As the drama surrounding Jeff Zucker, Allison Gollust, and CNN consumed the media industry for a third straight week, I found myself marveling at the paparazzi-like obsession with the couple’s every move. Here, courtesy of The Daily Mail, was Zucker “in a black puffer jacket and jeans” picking up pizza in midtown Manhattan. And here, also from the Mail, was Gollust “in black Louboutin stiletto heels” returning to her Upper East Side apartment. Thanks to The Ankler, there was Zucker breakfasting with his old friend Dick Ebersol at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, “casually dressed in jeans, sneakers and a grey pullover.”
Such tabloid obsessions are usually reserved for A-list actors, Manhattan socialites and the British monarchy, or for the perpetrators of some nefarious scandal or crime, not the recently ousted executives of a cable news network. The photos made it appear like Zucker and Gollust were on the lam, or at least on the verge of getting dragged into court.
In actuality, it is Zucker and Gollust who will decide whether or not they want to take the matter of their forced resignations to court, or at least to arbitration. Sources close to the couple tell me they were denied severance by AT&T and that they are currently in talks with lawyers to assess their options for wrestling a payout from the telecom giant. Zucker’s total annual compensation package at CNN was in the ballpark of $10 million, Gollust’s around $2 million, said sources familiar with those figures. They both feel like they are entitled to some multiple of that, sources close to them said, but they haven’t yet decided whether they have the appetite for a protracted legal battle, and the effect that might have on their reputations and their next professional moves. (My partner Matt Belloni noted last night that Zucker is represented by the fearsome Glaser Weil law firm.)
The strength of any legal challenge would depend on the actual reasons for their termination. And that, of course, is the great, enduring mystery of this whole saga: What exactly did Zucker and Gollust do to get themselves kicked out of the building? At first, it seemed that Zucker’s relationship with a direct report was the issue that CNN was investigating, but this week WarnerMedia C.E.O. Jason Kilar acknowledged that the case had been re-opened. Kilar, who has a preternatural ability to speak in enigmatic platitudes written by the M.B.A. gods, has decided to keep key details a secret, and so the question of what the hell is going on continues to preoccupy the dozens of CNN executives, on-air talent and rank-in-file who I’ve spoken with in recent days.
And perhaps it is that very mystery—the understanding that some misdeed occurred, but zero precise details—that continues to fuel the tabloid obsession that has turned Zucker and Gollust into the amorous co-conspirators of some modern-day Hitchockian thriller.
In his statement earlier this week, Kilar said that Zucker and Gollust had both violated CNN’s “news standards and practices,” meaning that their violations went beyond the failures to disclose their romantic relationship and into matters pertaining to CNN’s journalistic credibility. This week, I learned that Gollust, in particular, was specifically questioned by the investigators about her correspondence with Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his coronavirus briefings, his appearances on his brother Chris Cuomo‘s CNN show, and during the sexual harassment scandal that ultimately led to the governor’s downfall. WarnerMedia sources also said Zucker and Gollust’s correspondence with the governor’s office were a point of inquiry during the investigation. And, indeed, the widespread speculation inside CNN is that the violation of “news standards and practices” had something to do with Gov. Cuomo. (Both WarnerMedia and representatives for Zucker and Gollust declined to comment.)
Now, what might a cable news executive say to a governor that would give the company cause to terminate them? A few CNN insiders I’ve spoken with suspect—but cannot prove—that the violations were indisputable. And indeed, that may be the case. Indeed, the standards guide is summarily vague and, at times, naive about the realities of conducting high-level broadcast journalism. This week, I got my hands on a copy of CNN’s 90-page Standards and Practices Guide. In Section E1: Conflict of Interest & Credibility, for instance, it says that CNN employees are required to comply with all manner of policies, but that “the most important compliance policies are these:
• “CNN employees should avoid any real obligation or appearance of any obligation to any interest that he/she may be covering or reporting on;
• “should avoid conflicts between personal interests and the interest of the Company or even the appearance of such conflicts;
• “should avoid activities that interfere or appear to interfere with his/her objectivity or other activities required by his/her job at CNN;
• “should always act to maintain CNN’s reputation and avoid activities that might reflect adversely on the Company.”
By the letter of CNN’s S&P law, any news executive, P.R. rep, journalist or field producer worth their salt could be fired for cause once their texts and emails were submitted to investigators. The reason they are not is because it is widely understood that maintaining relationships with sources is an instrumental part of the business, and that source-greasing comes with the territory. A lay reader might chafe at this, but if you think executives and journalists at Fox News, MSNBC, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and NPR don’t exchange texts and emails that might, out of context, give the appearance of bias or reflect adversely on the reputation of the company, I have a new cryptocurrency to sell you.
In Zucker’s case, in particular, some of these violations have been public for years. In 2020, Tucker Carlson unearthed audio of a meeting between Zucker and Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen—during the 2016 G.O.P. primary—in which the CNN president floated the idea of giving Trump a weekly CNN show and offered some advice for Trump’s debate prep. If that doesn’t violate at least three of the aforementioned four bullet points, I don’t know what does. So, too, does the decision to put Gov. Cuomo on the air with his brother Chris in the first place, especially during a highly partisan moment in the pandemic. I bring all of this up not to suggest that Zucker and Gollust weren’t guilty of some terrible journalistic malpractice, but rather to point out that, if Kilar or AT&T C.E.O. John Stankey wanted to get rid of the two CNN executives, it wouldn’t take much according to that 90-page Standards and Practices Guide. Indeed, they didn’t even need the investigation.
So, when will we know if Zucker and Gollust’s violations were egregious and indisputable, or just the standard behavior of ambitious, cutthroat television executives? Like so much in this drama, that may come down to Chris Cuomo and his lawyer Bryan Freedman. If Freedman is able to obtain a copy of the Cravath investigation as part of the arbitration process over Cuomo’s severance, the findings may leak. If and when that happens, then everyone at CNN and in the media industry may finally get closure.