There was shock and dismay at CNN on Wednesday morning when an email from CNN president Jeff Zucker landed in employees’ inboxes announcing his immediate resignation from the company for failing to disclose his relationship with Allison Gollust, CNN executive vice president and chief marketing officer, and a direct report.
The shock was not over news of the relationship. That has been an open secret at CNN, and admittedly gossipy New York media circles, for years. And reporters at several outlets had looked into the rumors of the relationship. Rather it was that the disclosure resulted in the dislodging of one of the most well-known media executives in the industry at a time when CNN-parent WarnerMedia is in the midst of a $48 billion acquisition by Discovery, Inc. That deal, which is expected to be consummated by mid-year and which was engineered by Discovery chief executive officer David Zaslav and AT&T CEO John Stankey, was supposed to be the beginning of a more powerful tenure for Zucker at the combined companies. Indeed, Zucker (who has been friends with Zaslav for decades) was privy to the deal as it was being hatched, while current WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, with whom Zucker has clashed, was not.
Kilar sent his own memo on Wednesday revealing that he had accepted Zucker’s resignation; he also named three executives — Michael Bass (programming), Amy Entelis (talent and content development) and Ken Jautz (HLN, Newsource) — as the network’s interim leadership team.
Gollust, in her own statement on Wednesday, signaled that she would remain at CNN. But sources inside CNN, who declined to be identified, said they don’t expect her to be there for long. And a series of unflattering disclosures at CNN could put pressure on Zaslav to undertake a house cleaning, say observers.
Zucker’s profile has only grown during the extreme political polarization of the Trump years. The former NBCUniversal CEO greenlighted “The Apprentice,” propelling The Donald from New York media curiosity to household name. But at CNN Zucker became a favorite target of the former president, who demonized the press as the “enemy of the people.” At the same time, Zucker was blamed by Trump detractors for enabling and normalizing Trump’s rhetoric by devoting hours of uninterrupted air time to Trump’s speeches during the 2016 presidential campaigns.
Zucker and Gollust have been exceedingly close for years. Gollust acknowledged as much in her own statement. “Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over 20 years,” she wrote. “Recently, our relationship changed during COVID[-19]. I regret that we didn’t disclose it at the right time.”
Zucker brought Gollust to CNN in 2013, early in his tenure there. The two had been close colleagues at NBCUniversal. Zucker was ousted from NBCUniversal in 2010, after GE sold the network group to Comcast. Gollust also left and in 2012 began a position as a spokesperson for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a job that required her presence in Albany, N.Y., at least intermittently. She would remain there for only four months, until Zucker hired her at CNN.
Zucker said in his statement that he was asked about the relationship during an internal investigation into the conduct of erstwhile anchor Chris Cuomo, who was fired in December after a series of disclosures about his efforts to help his elder brother Andrew fend off numerous sexual harassment allegations. Like Gollust, he said “the relationship evolved in recent years.” Reporters at several outlets had been looking into rumors of the relationship. And some have openly questioned the stated timing. Keith Olbermann, the former MSNBC firebrand, tweeted on Wednesday, “Anybody who knew about Zucker, knew about Allison Gollust. I first figured it out in 2006 or 2007.”
Meanwhile, CNN staffers, who have been buffeted by two mergers in three years and the defenestration of Chris Cuomo after months of increasingly indefensible disclosures, and the ongoing legal battle waged by his lawyers, have once again been thrust into the awkward position of covering the unflattering machinations of their own workplace. And this has begun to wear. Multiple anchors expressed dismay that Zucker continued to defend Cuomo after the anchor’s efforts on his brother’s behalf first surfaced last summer. And indeed, the latest black eye for CNN has only emboldened the network’s critics.
Trump released a statement celebrating Zucker’s resignation: “Jeff Zucker is gone — congratulations to all!”