Inside the CNN Newsroom’s Clash with Jason Kilar

Jason Kilar
Photo by Dominik Bindl/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
February 3, 2022

Just after 7 p.m. ET last night, WarnerMedia C.E.O. Jason Kilar stepped into CNN’s Washington D.C. bureau along with CNN’s newly named interim leaders Michael Bass, Amy Entelis, and Ken Jautz, and did his level best to explain to staff why he had taken the dramatic step of forcing the beloved president of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker, to resign over his failure to disclose a consensual relationship with his top aide, Allison Gollust.

It did not go well. The meeting, which I obtained a recording of last night, highlights the profound sense of loyalty that CNN’s on-air talent have toward their longtime leader, despite his violation of company policy, and the anger they feel regarding the circumstances of his sudden defenestration. In the course of a more than hour-long Q&A session, three things became clear: CNN’s top staff believe that Zucker’s punishment was unnecessary; they are dubious about Kilar’s motives for the decision (and wonder if his own fraught relationship with Zucker played a role); and they are at a loss to understand how the network will function in the absence of a leader who was intimately involved in nearly every aspect of the network’s programming.

In his opening remarks, Kilar said it was a “heavy,” “sad,” “awful” and “devastating” day for the network, and sought to cast himself as an ally of Zucker whose relationship with the CNN chief dated back fifteen years to the days when Zucker was running NBCUniversal and Kilar was the founding chief executive of Hulu. That claim belies the truth: As I reported yesterday, Zucker and Kilar have been at odds with one another since Kilar was appointed C.E.O. of WarnerMedia in April 2020, and both have repeatedly tried to undermine one another over the last two years.

Kilar then turned his attention to CNN’s future: He said that in the decades ahead, CNN+, the network’s soon-to-launch streaming service, would account for the majority of the network’s business. He cited The New York Times as a model for how to reinvent a media business for the digital age. And he stressed that nothing about CNN’s mission would change in light of Zucker’s ouster. He also asked employees to continue to keep their “grace and composure” as they dealt with their personal feelings. 

Unsurprisingly, none of that was of interest to many of the CNN employees. “For a lot of us, the feeling is that, for Jeff, the punishment didn’t fit the crime,” Dana Bash, CNN’s chief political correspondent, told Kilar during the group meeting. “There are so many people who work here and got a second chance, because that’s what Jeff believed in, and… it feels like he didn’t get that chance.”

Gloria Borger, the network’s chief political analyst, wondered why the decision seemed to have been made so suddenly. “Why was it handled this way?,” she asked. “If you can’t tell us why you made the decision… why was it handled, so—I think it’s without a lot of dignity. I mean, Jeff just kind of disappeared. There wasn’t a graceful exit. There was just a sudden exit. Can you explain that?”

More pile on: “What was the business case for making this decision now, especially considering that we’re heading toward this launch [of CNN+]?” asked Kasie Hunt, an anchor for the network’s streaming service, and a recent Zucker recruit from MSNBC. “Now, every story that gets written about us is going to be this.”

Kilar is not new to controversy. The Zucker crisis will bookend a relatively brief tenure atop WarnerMedia that was punctuated at its start by his decision to release Warner Bros.’ 2021 movie slate on HBO Max on the date of their theatrical release. It was a move made to minimize the negative impact of the pandemic—and, in the end, perhaps the right call—but it lost him enormous credibility with the broader talent community. He appears to have approached the Zucker situation with a similar single-mindedness. In response to all these questions, Kilar declined to offer a comprehensive rationale for his decision, but said, “I feel comfortable in my decision. I do. … When all things are taken into account, I feel very comfortable with the decision that was made.” 

Kilar also stressed the importance of “our values, our principles, what we stand for as a company,” and while he acknowledged that there were other ways Zucker’s violation could have been handled, the most important thing for WarnerMedia leadership was to adhere to “first principles.”

“I felt that this was the right course of action, full stop,” Kilar said. “I commit to you that this was carefully thought through in terms of every scenario and every possibility, and in the end this is the decision that I came to, and I am comfortable with this decision.”

Then things became more confrontational: “Did your personal feelings at all, or any past conflict you’ve had with Jeff, play into this at all?” weekend anchor Pamela Brown asked. “No,” Kilar said. “My relationship with Jeff goes back to 2007, in terms of the birth of Hulu. We have had so many amazing moments in terms of our relationship dating back to 2007. … My role… is to make sure that the process that is followed—the facts are the facts are the facts. … The vast majority of this has been handled by an outside law firm… that’s the way the majority of this was handled.”

Enter Kaitlan Collins, CNN’s chief White House correspondent: “Thanks, Jason. I’m Kaitlan Collins, I actually don’t think we’ve met before. Based on that, did the outside firm recommend that you fire Jeff?”

Kilar: “So I’m not going to go into the details of the interchange between the outside firm and the body of their work that was shared with us.”

Collins: “Were you aware of Jeff and Allison’s relationship before this?”

Kilar: “No, I was not aware of their relationship before this.”

Collins: “And when did you become aware?”

Kilar: “Again, out of respect for this process, I am absolutely not going to answer that line of questioning.”

Collins: “Of when you became aware?”

Kilar: “Of when I became aware, that’s right.”

Collins: “Ok, I don’t really see how that pertains to Jeff. But my other question would be, given that it’s been reported that you’re said to be negotiating your exit from the company after the merger goes through: did you consult with other executives before you made this decision?”

Kilar: “There is a group of folks that you would expect to be involved in this from a legal standpoint and an H.R. standpoint.”

Collins: “But did you consult with other executives, maybe the ones who have taken over for Jeff on an interim basis, about this decision and the effect that it would have on the company?”

Kilar: “I am not going to answer that question.”

Collins: “Does that mean, ‘No’?”

Kilar: “I am not going to answer the question.”

Moments later, CNN’s lead Washington anchor, Jake Tapper, addressed the elephant in the room: the lawsuit that CNN’s disgraced former anchor Chris Cuomo had brought against the network in an effort to get the severance that Zucker had denied him when he was fired in December. As I noted yesterday, that lawsuit is what prompted investigators to ask Zucker and Gollust about their relationship in the first place, and there is a strong belief among Zucker’s inner circle, though still unfounded, that Cuomo and his lawyers pushed for investigators to look into the relationship. (Bryan Freedman, a lawyer for Cuomo, declined to comment.)

Tapper: “Jason, if you could address the perception that Chris Cuomo gets fired by CNN, Chris Cuomo hires a high-powered lawyer who has a scorched-earth policy, who then makes it very clear to the world that unless Jeff gives Chris Cuomo his money, they’re going to blow the place up. Stuff starts getting leaked to gossip websites about Jeff and Allison… and then weeks later, Jeff comes forward, discloses this and resigns—not willingly. An outside observer might say, ‘Wow, it looks like Chris Cuomo succeeded. He threatened, Jeff said we don’t negotiate with terrorists, and he blew the place up.’ How do we get past that perception, that this is the bad guy winning?”

Kilar: “When it comes to perception, all I can offer you, Jake, is: every minute of every day we’ve got what’s on the screens [of CNN]. I believe that’s what’s going to define us going forward, far more than what’s happened today and what you alluded to. I know that answer doesn’t sit well with a lot of people in this room, but I believe it to be the case. We are here for a 24-7 news service that is vital to our society. I think that’s our legacy. I do not think today is our legacy…. All I can say is I believe our legacy is what we do on our screens, and I don’t think it’s the perception of today.”

Collins then followed up. “I think the issue is that it’s not a perception. What Jake just described is actually what happened here,” she said. “Chris Cuomo is a man scorned because he was fired for being held accountable for his actions, and Jeff is part of the result of this. And it sounds like you didn’t consult any other executives on removing a critical part of the company, and I think that’s the frustration here. Talking about what we do every day, Jeff is a very critical part of that. If you listen to the 9 a.m. calls, if you talk to anybody in this room, producers, people in the control room, that’s how they feel.”

Kilar: “Which I appreciate. And when it comes to handling H.R. matters, you’re absolutely right that I tend not to canvas a large group. I don’t. … And while you don’t have visibility into it, the process that has been followed, the amount of time and energy and empathy that has been put toward this topic, I feel that appropriate decisions were made with careful, careful consideration.”

Finally, CNN’s chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, turned his attention to the most pressing question for CNN journalists and producers in terms of their day-to-day jobs: “We have a war brewing in Europe, and we have midterm elections coming up, and of course Jeff was involved in a whole host of decisions… so, starting tomorrow, where are we going to get that direction?”

CNN’s interim leaders took the floor. “Jeff is the most impactful, successful executive in CNN’s history,” Ken Jautz, CNN’s executive vice president for business affairs, said. “After Ted Turner, Jeff had more impact on this place than anybody. … But it isn’t like we weren’t involved. … So I guess my point is continuity: We know what Jeff’s strategy has been … and we don’t have any wish to change anything … our mission is one of continuity.”

“You can’t replace Jeff, it’s not possible, no one could,” said Michael Bass, the executive vice president of programming. “If you do have that question that you want to ask, you can call me and I will do my best to answer. Again, it’s not going to be Jeff on the other end of the phone. But he and I have spent a lot of time together. The way I’ve always looked at filling in for Jeff is trying to honor him by doing the best that I could with what he would want. And, to me, as difficult and hard as this is, I feel like I’m filling in for him once again, along with Amy and Ken. … Because that’s what Jeff would want me to do and all of us to do, is to continue to do what he demanded of us every single day.”

“Again, you can’t replace Jeff,” Bass continued. “But we’re going to do our damndest to honor the legacy that he built and continue his mission.”