Jeff Zucker’s Ouster: The Probe, The Relationship, The Lawyer’s Letter & The Phone Call That Led To CNN CEO’s Shocking Exit

By Dominic Patten, Ted Johnson

AP (Photo Illustration by Brandon Choe)

UPDATED, with details of D.C. bureau meeting: Jeff Zucker’s surprise resignation from CNN on Wednesday quickly triggered puzzled questions over just what led to his ouster after revelations of his relationship with Allison Gollust, EVP and Chief Marketing Officer for CNN Worldwide.

One CNN anchor, Alisyn Camerota, even said on air that it “feels wrong” that two consenting adults, who are both executives, could not have a private relationship.

But the relationship itself is not what triggered WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar’s call to Zucker in recent days informing him that he had to exit or face termination, we’ve learned. Rather, it was Zucker’s failure to disclose the relationship, in violation of WarnerMedia policy. Mere days after Kilar was informed of Zucker’s omissions by outside lawyers probing the now-fired Chris Cuomo’s stint at CNN, the exec called Zucker and told him, “You can’t remain here.”

The stern and brief exchange between Kilar and Zucker was the climax of a never smooth relationship between the one-time Hulu CEO and the ex-NBCUniversal CEO. “They weren’t fire and ice, they were fire and gasoline,” one CNN insider said of Kilar and Zucker’s interaction since the former took over as the latter’s boss upon being named WarnerMedia CEO in May 2020 by soon-to-be AT&T CEO John Stankey.

Zucker was not pleased at all when a reorganization at WarnerMedia in the early fall of 2020 split who Gollust reported to, insiders tell us. In her marketing role, Gollust still answered directly to the CNN president, but in her communications position, the exec reported to WarnerMedia’s EVP Christy Haubegger. Gollust currently remains in her CNN gig.

Meanwhile, Kilar did discuss the Zucker situation with Stankey in the past 72 hours before calling the CNNer on his departure.

Meanwhile, at even higher levels, there has been a heavy dose of consternation surrounding Zucker’s exit, given the pending Discovery combination with WarnerMedia. Discovery’s largest shareholder, John Malone, a critic of CNN, made it known that corporate procedures had to be followed to the letter in regards to Zucker, we hear. Being that WarnerMedia’s standards of business conduct require disclosure of relationships that develop with a boss and subordinate, Zucker’s goose was officially cooked.

Now Zucker’s exit leaves the man who will lead the new company, David Zaslav, with a network facing a host of challenges without his old friend Zucker to provide institutional memory and guidance.

Zucker’s relationship with Gollust had long been the source of rumor and speculation, what former network figures described as an “open secret” and Katie Couric addressed in her most recent memoir. Then, last month, Radar Online published an item about the “clandestine romance,” describing it as a complication to the legal wrangling with Chris Cuomo’s representatives.

“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 worked with for more than 20 years,” Zucker said in a memo to staffers, sent out around 11 AM ET Wednesday. “I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began, but I didn’t. I was wrong.”

Chris Cuomo John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx

Zucker’s reference to Cuomo quickly triggered speculation that the former CNN anchor, fired in December, was exacting some kind of payback, as he has hired an attorney, Bryan Freedman, to secure the remaining money on his contract. In other words, if Cuomo broke company policy, so did Zucker. CNN’s Brian Stelter even said on the air on Wednesday that a source told him that Cuomo, upset over his treatment, was “trying to burn the place down.”

But according to sources familiar with what happened, an attorney from the law firm CNN and WarnerMedia hired to investigate Zucker, Cravath, Swain & Moore asked Zucker and Gollust about the relationship. Even though both are divorced, the problem was that under company policy, it should have been disclosed a year earlier, according to a source familiar with the matter. The attorney contacted Kilar, telling him that there was a problem with Zucker’s answers, and that was when the West Coast-based WarnerMedia CEO confronted East Coast-set Zucker.

Described as “sprawling” by an individual close to events, the investigation into Chris Cuomo, and his and CNN’s interaction with the ex-host’s brother and now ex-Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo, remains ongoing. However, even though the younger Cuomo hired Hollywood heavyweight lawyer Freedman right after he was pink slipped on December 5 last year, there haven’t been any court filings in the pursuit of an $18 million payout for the former primetime host.

Besides some preliminary chats, what there has been so far is a pretty standard letter from the Freedman & Taitelman LLP attorney asking CNN and WarnerMedia for “preservation of relevant evidence.”

Addressed to WarnerMedia General Counsel & EVP James Meza and CNN General Counsel & EVP David Vigilante, the December 6 dated correspondence does lead with a desire for “routine documents retention” because “Mr. Cuomo is asserting rights that may be relevant to legal proceedings.” The letter seeks all correspondence between Zucker and Chris Cuomo be left undisturbed, along with material from the ex-host’s termination and “investigations of Mr. Cuomo by CNN or a third-party.”

The letter makes no reference or mention of Gollust, but it does scoop up communications between Andrew Cuomo, for whom the CNN EVP briefly worked for, and CNN — including Zucker himself.

The note from Freedman specifically asks for the safeguarding of “documents including correspondence related to any appearances by Andrew Cuomo on CNN.” Such innocuous language could reveal what Chris Cuomo was saying to his brother, who was on CNN frequently during the early months of the pandemic. The request could also open up a potential hornet’s nest of what Zucker and Gollust were saying to the Empire State kingpin and CNN’s coverage of him, which was daily in the Governor’s Covid updates and often fawning in the follow-up.

Besides any future fallout from the messes of the Cuomo brothers, Zucker’s exit comes at an inopportune time for the network – and that may be an understatement. Zucker was preparing for the launch of the subscription streaming service CNN+, while the traditional network has seen a huge viewership drop since the circus of the Trump years. No permanent host has been found for Cuomo’s old time slot.

Most of all is the pending Discovery-WarnerMedia transaction and what will happen to CNN after it closes, expected this spring. David Zaslav, who will lead the combined company, was said to have been looking to Zucker to serve as an adviser, something that was a comfort to the network’s workforce as it would have meant that the ex-CNN leader would continue to play a role in its future.

Kilar had a meeting with CNN staffers in the Washington, D.C., including some of the network’s best known anchors, on Wednesday night, in what one source called “a s—show.” One after another, on air personalities spoke up, some expressing their dismay at how Kilar handled the situation and their loyalty toward Zucker. Kilar “has no understanding of what we do as reporters and journalists” and the attacks that the network has faced in the past five years, the source said. Participants were described as “livid” over what happened, and Jake Tapper asked whether they were giving into Chris Cuomo’s payback. “He threatened, and Jeff said we didn’t negotiate with terrorists, and Chris blew the place up. How do we get past that perception that this is the bad guy winning?” Tapper said, according to leaked audio obtained by Business Insider.

“All I can say is I believe our legacy is what I see on our screens and I don’t believe it’s what is the perception of today,” Kilar answered.

Kaitlan Collins, CNN’s chief White House correspondent, then replied, “I think the issue is that it is not a perception. What Jake just described is actually what happened here.” She added that “it sounds like you didn’t consult any other executives on removing a critical part of the company. That’s the frustration here.”

Now, with Zucker out, there’s been renewed attention on Malone’s statements, specifically his criticism of the network last year and his desire for them to return to a straight news format. Malone, Discovery’s largest shareholder, said that he wanted CNN to return to “the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists.” Staffers obviously are anxious

In response to requests from Deadline on the matter of Zucker’s exit and the circumstances surrounding it, WarnerMedia said tonight that they “are not going to comment further on these matters beyond the statements that were shared.”

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