Notes on the Zucker Scandal

Jeff Zucker and Andrew Cuomo
Photo by Brad Barket/Getty
Dylan Byers
February 2, 2022

Things change fast in the media business. As of this morning, I was amassing lines of reporting about the latest upheaval at MSNBC, where Rachel Maddow is going on sabbatical and Joe Scarborough and Mika Brezisnki are actively expanding their horizons with a whole other hour of Morning Joe at 9 a.m. The leitmotif of the storyline was that MSNBC’s executive leadership was imperiled, running out of moves for how to consistently articulate an editorial strategy, and fumbling along while Jeff Zucker, the prodigious programmer, was re-centering his network and building out CNN+.

Then came the news of Zucker’s stunning resignation, itself an epochal event in the media business that scrambled everything. The repercussions from Zucker’s departure will last years and impact networks, streamers, shareholders, former colleagues, friends, gossipmongers, and more. This story is unfolding in very real time, and tonight, I wanted to outline the most immediate contours and consequences, as they are shaping up: how things are playing out internally, what happens next, and the most immediate reverberations.

Zucker’s forced resignation was most upending for the shocked and distraught CNN employees, many of whom had for years demonstrated a near filial loyalty to their network leader. It was also a complexifier for David Zaslav and the Warner Bros. Discovery executive team, who will now inherit a rudderless and scandal-plagued cable news network in his absence. And, of course, it was felt most significantly by Zucker and his top aide, Allison Gollust, who were both poised for elevated roles in Zaslav’s media empire and have instead seen their fortunes reversed after failing to disclose a romantic relationship. 

Zucker resigned today, effective immediately. Gollust says she is staying on in her current role, but several sources in her orbit believe she will leave as early as this month and no later than the close of the WarnerMedia-Discovery merger this spring. (Both Zucker and Gollust declined to comment, and referred all inquiries to crisis communications veteran Risa Heller.)

Zucker’s downfall has, of course, its own Shakespearean elements. The brash and beloved media executive has survived a fall from grace at NBCUniversal, an attempted ouster at CNN, two bouts with colon cancer, open heart surgery, and the ire of Donald Trump. Now, the actions behind his resignation were triggered, at least in part, by a lawsuit kicked up by CNN’s former top-rated anchor, Chris Cuomo, whom Zucker fired in December after it came to light that he’d been inappropriately consulting his brother, Andrew Cuomo, to combat his sexual harassment scandals. 

Cuomo was fired for cause, without severance. And this infuriated him. Shortly after his ouster, Cuomo contacted former friends at the network and drew attention to a relationship between Gollust and Zucker, according to people familiar with the correspondence. He also hired Bryan Freedman, the elite litigator who had represented Megyn Kelly in her departure from NBC and Mike Richards post-Jeopardy!, which signaled that Cuomo wasn’t going away without being paid. CNN’s internal investigation into his departure inevitably led to the discovery of the Zucker-Gollust relationship, which defied Warner Media employee policy, and led to his ouster. (Cuomo’s lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.)

Zucker’s violation was subsequently brought to the outgoing C.E.O. of Warner Media, Jason Kilar, with whom he had a frosty relationship during their brief time working together. After Kilar knee-capped Zucker with a very public, and perhaps humiliating re-organization of his ranks, which included Gollust, Zucker routinely mocked and criticized Kilar in private conversations, sources close to the CNN chief said. Publicly, Zucker wondered aloud whether he would stay on past his contract at the network. Zucker’s open Hamletizing was widely interpreted as an attempt to undermine Kilar, who would eventually become collateral damage after the close of the Discovery acquisition of the Warner Media assets engineered by Zaslav, Zucker’s close friend and golfing buddy. 

Kilar, in turn, brought Zucker’s violation of company policy to the attention of John Stankey, the C.E.O. of AT&T, which still owns the Warner Media assets. No matter what he thought of Zucker or Kilar, Stankey surely had no appetite for tolerating any scandal that might scuttle the impending WarnerMedia-Discovery deal. And so in the end, now both Kilar and Zucker will soon be in search of new jobs.

During the course of the day, Zucker’s former colleagues reacted to the news of his departure in real time, on-air. The vibe oscillated, at times, from state TV to a media wake. “It’s so regrettable how it happened,” Alisyn Camerota, one of the many CNN on-air talents who are fiercely loyal to Zucker, said during a segment this afternoon. “These are two consenting adults who are both executives. That they can’t have a private relationship—this feels wrong.” As one CNN executive put it to me off air: “there are a lot of people at CNN who are pissed off at Chris Cuomo and Jason Kilar right now.”

After all, Zucker was more than the head of CNN: he was, in meaningful ways, its top talent scout, lead programmer, and executive producer. He wasn’t above nitpicking the copy on chyrons or offering unsolicited show notes. He was also responsible for bringing in stars like Jake Tapper; promoting stars like Don Lemon (and, for a time, Cuomo, a real home-grown talent who had been elevated from the morning show, New Day, before his ouster); and moving the network past its somnolent, embarrassing Jon Klein era when the likes of Piers Morgan and Eliot Spitzer ignominiously roamed its airwaves. 

And most recently, Zucker had made the dicey, seemingly short-sighted decision to, first, cover Trump like a credible candidate; second, cover the president with the fervor of the #resistance movement; and third, pivot the network back to the middle—replete with schlocky, self-aggrandizing ProPublica-style ad campaigns—as if nothing had ever happened. Zucker pulled it all off with great artistry. But perhaps more importantly, he was able to ingratiate himself with his stars and rank-and-file, alike, by ostensibly protecting them from the bean counters in Dallas. The Zaslav-led Discovery merger, which wrestled CNN away from AT&T, seemed somewhat like a triumph of the creatives against the telecom guys, which never would have occurred without Zucker’s chutzpah. 

Under Zucker, CNN talent and executives felt like they had someone looking out for them. This mattered more than ever in the past twelve months, as CNN’s ratings declined significantly. Now, many will rightly fear that their salaries and pay packages will be scrutinized by Warner Bros. Discovery finance teams once the deal closes. The hollowing out occurring at MSNBC, with the aforementioned exception of Joe and Mika, will likely come to CNN, too, almost certainly accelerating the buildout of its streaming progeny, CNN+.

Soon after the news broke, media people began fervently emailing and texting, with some wondering what had been the big deal. Zucker and Gollust had been publicly close for years, and many wondered if they’d ever been romantic, especially after their marriages ended. But I will freely admit that my best sources in Zucker’s orbit have resoundingly told me for years that the two were never more than close confidantes and work spouses. They may have seemed chummy at professional events, but it was never romantic. And I believe these people at their word. Zucker said today that the relationship only evolved to a romance during Covid. 

Assuming that this is the extent of Zucker’s workplace policy disobedience, the conversation among media people immediately and prematurely pivoted to what he might do next. Does he have a third act? “He will definitely re-emerge. He will just have a different business card,” Jay Sures, a close friend of Zucker’s and the co-president of United Talent Agency, which represents many of CNN’s most notable names, told me this afternoon. It’s too early to speculate what shape that post-CNN gig might take. But Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs’ Blackstone-backed post-Disney production company SPAC certainly suggests one avenue available.

Meanwhile, the more important question is who leads CNN amid this era of unprecedented transformation. Kilar has appointed Zucker lieutenants Michael Bass, Ken Jautz, and Amy Entellis to serve as interim leaders through the close of the WarnerMedia-Discovery merger. Those three will steady the ship in the months ahead, but few insiders see any of them as capable of filling Zucker’s shoes. So Zaslav is likely to look further afield for better options after the deal closes.

Who might that be? As I’ve written before, the list of people who are capable of running a major television news organization like CNN—of overseeing major breaking news events and managing an industry of big egos—is very short and mostly made up of the individuals who already have experience in similar jobs. Nearly a year ago, I reported that Zucker’s preferred candidate for the position was none other than Gollust, herself. As someone who was often in the room with him, she had a front-row seat to every decision he made and an intimate knowledge of what it took to run CNN. She also had relationships with the talent, which can’t be overstated in this business. Of course, that promotion now seems implausible. 

While casting about for other hypothetical replacements, some in Zucker’s orbit floated the idea that Sures himself could be a candidate, given that he has closer relationships with CNN talent than anyone besides Zucker and Gollust. In an increasingly talent-first world, former CAA agent Leon Rose took over the front office of the New York Knicks. But an underachieving NBA organization isn’t a globally credible news organization. The notion of a talent agency chief becoming the head of a cable news network sounds far-fetched.

The most screwball theory that I’ve heard comes from some CNN insiders, and it perhaps best illuminates the agony descending on the place. This theory suggests that Zaslav brings back Zucker and Gollust to CNN after the WarnerMedia-Discovery merger closes. It’s absurdly unimaginable, but it also represents the wishful thinking taking place right now. The fact that some CNN insiders want this to happen tells you a lot about just how much love there is for Zucker inside that building, and how much fear there is about what happens next. 

For his part, though, Kilar realizes the quagmire. Today he flew to New York to address staff at CNN headquarters. This evening he flew to the Washington D.C. bureau to address the newsroom there. Will it be enough to quell the uncertainty?