The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Jeff Zucker, Allison Gollust personally pushed for Andrew Cuomo-Chris Cuomo interviews

CNN President Jeff Zucker speaks at the 2017 Business Insider Ignition: Future of Media conference in New York. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

The demise of Jeff Zucker as president of CNN will forever be tethered to the Cuomo family. The first line of his note to staff Wednesday — admitting that he failed to disclose his relationship with Executive VP and Chief Marketing Officer Allison Gollust — made clear the connection. “As part of the investigation into Chris Cuomo’s tenure at CNN, I was asked about a consensual relationship with my closest colleague, someone I have worked with for more than 20 years,” wrote Zucker.

According to several sources, both Zucker and Gollust had been fully invested in Cuomo and his brother, former New York governor Andrew Cuomo — to the detriment of CNN standards.

Some background: In May 2021, The Post revealed that Chris Cuomo had joined strategy sessions with the New York State executive chamber to assist his brother in handling the latter’s sexual misconduct crisis. That scandal led to Andrew Cuomo’s resignation in August, following an investigation by the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James.

In November 2021, James released transcripts from her investigation, which showed repeated attempts by Chris Cuomo to get into the weeds of the executive chamber’s pushback efforts. The network suspended Chris Cuomo on the grounds that the transcripts revealed a “greater level of involvement in his brother’s efforts than we previously knew.” He was fired days later.

But CNN’s ethical problems surrounding the Cuomos go back to the spring of 2020. That’s when Chris Cuomo hosted numerous interviews on his prime-time program with his brother. These headline-making events violated CNN guidelines, but the network decided to make an exception. “The early months of the pandemic crisis were an extraordinary time,” says a network statement from early 2021. “We felt that Chris speaking with his brother about the challenges of what millions of American families were struggling with was of significant human interest. As a result, we made an exception to a rule that we have had in place since 2013 which prevents Chris from interviewing and covering his brother, and that rule remains in place today. CNN has covered the news surrounding Governor Cuomo extensively.”

That “exception” had powerful advocates. Gollust and Zucker played key roles in booking Andrew Cuomo on “Cuomo Prime Time” for the series of covid interviews, say several CNN sources. When those interviews started in March 2020, Andrew Cuomo’s top staffers took a favorable approach to them. As the spring wore on, however, they began pushing back at the CNN booking appeals, according to the sources.

Gollust took the lead, going over the heads of the executive chamber staff and issuing direct appeals to the governor. In doing so, Gollust was calling on a former boss; she’d worked for a brief period a decade ago as Andrew Cuomo’s communications director. Zucker, according to the sources, also spoke with the governor and pressed him to appear; a CNN spokesperson, however, contends that the former CNN boss never booked Andrew Cuomo.

The spokesperson notes that executives pressing public officials for interviews is standard practice. Networks, too, commonly pull out all the available stops to recruit newsmakers. Gollust, it bears noting, reportedly argued for Andrew Cuomo’s appearance on shows other than “Cuomo Prime Time.”

But whatever the caveats, here you have the top officials at CNN personally engaged in securing interviews that breach the network’s standards, all in the interest of ratings and buzz. They had a hand in the very brand of line-crossing that eventually helped to sink Chris Cuomo. The awkwardness filtered across organizations, too: Do you think Andrew Cuomo wanted to say no to his brother’s bosses?

As the Erik Wemple Blog argued months ago, Chris Cuomo deserved some company in suffering accountability from this entire mess. It seems he now has some.