AT&T CEO John Stankey and Discovery CEO David Zaslav generally sidestepped questions about the exit of CNN boss Jeff Zucker amid dismay among the cable network’s on air talent and staffers over how the situation was handled.
“Jeff resigned and the decision to resign was Jeff’s decision and it’s an unfortunate set of circumstances,” Stankey told CNBC in an interview in Pebble Beach, CA.
According to sources familiar with what happened, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, Zucker’s boss, made it clear that he either had to resign or would be terminated for failing to disclose a relationship with Allison Gollust, CNN’s marketing chief.
Yet there also has been ample other speculation over what led to Zucker’s exit.
When Joe Kernen pressed Stankey on whether there were “other things in play for whether he was out anyway,” citing John Malone’s comments about the network, Stankey said, “Joe, I’m not going to speculate on your theory.” He added that “I’ve always had a practice of not commenting on personnel situations and I don’t intend to do that here.”
Zaslav, who is poised to become the new CEO of Discovery-WarnerMedia, told CNBC in a separate interview that he was not involved in Zucker’s exit.
“Jeff is a good friend of mine. I can’t speak to this issue. We don’t own the company yet. We’re not involved in any of that,” he said.
Asked about Malone, Zaslav said, “None of us had anything to do with it. We’re running our business.”
He did praise CNN and express bullishness on one of Zucker’s signature projects, the subscription streaming service CNN+, set to debut in the spring.
“In terms of CNN+, we couldn’t be more excited about the fact that they have been hiring great journalists,” Zaslav said. “CNN has the greatest group of journalists in the world. It’s the only global news gathering news organization in the world. We are already in the news business. We believe in it. We think it is a huge differentiator, and we think that it is something for the long term is going to be a fantastic asset for us.”
Zucker resigned on Wednesday, writing in a staff memo that “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.”
His abrupt departure stunned CNN staffers, who grilled Kilar in a contentious meeting in the Washington, D.C. bureau on Wednesday evening.
Malone, who is Discovery’s largest shareholder, told CNBC in November that he would “like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists.”
Zucker drew fierce loyalty from CNN talent, as evidenced by the leaked audio, via BusinessInsider, of the Wednesday night meeting with Kilar. Staffers talked of Zucker’s imprint on the network, his hands on role in daily coverage, and his defense of their reporting amid verbal and physical attacks on the news media, particularly during the Trump years.
There also is plenty of anxiety over the future of the network. In the meeting, Jim Acosta told Kilar, “If we had not had Jeff Zucker here during the Trump administration, we probably would have been taken out. You would have something like ‘Fox News Light’ on CNN right now. No offense.”
“I do think that a very big decision was made today that has pretty serious consequences, not just for this group of individuals who are here but for CNN as an entity across the world,” Acosta said. “I just wonder how much thought was put into that because it is a rather delicate time, not just for this country but for this business. And I do think it’s not a stretch at all for folks in this room or inside this news organization to worry about a scenario where folks say, ‘Well, maybe it might be easier to become Fox News light.’ It would take a lot of pressure off. And getting Jeff out of the way, that might help make that happen.”
Kilar said that “I think that your comments are fair that there is business consequence to a leadership change…I would argue, as a testament to Jeff and what has happened these last nine years, that he has led a bunch of building of CNN along with all of you and everyone in this room, that causes it to be stronger than any one individual. I know that is difficult to process on a day like today, but I believe it.”
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