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CNN President Jeff Zucker resigns, citing undisclosed relationship with colleague

Zucker said he should have disclosed a ‘consensual relationship’ with a close colleague

Jeff Zucker in the CNN control room in D.C. in 2019. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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CNN President Jeff Zucker abruptly resigned Wednesday morning after acknowledging a romantic relationship with a fellow network executive, a stunning announcement from one of the most powerful figures in media.

Zucker said in a statement that he failed to properly disclose to his company that he had entered into “a consensual relationship with my closest colleague” — revealed later to be Allison Gollust, the executive vice president and chief marketing officer for CNN Worldwide, and his longtime lieutenant dating back to their days at NBC.

“I certainly wish my tenure here had ended differently,” Zucker said. “But it was an amazing run. And I loved every minute of it.”

Gollust, who plans to remain at CNN, released a statement the same day. “Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over 20 years,” she said. “Recently, our relationship changed during covid. I regret that we didn’t disclose it at the right time.”

CNN President Jeff Zucker resigned on Feb. 2 after acknowledging that he had failed to disclose a romantic relationship with a fellow network executive. (Video: Reuters)

The sudden announcement on Wednesday closed the book on a successful but tumultuous chapter in CNN’s history, led by the brash, occasionally controversial and internally well-liked Zucker. He took over CNN after leading the conglomerate NBCUniversal, and he re-energized the struggling network’s ratings with an all-in approach to covering the news that included relentless coverage of Donald Trump’s political rise.

Zucker’s resignation is also the latest in a widening circle of high-powered individuals felled by the investigations into former New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s conduct with women. The governor stepped down last year, and his brother, prime-time host Chris Cuomo, was subsequently fired from CNN over his involvement. Zucker said an investigation into Chris Cuomo’s tenure at the network led to questions about his relationship with Gollust. (The communications executive joined CNN in 2013 after a four-month stint during which she worked for Cuomo, who was governor at the time.)

Staffers at CNN were shocked by Zucker’s departure, and the network interrupted its live broadcast to announce the news. A source familiar with the situation said Zucker was asked to resign by Jason Kilar, the chief executive of WarnerMedia, which owns CNN.

Zucker and Gollust’s closeness had been known to many inside CNN, and sometimes rumors became public. A 2017 item in Page Six described a “heated exchange” between the pair at a media industry party in New York City. And former “Today” co-anchor Katie Couric, who worked with both of them at NBC, dropped heavy hints about their relationship in her memoir.

The pair’s relationship resurfaced after the network decided to fire Cuomo in December, after concluding that he had not properly disclosed work he had performed for his brother last year, when the governor battled sexual misconduct allegations that eventually led to his resignation.

Chris Cuomo took part in strategy calls advising his brother, the New York governor, on how to respond to sexual harassment allegations

CNN hired a law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, to investigate how Chris Cuomo had aided his brother — focusing on documents released by the New York attorney general that showed the anchor had been extensively involved in the governor’s damage-control effort, going so far as to phone other journalists for intel on potentially damaging stories.

Zucker framed Chris Cuomo’s lack of candor as a betrayal, saying that “he gave me his word that there was no involvement” beyond personal advice and support to his brother. But a spokesperson for Chris Cuomo said that he and Zucker had been in regular contact about the host’s involvement with his brother’s political crisis — a notion that CNN management strongly contested.

Cuomo has pressed CNN to pay out the rest of his contract with the network, something that Zucker has said will not happen because the anchor was terminated for cause. As part of that effort, an attorney for Cuomo sent a legal hold letter to CNN around the beginning of the year, according to sources close to the situation, who all requested anonymity to frankly discuss the matter without permission. It asked network executives to preserve any communications they may have had with the former governor or members of his staff. Chris Cuomo’s team is hoping to prove that CNN executives, including Zucker and Gollust, knew about the extent of his involvement with his brother’s cleanup effort.

Cravath was hired to look broadly at Cuomo’s conduct at CNN, according to a person familiar with the investigation. This person said that Cuomo’s lawyers injected the discussion of Gollust and Zucker into that investigation to highlight a perceived double standard of inappropriate behavior.

Separate from Cuomo’s aid to his brother, Zucker said in December that CNN had passed along to the law firm an unnamed accusation of sexual misconduct that was made against Cuomo by a former colleague. The firm, he said, would explore the accusation “as it relates to CNN.”

On Wednesday, Zucker revealed that the law firm’s investigation into Chris Cuomo led to questions about his relationship with Gollust. “I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years,” he said. “I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong.”

Cuomo was once very close with Zucker, who had promoted him into the network’s prime-time lineup. A source with knowledge of the situation said Cuomo did not lobby for Zucker’s termination, though he was aware of Zucker’s relationship with Gollust. The former anchor has not commented on Zucker’s departure.

On Dec. 4, CNN fired host Chris Cuomo, just four days after announcing that he would be indefinitely suspended. (Video: Reuters)

Before joining CNN, Zucker spent four years as the chief executive of NBCUniversal, the capstone of a lengthy tenure there that saw him rise through the ranks and become an executive producer of the “Today” morning show.

After an acrimonious departure from NBCUniversal following the company’s acquisition by Comcast, Zucker took over CNN in 2013 as his second big act and quickly set about remaking it. At the time, the network that had defined 24-hour TV news was adrift, sometimes finishing not only behind rivals Fox News and MSNBC in the ratings, but also HLN, a sister network to CNN that specialized in lurid court trials. The network’s annual advertising revenue had fallen alarmingly, by about 10 percent.

Under Zucker, CNN focused intently on Trump, starting with his presidential campaign in mid-2015. The network often aired Trump’s raucous campaign rallies from start to finish, helping him emerge from a crowded field of candidates. Zucker later said he regretted giving Trump so much attention.

Trump returned CNN’s attention by repeatedly calling its reporting and commentary “fake news.” He occasionally went after Zucker directly, referring to him on Twitter as “Little Jeff Z.” (Trump released a statement on Wednesday celebrating Zucker’s departure and calling him “a world-class sleazebag.”)

The public feuding belied a long and mutually fruitful association for both men: As president of NBC’s entertainment division in 2003, Zucker oversaw the network’s launch of “The Apprentice,” the boardroom reality show that featured Trump. (NBC is also where Zucker apparently met Gollust, who started working there in the 1990s.)

In 2020, CNN recorded its largest audience since its founding in 1980, buoyed by coverage of the presidential campaign and the coronavirus pandemic — though, like other cable news networks, it struggled to achieve those same viewership totals in 2021.

Zucker was largely popular with CNN employees, who valued his hands-on touch and passion for the news business. “We are all shattered,” afternoon anchor Alisyn Camerota told The Post. “Jeff is a remarkable person and boss — he has a way of making everyone at CNN feel valuable and special.”

Primetime anchor Don Lemon told Variety that Zucker was “one of the best things that has ever happened to CNN. There are probably going to be a lot of nervous people at CNN because Jeff is really the glue there.”

Zucker reciprocated the warm words in a memo to staffers. “I am grateful to the thousands of incredibly talented CNN and Turner Sports employees who helped make this such a joy for me, and such a success for all of us. I wish each of you nothing but the best in the years ahead.”

Zucker, who also served as chairman of WarnerMedia News and Sports, had initially been expected to leave at the end of 2021, but he decided to prolong his tenure after plans were announced for WarnerMedia to merge with the media conglomerate Discovery Inc.

The network shake-up comes at a particularly sensitive time for CNN, which is preparing to launch a new streaming service by late March. The network has hired several high-profile news personalities for CNN +, including former Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, former NPR “All Things Considered” co-host Audie Cornish and former MSNBC anchor Kasie Hunt.

Some industry observers expected Zucker to continue with the company even after WarnerMedia’s merger with Discovery Inc. — expected sometime this spring — due to his close relationship with Discovery chief executive David M. Zaslav, who will run the combined media company.

Kilar told employees on Wednesday afternoon that CNN’s “interim co-heads” will be Michael Bass, executive vice president of programming; Amy Entelis, executive vice president for talent and content development; and Ken Jautz, also an executive vice president. The veteran executives will oversee the network until the merger with Discovery is complete.

Tension between Zucker and Kilar had been building for years, according to a CNN personality close to Zucker. As first reported by The Wall Street Journal, after Kilar took on the top job at WarnerMedia he reorganized CNN and trimmed some of Zucker’s responsibilities, including oversight of finances, human resources and communications. One effect of the move was to remove Gollust from Zucker’s direct oversight in the company structure.

Kilar addressed D.C.-based staff on Wednesday night, facing tough questions and frustration from some employees who pressed him on whether any other factors played into his decision on Zucker.

Read more:

Chris Cuomo took part in strategy calls advising his brother, the New York governor, on how to respond to sexual harassment allegations

Andrew Cuomo’s family members were given special access to covid testing, according to people familiar with the arrangement

CNN President Jeff Zucker expects to leave the network at the end of this year

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