Jeff Zucker’s surprise ouster Wednesday left CNN with a leadership void and an irresistible mystery: How did a personnel investigation into Chris Cuomo, the network’s scandal-plagued former prime-time host, also end up toppling its president?
“For a lot of us, the feeling is the punishment didn’t fit the crime,” chief political correspondent Dana Bash told corporate executives during a heated newsroom meeting in D.C. on Wednesday night, according to a recording of the session obtained by The Washington Post.
For many, the confusion seemed to lie with the dawning awareness that Zucker’s departure was triggered by a looming legal showdown with Cuomo, the star anchor and erstwhile friend he fired in December over Cuomo’s involvement in the crisis-management activities of his politician brother. An investigation into Cuomo’s tenure had pivoted into a broader review of CNN’s handling of the matter, during which Zucker and Gollust were asked about and acknowledged their relationship. Cuomo’s legal team, meanwhile, had signaled an interest in seeing some of the couple’s email correspondence as they sought a more generous financial settlement for the deposed anchor.
In the CNN staff meetings, some colleagues seemed to view Zucker’s downfall as an act of revenge.
“An outside observer might say, ‘Well, it looks like Chris Cuomo succeeded,’” anchor Jake Tapper told WarnerMedia chief executive Jason Kilar on Wednesday night, according to the recording. “He threatened Jeff. 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?”
A person close to Cuomo, who has not commented on Zucker’s resignation and spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment, denied that the journalist had angled for his former boss’s ouster. His lawyer, Bryan Freedman, did not respond to a request for comment.
Kilar told the newsroom he was standing by his decisions, “as painful as they are.” And while Zucker’s relationship with Gollust was apparently known to many colleagues and hinted about in New York gossip columns, Kilar said it was only “very recently” that the relationship came to his attention.
Zucker hired and championed Cuomo at CNN, and the two long shared a tight bond. But resentments have been simmering since Zucker fired Cuomo in early December for failing to disclose the full extent of his advice and assistance to his brother as then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York faced sexual harassment allegations that eventually led to his resignation. The newsman’s efforts had included calls to journalists about his brother’s accusers, a violation of both journalistic ethics and CNN’s own rules.
After his firing, Cuomo’s team charged that Zucker had known all along about his work with the governor and that “there were no secrets about this.” CNN’s representatives shot back that Cuomo’s allegations were “patently false” and showed “his lack of candor.”
Cuomo’s legal team made moves to attempt to recoup some of the money he would have earned had CNN not fired him; the anchor made a reported $8 million a year and had a few years left on his contract, according to sources with knowledge of his tenure. Meanwhile, an outside law firm hired by CNN to investigate Cuomo’s involvement with his brother’s political activities — as well as a claim of sexual misconduct brought against him by a colleague from a previous job — continued its work into the new year.
It’s unclear what prompted investigators’ questions about Zucker and Gollust’s relationship. But in early January, a lawyer for Cuomo sent the CNN executives a “legal hold” letter instructing them to preserve their email communications with the former governor or his staff. Some in Zucker’s camp saw the letter as an effort to expose his relationship with Gollust, which the person close to Cuomo denied.
Gollust, who has worked closely with Zucker for more than 20 years, going back to their time at NBC, said in a statement Wednesday that their working relationship led to a romantic one “during covid.” But the fact that they had not divulged it to their corporate bosses was a violation of WarnerMedia conflict-of-interest policies regarding personal relationships, and Kilar, the company’s top executive, asked for his resignation.
While there are no questions about whether the relationship was consensual, Zucker acknowledged Wednesday that he had erred in not communicating it. “I was required to disclose it when it began, but I didn’t,” he said. “I was wrong.”
A person close to Cuomo, who was not interviewed by the law firm, acknowledged that CNN and WarnerMedia have not held any discussions with him about his contract. Cuomo has been told that such conversations could be held once the broader investigation into his conduct was concluded — which, Kilar said Wednesday night, it now has.
CNN’s on-air stars have been public about their dismay over Zucker’s departure in connection with a consensual relationship. “This feels wrong,” anchor Alisyn Camerota said on the air Wednesday.
Under Zucker’s leadership, CNN on-air personalities felt supported, and were buoyed by his encouragement to call out threats to democracy, whether they be a former president or a particular cable news network, sometimes showing more passion and emotion than is traditionally acceptable for news anchors and journalists. At a meeting with staffers in December, Zucker had said, “I think that we should be pro-democracy. I think that we should be pro-science. I think that we should be pro-voting rights. And I think that we should stand up for truth.”
And in meetings with Kilar, some CNN staffers seemed to take Zucker’s side over his boss’s, pressing him for his rationale for forcing Zucker’s resignation. The executive largely deflected questions about whether any other factors played into his decision.
Meanwhile, many, like Tapper, were open in their disdain for Cuomo and his perceived role in Zucker’s downfall. “Chris Cuomo is a man scorned because he was fired for being held accountable for his actions,” White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins told Kilar, “and Jeff is part of the result of this.”
Elahe Izadi contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Kaitlan Collins.