It took nearly two weeks, but the other shoe dropped late Tuesday: Allison Gollust, the top lieutenant and longtime paramour of erstwhile CNN chief Jeff Zucker, was fired nearly two weeks after her former boss was ousted.
In a memo to employees on Tuesday night — which was spurred by a New York Times story about the investigation into the conduct of ousted primetime anchor Chris Cuomo — WarnerMedia chief executive officer Jason Kilar asserted that Gollust had violated CNN’s standards and practices.
“Based on interviews of more than 40 individuals and a review of over 100,000 texts and emails, the investigation found violations of company policies, including CNN’s News Standards and Practices, by Jeff Zucker, Allison Gollust and Chris Cuomo,” Kilar wrote.
“We have the highest standards of journalistic integrity at CNN, and those rules must apply to everyone equally,” the memo continued. “Given the information provided to me in the investigation, I strongly believe we have taken the right actions and the right decisions have been made.”
After Zucker resigned on Feb. 2, Gollust had signaled that she intended to stay at CNN. This seemed bizarre to many of the network’s employees, who for years had viewed Zucker and Gollust’s relationship as an open secret, even as Zucker was facilitating her promotion to a top job as the company’s chief marketing officer. Also odd was the timeline Gollust attributed to the start of the romantic relationship, saying in a Feb. 2 statement, “Recently, our relationship changed during COVID[-19]. I regret that we didn’t disclose it at the right time.”
The New York Times reported that during the course of the investigation into Cuomo, Zucker also asserted that the relationship had changed only during COVID-19. The assertion was widely mocked on social media and among employees at CNN and NBC.
“It was the worst-kept secret at NBC,” said an NBC News source. “Any Friday night in the summer, you would go to Tutto il Giorno [a trendy Italian restaurant] in Sag Harbor, there would be Jeff and Allison. And this was way before the pandemic.”
Katie Couric wrote about the relationship in her memoir “Going There,” noting with particular piquancy that while the pair were at NBC News, Gollust moved with her then-husband and two daughters into an apartment directly above Zucker and wife Caryn and their children. “Everyone who heard about their cozy arrangement thought it was super strange,” wrote Couric. “By that point, Caryn had become a close friend and it made me really uncomfortable.”
Couric also wrote that Zucker made a “huge push” to hire Gollust at the “Today” show, despite that fact that the position at the time was already filled. In early 2021, before news of Discovery Inc.’s $48 billion deal to acquire AT&T’s WarnerMedia (which is expected to close in the coming months), Zucker appeared to be engineering another promotion for Gollust. In an NBCNews.com story, Dylan Byers wrote that Gollust had emerged as the leading candidate to take over as head of CNN.
“Her promotion, which is being considered by the leadership of AT&T, CNN’s parent company, would place her in a role that she is intimately familiar with,” wrote Byers. “As Zucker’s most trusted lieutenant for decades, she has been involved in or had a front-row seat to every major decision of his tenure at the network, from international deals to talent management and programming. The CNN sources noted that she is almost always present at his side both in the office and in the field.”
However skilled Gollust may have been — and she has many supporters at CNN — that Zucker may have hired and promoted someone he was having a romantic relationship with at two different companies over many years is a clear violation of acceptable corporate ethics, especially in the post-#MeToo era when human resources departments have been forced to take a much more active hand in managing intra-office interactions. It’s why the hagiographic pronouncements from top CNN anchors — some on air and others surreptitiously recorded during internal meetings, which were leaked to journalists — have sounded a bit tone-deaf.
It’s also instructive to connect the dots between Zucker and Gollust and the Cuomos. As the Times reported on Tuesday night, Zucker and Gollust were ensnared by the investigation into the behavior of Chris Cuomo, who was fired in December after it emerged that he was directly involved in helping his elder brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, fend off a mushrooming sexual harassment scandal.
At the height of COVID-19, Andrew Cuomo was basking in positive approval numbers for his science-based (if occasionally quirky) pandemic press briefings, which stood in stark contrast to the highly politicized and occasionally unhinged rhetoric emanating from the Trump White House. And so Zucker, ever the showman and sensing an opportunity, lifted a ban he had imposed on Chris Cuomo interviewing his brother. The brothers Cuomo schtick took off. As Zucker told former Times media columnist Ben Smith: “You get trust from authenticity and relatability and vulnerability. That’s what the brothers Cuomo are giving us right now.”
Before he fired Cuomo, Zucker more than once defended him. In March 2021, The Washington Post reported that Chris Cuomo received preferential treatment from New York state health officials after he contracted COVID-19 in the spring of 2020. According to the Post, Andrew Cuomo arranged for his brother to get then-rare COVID-19 tests, while state officials (in the midst of a public health emergency) also drove the Cuomo family’s nasal swabs from their Hamptons estate to a state lab. Then last summer, it emerged that Chris Cuomo had participated in crisis communication calls with his brother, during the governor’s sexual harassment scandal. During both instances Zucker stood by Cuomo. And why wouldn’t he? According to Rolling Stone, WarnerMedia’s investigation into the Cuomo affair — conducted by law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore — “suggests Zucker and Gollust were advising the governor at the beginning of the COVID[-19] pandemic in ways not dissimilar to what led to Chris Cuomo’s dismissal.”
As Rolling Stone’s Tatiana Siegel wrote: “As Andrew sparred on a daily basis with then-President Trump over COVID[-19] messaging, the couple provided the governor with talking points on how to respond to the president’s criticisms of the New York crisis. They also booked the governor to appear on the network exclusively, which became a ratings boon for CNN, with Chris Cuomo doing the interviewing.”
Gollust worked for Andrew Cuomo for several months before Zucker hired her at CNN in early 2013. And she maintained that relationship with the governor throughout her tenure at CNN, say sources. When Chris Cuomo became difficult or combative, said one source, Gollust was known to appeal to Andrew Cuomo for help diffuse the situation with the younger Cuomo. Jeff Zucker’s spokesperson, Risa Heller, has said that Zucker was “never aware of the full extent” of Chris Cuomo’s involvement in helping his brother.
But as the Times reported on Tuesday night, in late November, when CNN executives were presented with allegations that Chris Cuomo (while he was still at ABC News, his previous employer) allegedly sexually assaulted a junior colleague, Zucker withdrew his support. The allegations are serious. According to Debra Katz, who is representing the woman, Cuomo invited her to his office for lunch. When she arrived, there was now food, and Cuomo allegedly began to “badger her for sex.” When she declined, he assaulted her, and she fled his office. Cuomo has denied the allegations. And he is now suing CNN for the remainder owed on his $6 million annual salary plus future loss of income. But the woman also alleges that Cuomo, in an obvious effort to keep her from sharing her story, contacted her during the height of the Me Too movement. She was now working at a public relations firm, and Cuomo suggested that CNN do a positive piece on the firm. It’s unclear on which program the piece ran, or if anyone else at CNN had knowledge of the impetus for the piece.
Coupled with a post-Trump ratings nosedive, the chaos has sapped morale at CNN. It has also made Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s impending position as head of the combined Discovery-WarnerMedia portfolio a little more complicated, since Zaslav and his lieutenants will now likely be scrutinizing the CNN culture, to say nothing of fixing the current leadership vacuum at the news network.
And that could mean more shoes to drop.