevating Trump’s national profile and portrayed him as a savvy businessman. But during his campaign and presidency, Trump continuously clashed with network personalities and bashed Zucker. After the news of his resignation today, Trump called him a “world class sleazebag and said, “Now is a chance to put Fake News in the backseat because there may not be anything more important than straightening out the horrendous LameStream Media in our Country, and in the case of CNN, throughout the World. Jeff Zucker is gone — congratulations to all!”
Trump’s targeting of CNN also was the source of intrigue when AT&T made a deal to acquire Time Warner, in one of the largest media transactions in history.
A year later, the Trump-era Justice Department sued to block the transaction, something that AT&T and Time Warner executives quickly suspected has to do with the president’s disdain for CNN’s coverage. Trump had condemned the combination as an example of the media “power structure” that has been working to suppress his vote and the voices of his supporters.
The White House and DOJ denied that, and a judge refused to allow company lawyers to pursue that wrinkle in the antitrust proceedings. The government lost the case anyway.
The merger closed in 2018. Zucker remained amid an exodus of other top executives that included Turner president David Levy and HBO chief Richard Plepler. In a 2019 reorg, the telco named him chairman of WarnerMedia News & Sports and President of CNN.
Less than three years after the transaction, though, AT&T last year announced a plan to spin off WarnerMedia, in which it will merge with Discovery. The $43 billion-plus deal, expected in the second quarter pending regulatory approval, is one of the industry’s largest in years.
Jill Goldsmith and Dade Hayes contributed to this report.
Stelter broke the news, posting Zucker’s announcement to staff.
Jeff Zucker just announced his resignation to a stunned CNN. pic.twitter.com/sWXYNBO20d
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) February 2, 2022
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.