The Media Today

Zucker punches out of CNN

February 3, 2022
Photo by: NDZ/STAR MAX/IPx 2019 Jeff Zucker attends CNN Heroes at American Museum of Natural History on December 08, 2019 in New York City.

Yesterday, the long tail of the Andrew Cuomo sexual-harassment probe flicked again and took out Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN. The New York State investigation first brought down Cuomo himself, forcing him to resign as governor last August; a few months later, a delayed document dump from the probe fell on Andrew’s brother, Chris, who was fired from his job as an anchor on CNN after he was shown to have been more active than bosses knew in orchestrating Andrew’s defense. Zucker resigned yesterday after an investigation that CNN established to probe Chris’s role in the Andrew probe (keep up) found that Zucker was in an undisclosed romantic relationship with Allison Gollust, a senior CNN colleague. Gollust once worked briefly as the communications director for (you guessed it) Andrew Cuomo.

In a memo to his stunned colleagues, Zucker said that when the law firm leading CNN’s probe asked him about his relationship, he acknowledged that it had “evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong.” He didn’t name Gollust, but she soon put out a statement of her own. (Zucker and Gollust are both divorced.) “Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over twenty years,” she wrote. “Our relationship changed during COVID.” She will stay on as CNN’s chief marketing officer.

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As news of the relationship broke, some denizens of media Twitter started to see past stories about Zucker and Gollust—a report that the latter was well-placed to succeed the former; Page Six scuttlebutt about a row they had at a party; a suggestive passage from Katie Couric’s recent memoir—in a new light. (The gossip site Radar Online actually published a story about the relationship a month ago.) In many ways, though, the stated reason for Zucker’s exit made very little sense, and speculation—and some reporting—quickly suggested that there was more to the episode than meets the eye. Numerous observers detected the ever-subtle hand of Chris Cuomo behind the scenes: after CNN fired him, Chris demanded that the network pay out the rest of his contract; when it refused, he reportedly threatened to sue. Reporters learned that Chris not only raised Zucker’s relationship with lawyers for WarnerMedia, CNN’s parent company, but requested that it preserve communications between Zucker, Gollust, and Andrew Cuomo for the purposes of potential litigation. Chris denied any role in Zucker’s ouster. Complicating matters further, reports also suggested that Zucker may have lost a bitter internal battle with Jason Kilar, WarnerMedia’s CEO, as the company prepares to merge with Discovery.

Staffers at CNN were among those who were confused. For many of them, “something isn’t adding up,” New York’s Shawn McCreesh reported—not least because “Zucker and Gollust’s relationship was one of the biggest open secrets in media.” Don Lemon told Variety that he was “devastated” by Zucker’s exit; speaking on air, Alisyn Camerota said it “feels wrong” that consenting adults had been punished for a private relationship. Camerota’s colleagues mostly refrained from on-air commentary—covering Zucker’s departure as a news story (if they touched it at all)—but some did raise concerns via anonymously-sourced news reports and at a private meeting with Kilar that, by all accounts, went poorly. (A source told Politico’s Max Tani that the meeting was a “shitshow.”) Top network talent reportedly went to bat for Zucker and questioned Chris Cuomo’s role in his exit. According to the Wall Street Journal, Jake Tapper noted the terrible possible optics: “Jeff said we don’t negotiate with terrorists and Chris blew the place up. How do we get past that perception that this is the bad guy winning?”

On the subject of bad guys winning, many stories about Zucker’s exit mentioned his relationship with another powerful person: Donald Trump. In the early 2000s, when he led entertainment programming at NBC, Zucker oversaw the launch of The Apprentice, which has often been credited with transforming Trump from a failing businessman into a failing businessman with an influential national-media platform. In 2012, as CNN looked for a new leader, Trump publicly urged the network to hire Zucker; in 2015, as Trump began running for president, CNN infamously lavished attention on his rallies, even as other major outlets declined to take him seriously. Zucker and Trump stayed in regular contact throughout the latter’s campaign; in a private call with Michael Cohen, Trump’s since-estranged fixer, that was secretly recorded and later leaked to Fox, Zucker said that the campaign had “great guts” and that he would love to do a weekly TV show with Trump. After Trump won, Zucker got something much richer: a never-ending political psychodrama that juiced CNN’s ratings even as Trump assailed the network as “fake news,” his press secretary revoked the credentials of its White House correspondent (before a court ordered them returned), and a Trump superfan sent a pipe bomb to CNN’s offices. (Trump, inevitably, reveled in Zucker’s ouster yesterday, calling him a “world-class sleazebag.”)

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After Fox aired the Cohen-Zucker call in the runup to the 2020 election, Ben Smith, then the media columnist at the New York Times, asked a range of Zucker associates whether CNN’s recent harsh criticism of Trump reflected a cynical ratings grab or a genuine effort, on Zucker’s part, to curb the monster he Frankensteined into the world. Smith’s sources offered both versions. (“He’s a ratings whore,” one said; he has “a deep sense of citizenship,” said another.) But the answer doesn’t really matter that much. Even if the latter is true, higher ratings did follow. (They’ve dipped since Biden took office, part of a broader news-industry “Trump slump.”) And, while Zucker’s CNN hired some outstanding journalists and did a lot of very worthwhile work, there was much that was overtly cynical about its broader approach to news. Anchors’ constant rage at Trump may have been sincere, but it was also a performance—pro wrestling, with Trump, CNN’s top hosts, and Zucker himself as the Main Eventers. As Jonathan Mahler put it in a highly revealing New York Times Magazine profile of Zucker and Trump in 2017, the pair had “a symbiotic relationship that could only thrive in the world of television, where the borders between news and entertainment, and even fantasy and reality, have grown increasingly murky.”

One of the final programming moves that Zucker would oversee at CNN was the network’s decision to run a special series of nightly programs on “Democracy in Peril”—a means, ironically, of filling Chris Cuomo’s still-vacant 9pm Eastern time slot. Media critics who are often scornful of CNN-style political journalism lavished praise on the show, calling it an appropriately urgent response to the Trump-led war on democracy, but the ratings weren’t great and the series was temporary. On what would prove to be Zucker’s final two nights as CNN’s president, Anderson Cooper stretched his show into Cuomo’s old hour instead; he covered a range of stories, but on both nights, he led the 9pm slot with the insurrection, and Trump’s role in it. Whatever happens next, it is a very safe bet that Trump’s name will feature higher in Zucker’s eventual obituary than those of Andrew or Chris Cuomo. Zucker must hope, now, that his own name doesn’t feature in the obituary of American democracy.

Below, more on Zucker, CNN, and the Cuomos:

  • What’s next: Following Zucker’s ouster, Kilar named three senior staffers—Michael Bass, Amy Entelis, and Ken Jautz—as joint interim co-heads of CNN through the closure of the Discovery merger. “Several observers believe Entelis would be a prime candidate to run the news operation, in large part due to her close ties with many of the anchors and personnel, and because of her oversight of CNN’s push into documentaries, original series and films. But there is also some speculation that she may not want the top role on a long-term basis,” Variety’s Brian Steinberg and Jordan Moreau report. “Bass is a longtime Zucker colleague who runs most of the network’s programming, while Jautz is viewed as essential to CNN’s logistics and operations.”
  • From our public editor: In 2019, CJR appointed “public editors” to serve as external watchdogs for four major news organizations, including CNN; Emily Tamkin initially wrote about the network for us, while Ariana Pekary has done so more recently. After the call with Cohen became public, Pekary wrote, of Zucker, that he “knows he doesn’t score points for upholding the highest ethical standards. He doesn’t make millions for telling viewers things they didn’t already know, or for showing them the world as it is. He doesn’t keep his job, and the power it grants him, by pushing risky, complicated stories. So, as far as we can tell from CNN’s output, he doesn’t do that often.” Weighing in on Zucker’s ouster yesterday, Pekary called the timing “a bit of a head-scratcher,” but argued that “the problems in cable are systemic so a personnel change isn’t tectonic.”
  • Dominos: The Week’s Joel Mathis argues that Zucker’s ouster is an example of the “#MeToo domino theory.” Zucker “fell because Chris Cuomo fell. And Cuomo fell because his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, fell,” Mathis writes. “All three men are responsible for their actions, and all three deserve to face their own, individual accountability. But it’s not a stretch to suggest that Chris Cuomo and Jeff Zucker might still have their jobs today if Andrew Cuomo hadn’t behaved so badly. Once that first domino went down, it was inevitable the others would as well.”
  • Ermmmm: Nicholas Fandos and Dana Rubinstein, of the Times, spoke with ardent supporters of Andrew Cuomo, most of them women, who are defending him online and donating money to his still-active campaign chest despite—or even because of—his fall from grace. “Some hold regular Zoom meetings; others sell Cuomo-related merchandise (T-shirts emblazoned with the word ‘allegedly,’ among other items),” Fandos and Rubinstein write. “Many were impressed by Mr. Cuomo’s daily briefings in the early days of the coronavirus, and by the way he calmly filled a leadership void coming from Washington. Now they have come to his defense, driven by a sense of admiration, injustice and broader concerns that the #MeToo movement has gone too far.”

Other notable stories:

  • On Monday, I wrote about musicians and podcasters pulling their catalogs from Spotify in protest of COVID misinformation on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Since then, the boycott has accelerated: Crosby, Stills, and Nash quit Spotify in solidarity with Young, their bandmate who got the boycott rolling; Roxane Gay and Mary Trump pulled their podcasts from the service and the creators of the Science Vs. podcast said they would only make new episodes that “counteract misinformation being spread on Spotify,” while the singer and podcaster India Arie quit for “reasons OTHER than [Rogan’s] COVID interviews,” citing the way he talks about race. Yesterday, Spotify’s share price fell; weaker-than-expected subscriber numbers were at issue, but Daniel Ek, the CEO, also moved, on an earnings call, to offer reassurances about Spotify’s handling of the Rogan controversy.
  • Also yesterday, the Times announced that it has reached its target of ten million paid subscriptions three years ahead of schedule, and announced that its new goal will be to hit fifteen million subscribers by 2027. The Times was helped over the line by its recent acquisition of The Athletic, a sports site that already had more than a million subscribers when the Times bought it; prior to the acquisition, the paper added nearly four hundred thousand paid subscriptions in the final quarter of last year, more than half of which were for non-news offerings such as Games and Cooking. Meredith Kopit Levien, the CEO, believes that the Times has “at least 135 million” potential subscribers worldwide.
  • The Post’s Paul Farhi reviewed the seating chart for the White House briefing room, which was just rejiggered for the first time since 2017. More seats have now been set aside for religious and Spanish-language broadcasters, outlets that serve Black audiences, and conservative news sites, with the Washington Blade becoming the first LGBTQ outlet with a seat, Farhi reports. Some local papers and a Russian news agency missed out, as did BuzzFeed—but only because it missed the application deadline.
  • In November, Insider’s Julia Black spoke with more than two dozen sources about abusive sexual behavior by Dave Portnoy, the founder of Barstool Sports. Now Black reports, with Melkorka Licea, that three more women have come forward to say that Portnoy filmed them without consent during sex. One of the women says that Portnoy broke one of her ribs; Portnoy’s lawyer demanded that the woman retract her account.
  • Slate launched State of Mind, a new partnership with Arizona State University that will offer “nuanced commentary and reporting that digs deeper into the debates and advancements happening in mental health.” Big news stories about mental health “rarely lead to measurable progress or tangible lessons,” Torie Bosch writes, while “much of the coverage in the general press also perpetuates old myths and misunderstandings.”
  • Nieman Lab’s Hanaa’ Tameez profiles a data-science program at UC Berkeley that pairs students with newsrooms. “The students have worked with media companies on editorial and operational projects,” including a statewide data collaboration on police misconduct. “When newsrooms, especially local ones, are strapped for engineering resources, the Berkeley students fill a gap to help journalists complete more ambitious projects.”
  • Yesterday, a German regulator banned the transmission of the Russian state broadcaster RT’s German-language service, saying that it lacks a broadcast license. RT claimed that the service has a license in Serbia, giving it the right to broadcast in Germany under European law; Russia’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, vowed to retaliate against German media on Russian soil. Sebastien Ash has more details for AFP.
  • On Monday, men who identified themselves as members of the Taliban arrested Waris Hasrat and Aslam Hijab, two journalists with the Afghan broadcaster Ariana News. As the United Nations called on the Taliban to clarify the journalists’ whereabouts, Taliban officials denied having arrested them. Yesterday, they were released. (I wrote about deteriorating press freedom under the Taliban in September, and again two weeks ago.)
  • And Brittany Spanos, a journalist at Rolling Stone, is teaching a class about Taylor Swift at NYU. According to Variety’s Jem Aswad, the class covers “Swift’s evolution as a creative music entrepreneur, the legacy of pop and country songwriters, discourses of youth and girlhood, and the politics of race in contemporary popular music.” Swift “has been invited to speak to class, although the status of that request is still pending.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.