The Zucker mess was always about CNN’s journalism

Last night, the New York Times dropped a story with five star bylines (plus a notable contributor credit) and more than thirty sources laying out what we know about the mess at CNN two weeks after Jeff Zucker, its president, resigned, ostensibly because he failed to disclose a romantic relationship with Allison Gollust, a senior colleague, in violation of workplace rules. As I wrote the next day, the stated explanation for his ouster didn’t make complete sense and the circumstances surrounding it were murky, though they seemed to have something to do with three interlinked factors: personal acrimony between Zucker and Jason Kilar, the CEO of CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia; WarnerMedia’s impending merger with Discovery; and, principally, blowback from Zucker’s firing last year of Chris Cuomo, a CNN anchor, following troubling revelations about the depth of his involvement in an effort to clear his brother, Andrew, the now-former governor of New York, of allegations of sexual misconduct.

The Times’s story touched on all three points, as well as on the nexus between the Cuomos, Zucker, and Gollust, who once worked as Andrew Cuomo’s communications director. (He reportedly decided to hire her after a clambake party she organized on his behalf was a roaring success.) The story also dropped a new bombshell about Chris Cuomo. The Times already reported that in December, the day after CNN suspended Chris over his Andrew advocacy, Debra Katz, a prominent attorney, contacted the network on behalf of a woman who alleges that Chris sexually mistreated her when they worked together at ABC News, and had decided to come forward because she was “disgusted” by Chris’s recent on-air insistence (in the context of the Andrew allegations) that he cares “profoundly” about sexual misconduct. At the time, it wasn’t clear what role this allegation had played in Chris’s firing several days later. Now the Times reports that CNN’s law firm was already probing previous misconduct allegations against Chris by the time Katz contacted the network. The paper also learned more about the ABC colleague’s allegations. She claimed that in 2011, Chris invited her to his office for lunch but instead “badgered her” for sex, and assaulted her when she said no. She also claimed that years later—with the #MeToo reckoning bringing down high-profile people, including several TV news stars—Chris reached out to propose a “flattering” CNN segment on her current employer, which she interpreted as a gambit to stop her from speaking out. The woman kept her distance. CNN ran the segment anyway. (Chris has denied wrongdoing.)

Related: Chris Cuomo, suspended from Prime Time

According to the Times, Chris thinks that Zucker fired him because he feared these allegations coming out in the press; either way, the firing set in motion a scorched-earth legal fight that would eventually rope in Zucker, Gollust, and their relationship, and lead to Zucker’s exit. It would also, it turns out, lead to Gollust’s exit. Last night, shortly after the Times published its story, Kilar wrote in a memo that she, too, would be resigning after the network’s probe of the Cuomo incident concluded that Chris, Zucker, and Gollust all violated network rules—not just around romantic disclosures, but around CNN’s newsgathering standards, too. “I realize this news is troubling, disappointing and, frankly, painful to read,” Kilar wrote. Gollust soon hit back in a memo of her own, calling Kilar’s statement “an attempt to retaliate against me and change the media narrative in the wake of [WarnerMedia’s] disastrous handling of the last two weeks.” It is “deeply disappointing,” she added, “that after spending the past nine years defending and upholding CNN’s highest standards of journalistic integrity, I would be treated this way as I leave.”

Kilar didn’t specify what Zucker and Gollust had done to violate CNN’s news standards, but ever since Zucker’s departure, speculation has swelled on that front. The day after his ouster, Tatiana Siegel reported, for Rolling Stone, that Zucker and Gollust may themselves have advised Andrew Cuomo on his COVID messaging at the start of the pandemic and booked him to come on the network exclusively, to be interviewed by Chris; the New York Post heard similar, reporting that Zucker and Gollust “coached” Andrew on how to make his widely-watched COVID briefings “more compelling TV.” A “media insider” pushed back on this claim, telling the Post that the Cuomos are “desperate, isolated, and clearly up to their old tricks anonymously smearing their enemies in the press”; Zucker has since denied the claim. The Times reported yesterday that the “coaching” line reached reporters via Chris’s camp. Separately, Chris has insisted publicly that Zucker and Gollust were “not only entirely aware but fully supportive” of his subsequent Andrew advocacy. Yesterday, Chris took a victory lap after Kilar’s memo came out. “It is clear,” a spokesperson said, that “this was never about an undisclosed relationship.”

While all this was going on, we heard a lot about senior CNN journalists expressing their sadness at Zucker’s exit, often in terms typically reserved for a death in the family; network stars ardently eulogized Zucker in public, while privately grilling Kilar in a series of tense calls that leaked to the press—arguing that punishing a consensual relationship seemed excessive, floating alternative explanations for his exit (including animus between Zucker and Kilar), and expressing frustration when Kilar failed to offer clear answers. (According to Vanity Fair, Jamie Gangel, a senior CNN correspondent, claimed that four members of Congress told her that Zucker’s ouster made them feel “devastated for our democracy.”) This quickly grew tiresome, both to outside media-watchers and, also according to Vanity Fair, more junior staffers at CNN who were even more in the dark as to what had just happened. (One referred to star colleagues as “high-paid narcissists.”) The Hollywood Reporter’s Kim Masters decried the distraught internal reaction as unjournalistic, arguing that top CNN reporters should retain a sense of skepticism around Zucker’s conduct and his claims about it, in case another shoe were to drop. Meanwhile, a similarly tedious debate raged as to whether Zucker’s CNN did real journalism at all. John Malone, a key Discovery shareholder, has suggested publicly that it didn’t. Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, was among those to strongly push back.

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CNN staffers at every level are clearly justified in their frustration with the lack of clear answers; there’s still a lot about Zucker’s and Gollust’s exits that we don’t know, even though another shoe has now dropped. It’s also clear that we’re dealing with a minefield, here, of utterly poisonous briefing and counter-briefing, with business and personal considerations thrown into the mix. Still, we should be clear that this story, despite its myriad complications, was always, at root, about CNN’s journalism. The network is a big place—it’s on literally all the time—and so it can be true to say both that it has a large newsgathering operation that does impressive work and also that it devotes a lot of airtime to bluster and useless punditry. (Emily Tamkin, CJR’s former public editor for CNN, captured this duality well in a 2019 column for us.)

Behind it all, though, was Zucker’s breathless, ratings-driven, news-as-sports vision, and Chris Cuomo’s grossly unethical softball interviews with his brother at the start of the pandemic—an essential prelude to, and driver of, the current mess—were a paradigmatic example of this. The full extent of Zucker and Gollust’s complicity here is important to confirm, but doing so shouldn’t change the fundamental calculus; we saw the interviews with our own eyes, and have long known about the sordid favors that Chris and Andrew were doing for each other off-screen, too. At the time, Zucker raved to Ben Smith, of the Times, that the interviews offered “authenticity and relatability and vulnerability.” The latter standards apply to entertainment more than news.

Yesterday’s Times story, taken together with Kilar’s memo and its reference to news standards, reminds us of the centrality of journalism here, amid all the Succession-style intrigue. The notable contributor credit on the Times piece belonged to Smith, his final contribution to the paper that he recently left in order to start a new venture. Online, he drew attention to the part of the story about the segment that CNN ran on the employer of Chris’s accuser, allegedly as a self-preservation strategy on his part. “This is by far the most serious allegation made against anyone in the whole CNN saga,” Smith noted. “It’s the one that alleges the reporting was corrupted.”

Below, more on the CNN saga:

  • A “very strong leader”: While official word from the top of WarnerMedia; its current owner, AT&T; and its soon-to-be merger partner, Discovery, has been scarce since Zucker resigned, John Stankey, AT&T’s CEO, and David Zaslav, who holds the same role at Discovery (and has historically been close to Zucker), did address the news in a joint appearance on CNBC. Stankey said that Zucker was “a very strong leader at CNN, but there’s a lot of people at CNN who make that success possible.” Zaslav, meanwhile, denied that Malone’s critical comments about the quality of CNN’s journalism played a role in Zucker’s exit pre-merger. “None of us had anything to do with it,” Zaslav said.
  • A “masterful morning show”: Last week, S. Mitra Kalita, who worked at CNN before going on to found URL Media, a network of Black and Brown media organizations, wrote for Time magazine that Zucker “was a master of messaging and of management” internally who ran an effective morning meeting on weekdays. “I have worked in at least a dozen newsrooms that have some version of that morning news huddle,” Kalita wrote. “None matched the energy of what I saw at CNN, balancing the delivery of information, priorities, vulnerability, openness, and a willingness to change with the story, or with the times.” Zucker “produced the meeting as though it was a show,” Kalita adds.
  • A “brilliant mistake”: For the Times, Elizabeth Spiers writes that while the stated, workplace-relationship reason for Zucker’s exit was “completely appropriate,” she has “little room to judge him” since she met her now-husband when she was his boss at the New York Observer. “It seems Mr. Zucker, unlike me, didn’t report his relationship immediately, but the open secret of his flouting of the rules was tolerated,” Spiers writes. “By showing that the rules don’t apply to those with power, he sent the message that lines could be crossed, at the expense of more vulnerable people in the company.”


Other notable stories:

  • The Philadelphia Inquirer published a deep dive on its history of complicity in systemic racism, part of a wider project examining the phenomenon’s roots in institutions founded in the city. The article was written by Wesley Lowery and edited by Errin Haines, both of whom are independent of the paper’s newsroom. “Much like the democracy born in this city,” Lowery writes, the Inquirer “has failed to fulfill the ideals of its founding. Rather than being an ‘inquirer for all,’ as its motto proudly claims, the paper has for the whole of its history been written largely for and by white Philadelphians, and largely at the expense of the Black residents who currently constitute a plurality of the city. The paper, of course, is not alone in its history. Its story is that of the modern American newspaper.”
  • On Monday, the judge in Sarah Palin’s libel trial against the Times said that he would dismiss the case on the grounds that Palin had failed to prove that the paper defamed her with “actual malice,” but also said that he would allow the jury to go ahead and reach a verdict so that an appeals court might be able to consider it. Yesterday, the jury agreed with the judge, concluding unanimously that the Times was not liable. Palin’s “was the first defamation case against the paper to reach a jury trial in 18 years,” CJR’s Caleb Pershan writes from the courthouse. James Bennet, the former Times opinion editor whose language was at issue in the case, “appeared relieved but declined to comment.”
  • In recent days, right-wing media has hyperventilated over a court filing by John Durham, the special counsel who is (still) investigating the Trump-Russia investigators, falsely citing it as proof that Democrats spied on Trump. The narrative is mostly “wrong or old news—the latest example of the challenge created by a barrage of similar conspiracy theories,” Charlie Savage writes, for the Times. Such claims “tend to involve dense and obscure issues, so dissecting them requires asking readers to expend significant mental energy and time—raising the question of whether news outlets should even cover” them.
  • Politico’s Olivia Beavers explores the media strategy of Rep. Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking House Republican who once had a reputation as a moderate but has since positioned herself as a staunch Trump ally. In her role overseeing messaging for the House Republican conference, Stefanik has encouraged colleagues to prioritize talking to right-wing media and has herself hosted “multiple events and press calls over the past few months that have cherry-picked attendance lists,” shutting out mainstream outlets.
  • Also for Politico, Alex Thompson and Max Tani investigated a flurry of tips that major outlets received linking Jovanni Ortiz, a staffer in the public-safety department at Hofstra University, with a senior comms job in Vice President Kamala Harris’s office. The Hill and other outlets ran stories based on the tip, but Harris’s office denied it—and Politico reports that emails touting it were sent to journalists by four people who may not exist.
  • The Associated Press outlined plans to expand its climate coverage, pledging to hire around twenty journalists to focus on the climate crisis and its intersection with other beats in the US, Brazil, India, and Africa. The expansion is being backed by millions of dollars in philanthropic funding, including from a foundation run by James and Kathryn Murdoch. (ICYMI, the Washington Post recently announced an expansion of its climate desk, too.)
  • This week, a judge sided with Lee Enterprises, a newspaper chain, in its deepening legal battle with Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that is attempting a hostile takeover of the company. Alden claimed that Lee violated its bylaws when it quashed Alden’s efforts to name directors to Lee’s board, but the judge ruled that Lee acted properly. The ruling clears a path for Lee’s favored board candidates, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds writes.
  • P.J. O’Rourke, the prolific conservative satirist and writer, has died. He was seventy-four. “Mr. O’Rourke’s political writing was in the caustic tradition of H.L. Mencken,” Neil Genzlinger writes, in an obituary for the Times. “As writers and commentators go, he was something of a celebrity, welcome on talk shows of almost any political bent and known for appearances on NPR’s comedy quiz show Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me.”
  • And Wordlers (?) were up in arms yesterday after the version of the popular word game that is hosted by the Times diverged, for the first time, from the original version of the game as established by its creator. (The Times acquired Wordle last month, because of course it did.) A spokesperson confirmed that the Times has started to remove “obscure” and “offensive” words from the game. James Vincent has more for The Verge.

ICYMI: The New York Times wins case against Sarah Palin. Twice.

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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.

TOP IMAGE: 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.