Is There Another Zucker Shoe?

Jeff Zucker
Photo: Bill O'Leary via Getty Images
Dylan Byers
February 3, 2022

In the last 48 hours, WarnerMedia C.E.O. Jason Kilar has traveled to New York, Washington and Atlanta to try to quell the anger among CNN staff who are fiercely loyal to Jeff Zucker, their now-former president, and dubious about Kilar’s motives for Zucker’s abrupt and merciless ouster. Their unyielding sympathy for a man who admittedly violated company policy by failing to disclose a romance with his comms chief Allison Gollust has raised some eyebrows in media circles, but it’s indicative of an undeniable truth at CNN: whatever his flaws, successes, and failures, Zucker had earned a Confucian-level filial piety from those whose careers he had helped to create and cultivate.

In any case, Kilar’s effort was futile. His meeting in Washington devolved into insinuations that he was exacting revenge on Zucker for whatever hand the CNN chief may have had in the WarnerMedia-Discovery merger, which will almost certainly result in Kilar’s departure from the company once that deal closes. Throughout today, dozens of CNN executives, on-air talent and off-air insiders reached out to me to echo the sentiment put forth by Dana Bash in last night’s meeting in D.C.: “For a lot of us, the feeling is that, for Jeff, the punishment didn’t fit the crime.”

Pressed for more details on the cause for Zucker’s ouster, Kilar naively asked CNN staff to simply trust his decision. And so in lieu of more details, many CNN insiders—and media insiders, generally—have become consumed by a question: Is there another shoe to drop? Is Zucker guilty of some other crime more befitting of the punishment—and one that, for whatever reason, Kilar does not want to disclose? If so, does that crime involve some coziness between Zucker and Gollust and former Gov. Andrew Cuomo? Gollust was a former aide to the governor, after all. Was there evidence, perhaps, that Zucker and Gollust had advised him in ways that might be inappropriate for executives at a journalistic institution, similar to how Chris Cuomo advised his brother?

These theories gained momentum today when Rolling Stone reported that the Cravath-led investigation into Chris Cuomo’s activity, which unearthed Zucker’s failure to disclose his romantic relationship and led to his ouster, had now broadened in scope to “include Zucker and Gollust’s relationship with Andrew Cuomo, too.” The Rolling Stone report is incorrect in at least one regard: As Kilar told CNN staff last night, and as representatives for both WarnerMedia and Zucker told me today, the Cravath-led investigation has closed. “The investigation is complete,” Kilar told CNN staff in Washington. WarnerMedia comms chief Christy Haubegger confirmed that sentiment today by referring me to Kilar’s statement., Meanwhile, Zucker representative Risa Heller said in her own statement, “The article is false. Jeff resigned due to an undisclosed personal relationship. WarnerMedia confirmed that it considers the matter of his resignation closed.”

Now, does the close of the investigation mean that Zucker wasn’t guilty of some greater impropriety, perhaps one involving a too-chummy relationship with the now-former governor? Not necessarily. What it does mean, however, is that WarnerMedia isn’t looking into that matter anymore, if it ever was, because the investigation is over. So, at the very least, they aren’t dropping another shoe. And that, perhaps, is the most salient point right now: WarnerMedia is officially through with the Zucker matter. He has been forced to resign—without severance, as Rolling Stone accurately reported, and I confirmed—and you can’t force someone to resign twice. If you get Al Capone on tax evasion, the thinking goes, you don’t need to get him on graver crimes.

None of this is likely to quell the speculation about whether there was some conspiracy behind Zucker’s ouster. And indeed, someone else may drop another shoe. But until any hard evidence of greater impropriety emerges, it’s worth noting that the existing explanation for Zucker’s ouster, which I offered earlier this week, is plausible enough: During an internal investigation into the Cuomo matter, it was revealed, perhaps with some indirect assistance from Cuomo and his lawyers, that Zucker himself had violated company policy. This was brought to the attention of Kilar, who a) had butted heads with Zucker for years and had no reason to be sympathetic to him, and b) is likely to leave his job at WarnerMedia anyway. 

Kilar, in turn, brought the matter to the attention of AT&T C.E.O. John Stankey, who has exactly one priority when it comes to WarnerMedia: ensuring a smooth transition of the asset to Discovery chief executive David Zaslav, preferably scandal-free. And when did Zaslav, a longtime Zucker friend, learn about the steepening crisis? “Sources familiar with his thinking” tell CNBC he learned about it just “hours” before Zucker told CNN staff. Hours can mean 24, 48, 72, 96—whatever the case, it’s an important line to put out there for regulators who forbid Zaslav from having any involvement with WarnerMedia decisions until the deal closes.

This is by no means the sexiest or most salacious explanation—though, as I’ve written, it has plenty of Shakespearean-level drama—but it may be the right one. Or, it may not be. But until someone can put some hard evidence behind all the various theories floating around out there right now, it’s arguably the only responsible one to report. 

Meanwhile, as the shock of the news begins to fade, a few other observations are surfacing from my reporting. Inside CNN, shock is turning to fear as many come to terms with the reality of Zucker’s departure. The reason is generally two-fold. Zucker was immensely involved in talent and production, which made him more approachable than most top media executives. Secondly, his aptitude for the television arts, if not the ratings game, was unparalleled. At CNN, he was at once the coach, the star player, and the cornerman of the top talent. They followed his decisions wisely or not in and out of the Trump years with a Dead Poets Society level of dedication. Not only are many rudderless without him; they are legitimately concerned that his talent can’t be replicated and that their careers will suffer for it.