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Opinion CNN’s Jeff Zucker stunningly resigns

Pedestrians enter CNN headquarters in downtown Atlanta on Jan. 17, 2001. (Ric Feld/AP)
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In a cable news cataclysm, CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker on Wednesday announced his resignation from a network that he has run since 2013. CNN’s Brian Stelter tweeted Zucker’s announcement:

The immediate backdrop for the announcement dates to the end of 2021, when then-anchor Chris Cuomo came under fire for his participation in a political pushback operation last spring to save his brother, then-New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, from a sexual misconduct scandal. When transcripts released by New York Attorney General Letitia James revealed the extent of the anchor’s involvement, Zucker suspended Chris Cuomo, and then fired him after learning of an allegation of sexual misconduct against the anchor.

The two sides proceeded to bash each other with combative statements, with a spokesman for Chris Cuomo saying that Zucker knew all along about his work for Andrew M. Cuomo, and the network insisting that Cuomo had displayed a “lack of candor.” That spat gained fresh relevance on Wednesday, as Zucker disclosed in his announcement that he had failed to disclose a “consensual relationship with my closest colleague.”

“I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong. As a result, I am resigning today,” wrote Zucker. Stelter later confirmed that the colleague in question is Allison Gollust, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for CNN.

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Gollust issued this statement: “Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over 20 years. Recently, our relationship changed during Covid. I regret that we didn’t disclose it at the right time. I’m incredibly proud of my time at CNN and look forward to continuing the great work we do everyday.” (In a remarkable coincidence, between stints working with Zucker at NBC and CNN, Gollust served as communications director for Gov. Cuomo.)

The resignation caps off a topsy-turvy period for Zucker. A year ago, Zucker told staffers that he expected to move on at the end of 2021. Then in May came the announcement that CNN would be spun off from its parent company, AT&T, and merged with Discovery, reuniting Zucker with longtime friend and Discovery chief executive David Zaslav. All of a sudden, Zucker appeared a lock to stick around — and possibly move up.

But that same month, The Post reported that Chris Cuomo had been participating in strategy sessions with officials of the New York state executive chamber. CNN issued a statement acknowledging the misstep but kept Chris Cuomo in his place. In August, James revealed more about Chris Cuomo’s involvement, but the full extent of his activities didn’t emerge until November.

That a scandal involving Chris Cuomo would end with Zucker’s resignation marks a remarkable twist to this cable news drama. The former ABC News anchor was among Zucker’s first hires after the latter joined CNN in January 2013. The idea was to fortify CNN’s early-morning offerings with “New Day,” co-hosted by Chris Cuomo before he moved in 2018 to prime-time programming.

Zucker, a former executive producer of the “Today” show, took an extensive, hands-on interest in “New Day,” a style that he also visited on other programs. When Chris Cuomo hosted then-presidential candidate Donald Trump for a marathon telephone interview in September 2015, for instance, it was Zucker who personally pushed the program to plow through commercial breaks to keep the action going. “I’ve never worked with anybody who is more on their game more often throughout the day than he is,” Chris Cuomo told the Erik Wemple Blog at the time.

Other CNN journalists have long praised Zucker’s energy and day-in, day-out passion for their journalism. That passion sometimes expressed itself as what many critics viewed as over-coverage of dubious news events, such as the famous “poop cruise” and the disappearance of Flight MH370. The Zucker-led CNN, too, quickly embraced wall-to-wall coverage of Trump to the point that it provided live coverage of his rallies — a move that Zucker later admitted was a mistake.

But the Trump-era ratings weren’t a mistake; they were phenomenal. It just so happens, however, that the Chris Cuomo scandal overlapped with a cratering of the CNN viewership in fall 2021, as Justin Baragona explained in the Daily Beast. In fact, the only CNN show to finish 2021 in the cable news top 25 was … the one anchored by Chris Cuomo.

As he launched “New Day” in 2013, Zucker was asked how long it would take him to climb atop the cable news ratings. “Ask me again in three years,” he responded. In 2014, he told an interviewer, “It’s not about a path to No. 1 here. What we talk about is making the network essential and better.”