Zucker Quits CNN After Cuomo Threatens to Expose ‘Open Secret’

A scandal within a scandal.

WSJ (“CNN President Jeff Zucker Resigns, Citing Relationship With Colleague“):

CNN President Jeff Zucker resigned from the TV news organization, citing his failure to disclose a consensual relationship with a close colleague, and cutting short a nine-year tenure during which he helped transform the network’s role in the cable-news landscape.

Mr. Zucker’s abrupt departure comes as CNN is grappling with declining ratings as it also prepares to jump into the streaming wars with a new subscription service, CNN+, under future owner Warner Bros. Discovery.

“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,” Mr. Zucker wrote in an email he sent to staff on Wednesday. “I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong.”

[…]

The colleague Mr. Zucker referred to in his email is Allison Gollust, an executive vice president and chief marketing officer at CNN. In a statement, Ms. Gollust, who will continue in her job, said that she and Mr. Zucker have been friends for over 20 years and said that the relationship changed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I regret that we didn’t disclose it at the right time,” Ms. Gollust said. “I’m incredibly proud of my time at CNN and look forward to continuing the great work we do everyday.”

I don’t much care about who Jeff Zucker is sleeping with or, for that matter, who runs CNN. This, though, get my attention:

During the question-and-answer session, anchor Jake Tapper said that Mr. Cuomo hired a lawyer who seemed eager to leak damaging information about Mr. Zucker unless they gave Mr. Cuomo severance.

“An outside observer might say, ‘Well, it looks like Chris Cuomo succeeded,'” Mr. Tapper said. “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?”

There’s no more on that angle from WSJ but Vanity Fair‘s Joe Pompeo (“‘IT’S LIKE THE ENDING OF RESERVOIR DOGS’: INSIDERS SEE THE HAND OF CUOMO BEHIND JEFF ZUCKER’S ABRUPT DEPARTURE FROM CNN“) is all over it.

Reading between the lines, everyone’s interpretation of this is that Chris Cuomo knifed Zucker. Zucker fired Cuomo late last year over the former anchor’s deep participation in the strategic response to the sexual harassment scandal of his brother, Andrew Cuomo—after Zucker initially stood by Chris Cuomo for months when the first revelations of his involvement came to light. (In a small-world twist worth noting, Gollust briefly worked for Andrew Cuomo between jobs at NBC and CNN.) Politico reported that, according to sources, Chris Cuomo’s lawyers “raised issues about the relationship between Zucker and Gollust. Cuomo’s legal team asserted that Zucker was hypocritical to suggest Cuomo had a personal conflict of interest when the relationship with Gollust represented a potential conflict as well.”

I’ve heard similar things, including from someone with direct knowledge of Cuomo himself bringing up the relationship in conversation. Lawyers retained by CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia, have been conducting an investigation into the Cuomo matter for the past couple of months, since Coumo was fired, and I’m told they began asking about Zucker and Gollust in recent weeks. (A source close to Cuomo told me that his lawyers did not raise the relationship in an effort to gain any leverage in the discussions that followed Cuomo’s firing.) Sources also told me Cuomo’s team had been shopping the story around, which could explain how it ended up in a little-noticed gossip item published by Radar Online on January 4. (The source close to Cuomo denied that Cuomo’s team shopped the story.) Cuomo’s spokesman didn’t have a comment on any of this when I got him on the phone early Wednesday afternoon, but basically everyone I’ve talked to is saying the same thing: Zucker has effectively become the latest casualty of the Andrew Cuomo scandal. As one former TV news honcho put it, “It’s like the ending of Reservoir Dogs.” Another media executive texted me: “I knew it from the minute they fired Cuomo.”

Making a strange matter stranger is this from NY Magazine’s Intelligencer (“The Mystery Behind the Zucker Shocker His office romance has been an open secret for years. So why is he really leaving?”):

At first, it seemed like Jeff Zucker was just another piece of collateral damage from Andrew Cuomo’s demise, caught in the same blast radius that knocked Chris Cuomo out of CNN months earlier. It all seemed so rich, considering Zucker was the one who canned Chris for getting wrapped up in Andrew’s own workplace scandal.

But for many CNN staffers, something isn’t adding up about Zucker’s surprise resignation on Wednesday. The network’s president said in a statement that he failed to disclose a romantic relationship with his No. 2, Allison Gollust, before it was raised during an investigation into Chris Cuomo. (Gollust used to work as Andrew Cuomo’s communications chief before she moved to CNN and was replaced by the notorious Melissa DeRosa.)

For starters, Zucker and Gollust’s relationship was one of the biggest open secrets in media. CNN staffers awkwardly navigated the pairing, since every time they dealt with her, they were keenly aware that she was involved with the boss. They were rolling their eyes at Gollust’s own statement that said “recently, our relationship changed during Covid.” It had been going on for much longer: Page Six would wink at it from time to time, and the two have known each other since they worked together at NBC decades ago. As Katie Couric wrote in her dishy memoir: “I had to wonder why Jeff was angling so hard to bring Allison on board” at Couric’s talk show, Katie. “She and her husband and kids had moved into the apartment right above Jeff and Caryn’s — everyone who heard about the arrangement thought it was super strange.”

Tom Gara rightly notes that it’s odd for there to be “open secrets” in the news business given that their ostensible job is to report things to the public.

Regardless, Pompeo thinks the impending sale is why Zucker had to go:

I’m told that WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar made it clear to Zucker in a phone call within the past few days that he could not remain at the company. Calls were scheduled between Kilar and Zucker’s direct reports on Wednesday afternoon, and Kilar told CNN staff in a memo that he’d appointed an interim leadership team comprising three of Zucker’s deputies—Michael Bass, Amy Entelis, and Ken Jautz—who will run the network “through the close of the pending transaction with Discovery.” Which brings us to the timing: It’s bad. WarnerMedia’s merger with Discovery is expected to close in the next few months. CNN is also gearing up for the launch of its direct-to-consumer streaming service, CNN+, in which it has invested heavily. And they’re also still in the midst of figuring out a 9 p.m. replacement for Cuomo, who was the star of CNN’s prime-time lineup. “Why would you want to hand Discovery a scandal-ridden CNN? There is no reason to do it this way,” one of my CNN sources said. Sources acknowledged that speculation and rumors about Zucker and Gollust’s relationship were no secret within CNN (or outside of it for that matter), but as one of them noted, “Once those facts are presented to corporate, it sort of ties their hands. It’s just really unfortunate.”

I’m not sure that Zucker sleeping with a VP that he brought with him from NBC and has clearly been in a relationship with for many years is that big a scandal, in the grand scheme of things.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. mattbernius says:

    I’m not sure that Zucker sleeping with a VP that he brought with him from NBC and has clearly been in a relationship with for many years is that big a scandal, in the grand scheme of things.

    From a news/editorial perspective, the fact the relationship was with Andrew Cuomo’s previous Chief of Communications would be a big issue. Especially given Chris Cuomo’s status at the network and their allowing him to cover his brother (let’s be honest be a propogranda officer for his brother).

    Also this ties into Zucker’s defense of Chris Cuomo during the investigations into wrong doing.

    Yes, in theory the is supposed to be a “firewall” in place preventing undue influence, but it appears to have failed miserably (if it was really there to begin with).

    That said, who knows if that is the real reason for this. However from my perspective that is the much bigger scandal than the affair itself.

    2
  2. Kylopod says:

    (“‘IT’S LIKE THE ENDING OF RESERVOIR DOGS’: INSIDERS SEE THE HAND OF CUOMO BEHIND JEFF ZUCKER’S ABRUPT DEPARTURE FROM CNN“)

    I know this is a tangent, but…. How is that like the end of Reservoir Dogs?

    I’ve seen the film several times (it’s a favorite film of mine) and I can’t for the life of me figure out what about it is being referenced here.

    4
  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    Reading between the lines, everyone’s interpretation of this is that Chris Cuomo knifed Zucker.

    I see Chris Cuomo has learned nothing from this whole experience.

    3
  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    “An outside observer might say, ‘Well, it looks like Chris Cuomo succeeded,’” Mr. Tapper said. “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?”

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: WTF????? I hit the enter button to get a space and my comment posted. I hate computers. They hate me right back.

    Anyway, wanted to say, if this a win for Cuomo, it’s a pretty shallow and non compensatory win. As far as I can see he didn’t get any money out of the deal.

  6. Kylopod says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Anyway, wanted to say, if this a win for Cuomo, it’s a pretty shallow and non compensatory win. As far as I can see he didn’t get any money out of the deal.

    I think it’s in the general category of “taking you down with me.”

    1
  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kylopod: Yeah, revenge, which considering he was trying to use the info as leverage to increase his severance package is pretty hollow.

    “You want more money or you’ll blackmail us? Fck you, he’s fired too.”

    It might feel good now but it’s not going to alleviate the growling in his stomach. Not that either he or Zucker are going to truly suffer from any of this, they’ll both find new, overcompensated gigs. Their kind always land on their feet.

    1
  8. Argon says:

    Best people in the world.

  9. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    Finding a new gig with better compensation is sort of what Spy magazine called “failing upward,” isn’t it?

    Screw up one job and get offered a better one.

  10. CSK says:

    Is that Ms. Gollust on the right in the photo above?

  11. Kathy says:

    @Kylopod:

    Maybe so. Or maybe it was a case of “I didn’t expect them to call my bluff.”

  12. wr says:

    Zucker has been failing up for years. He completely destroyed NBC primetime, and for that was rewarded with the CNN gig, in which he has turned the news network into a gossipy scandal sheet — and a boring one at that.

    I expect he will next show up as vice-president.

    4
  13. Sleeping Dog says:

    Yesterday this story was atop the Memeorandum and Google news feeds and all I could do is wonder why, with all the other poop going on in the world this was receiving that much attention.

    Frankly, the dumb l’Affaire Whoopi has more cultural significance.

    5
  14. inhumans99 says:

    How has no one commented on her last name, Gollust, really? Too juvenile to make a comment about her name, maybe so but c’mon…given the subject matter of this post her last name is a bit too on the nose.

    Also, I would like to add my voice to the chorus that says that Zucker’s affair with his colleague is not the real reason why he abruptly quit, but Zucker probably figured that it is just plausible enough that folks will accept that an affair is what caused his fall from grace.

    I know folks on this great blog have said in the past that they feel the real reason why no one in the GOP really stood up to Trump is not that they are scared of his base, but rather that Trump knows where a lot of skeletons are buried in high ranking GOP member’s closets. I guess we can add Chris Cuomo to the list of folks who also know where some skeletons are buried, how else to explain Zucker’s actions?

    3
  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    Whatever happened to, ‘don’t be a rat?’ I had a crime partner in my first serious job and I never gave him up, never even mentioned his name to anyone til I was sure he’d died. And there’s a woman annoying me seriously on a financial issue who I know for a fact holds her position by virtue of being her boss’s mistress. Not going to weaponize that, either. We’re becoming a society of weasels and scolds, and it’s a bit nauseating. It’s beyond, ‘no honor among thieves,’ now it’s just, ‘no honor.’

    5
  16. EddieInCA says:

    @wr:

    This. 100% this. He’s been riding on his “Today Show” success for 20+ years, failing up every step since.

    I’ve never understood the allure, given his track record.

    1
  17. just nutha says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Clearly, you’re unfamiliar with the concept of “flipping” on somebody. It’s way more popular than you might realize. One of Luddites former associates at the home for wayward boiz kept trying to convince Luddite that he would never flip on somebody when we both knew that he would rat someone out to get out of a traffic citation.

    3
  18. Gustopher says:

    “An outside observer might say, ‘Well, it looks like Chris Cuomo succeeded,’” Mr. Tapper said. “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?”

    I just see scumbags attacking other scumbags and getting brought down. I’m hoping this leads to someone leaking Chris Cuomo’s main defender’s meth habit, and then someone else’s whatever… keep it up, and CNN might remove enough dead wood to become a decent news organization again.

    @Michael Reynolds: These aren’t thieves. You would never want them on your crew. No one ever said anything about honor among bungling, self-entitled, middle-age men.

    3
  19. James Joyner says:

    @Kylopod:

    How is that like the end of Reservoir Dogs?

    Presumably, it’s a reference to the climactic scene where the cops and criminals all kill each other in the bloody shootout. But, if so, it’s rather a stretch.

  20. Kylopod says:

    @James Joyner:

    Presumably, it’s a reference to the climactic scene where the cops and criminals all kill each other in the bloody shootout.

    That…isn’t what happens in that scene. (The only cop in the scene, the undercover one, never fires a shot. The cops outside the building arrive after the Mexican standoff is finished.) But no matter.

    Jeez, they sound like Seth Rogen from 40-Year-Old Virgin: “I just watched this movie called Liar Liar, and the message was, don’t lie.”

  21. James Joyner says:

    @Kylopod:

    The only cop in the scene, the undercover one, never fires a shot. The cops outside the building arrive after the Mexican standoff is finished

    Fair enough. My memory of the scene got fuzzy. It’s a great movie but I prefer the earlier bits of it, the banter and byplay during the formation of the group, to the gratuitous violence of the climactic scenes that are more famous. I’ve watched Pulp Fiction far more times because it’s more of the former and less of the latter. And I’ve only seen Django once.

  22. Kylopod says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s a great movie but I prefer the earlier bits of it, the banter and byplay during the formation of the group, to the gratuitous violence of the climactic scenes that are more famous.

    I totally understand that perspective, but I happen to think the climax is one of the best endings Tarantino has ever directed. And what’s weird about using it to compare to a situation of crooks ratting each other out is that’s totally not what happens in that scene. Tarantino’s films are heavily about the honor-among-thieves idea, and none of his films explored that theme more thoroughly than that first one. That was the point of the ending, that this middle-aged criminal played by Harvey Keitel bonded so much with the younger man that he literally gives his own life under the (incorrect) assumption the young man wasn’t a cop. And the cop is so stricken with guilt he gives his own life by confessing the truth. It’s actually a very moving scene; it isn’t just gratuitous violence. It totally doesn’t fit the cynical mode implied by this article.

    2
  23. James Joyner says:

    @Kylopod: No, it’s extremely well-done. Even the infamous “Stuck in the Middle with You” scene is graphic for good reason—to show what a suck fuck that particular criminal was. It’s just not entertaining to me in a way that makes me want to watch it over and over. The violence in Pulp Fiction is almost the opposite: often truly gratuitous, played almost for laughs, but not visually graphic.

  24. Jim Brown 32 says:

    He was loosing the InfoWars [badly] to Fox anyway. Maybe now they can get someone in there that knows WTF they’re doing.

    3
  25. dazedandconfused says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The contracts these media people get…Honor among thieves fades considerably at six figures plus. @Michael Reynolds:

    Honor among thieves fades as the stakes rises and is pretty much gone at around seven figures it’s everyone for himself.

    CNN has not improved under Zucker, and Cuomo was so full of himself he was unwatchable. I’d say there’s nowhere to go but up but I know better.

    2
  26. dazedandconfused says:

    Edit is never around when ya need it most…

  27. Dude Kembro says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    why, with all the other poop going on in the world this was receiving that much attention.

    Because the Beltway punditry-politics complex is like high school, only less mature. And more out of touch than your average Zoomer when deciding what issues matter.

    Anyway, there’s another climate change superstorm hitting the country, and Putin is trying to gin up WW3 while Tucker Carlson, Glenn Greenwald, and Sen. Hawley helpfully spread Russian propagangda.

    2
  28. Kurtz says:

    @Kylopod: @James Joyner:

    to show what a suck fuck that particular criminal was.

    Every once in a while, James’s choice of words
    in a comment that me. Not that I think you don’t swear, because I’ve seen you sprinkle a few here and there. But “suck fuck” startled me a bit.

    The Mexican standoff is great. The cut away from the act of ear mutilation punctuated by Mr. Blonde talking into it like it’s a tin can telephone is excellent.

    But the best part of the ending for me is the mystery surrounding whether Mr. Pink gets away. IIRC Tarantino has subsequently said that he does escape with the loot.

    I wish that Tarantino had been able to make the movie with Vic and Vincent Vega. Two charismatic as hell suck fucks raising hell would be worth watching.

    I still like True Romance almost as much as I like Pulp Fiction and slightly more than I like Reservoir Dogs.

  29. Kylopod says:

    @Kurtz:

    But the best part of the ending for me is the mystery surrounding whether Mr. Pink gets away. IIRC Tarantino has subsequently said that he does escape with the loot.

    The biggest mystery for me was the logistics of the gun fight. Joe points his gun at Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel points his gun at Joe, and Eddie points his gun at Keitel (sorry I’m mixing up the actors and characters–I can’t remember every name offhand)–then they all fire their guns and they all get shot, with Joe and Eddie dying instantly. The mystery is–who shot Eddie?

    For years, I heard various people say this was a technical error. But finally when I got around to finding the Youtube clip (linked above), I watched it in slow motion, and Keitel indeed gets in two shots–he first shoots Joe, then quickly points toward Eddie and the two get each other simultaneously.

  30. James Joyner says:

    @Kurtz: Ha. Alas, it was supposed to be “sick fuck,” which is somewhat less evocative.

  31. Kurtz says:

    @Kylopod:

    Keitel indeed gets in two shots–he first shoots Joe, then quickly points toward Eddie and the two get each other simultaneously.

    I don’t recall any confusion when I watched it the first time. When The Rewatchables discussed that scene recently, I thought back to the late 90s to figure out if I replayed it. I don’t think I did.

    I’ve gathered that you and I are within a few years of age, when did you first see Reservoir Dogs?

  32. Kurtz says:

    @James Joyner:

    Happy accidents, whether from ethereal muses or auto-correct, still garner credit for the writer.

  33. Kylopod says:

    @Kurtz:

    I’ve gathered that you and I are within a few years of age, when did you first see Reservoir Dogs?

    Just so we’re clear, I’m 45. I first saw Reservoir Dogs in 2011. Definitely a late bloomer, but it immediately shot to the top of my list of favorite Tarantino films, just behind Pulp Fiction (which I saw in the theater when it came out). It’s somewhat overlooked in Tarantino’s canon because it was his first movie, and he didn’t really become a star director until Pulp. It only performed modestly at the box office, and while reviews were generally positive, it didn’t bring him the near-universal praise he would get for his later work (I recall Siskel & Ebert giving it a thumbs down).

  34. Kurtz says:

    @Kylopod:

    Yeah, we are close in age, but not as close as I thought. I turn 40 late this year. I think I picked up on a few similarities over the years of posts that situated us near each other.

    Without looking, I think Ebert may have issued one of his reassessments on Reservoir. But I could be wrong.

  35. dazedandconfused says:

    @Kylopod:
    Nah, Siskel and Ebert loved Pulp when it came out.

    https://siskelebert.org/?p=4143

  36. Kurtz says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    He was talking about Reservoir.