Maybe you’ve heard: Jeff Zucker is out at CNN. Or maybe you’re a normal person, and you have no idea who Jeff Zucker is or why CNN’s hosts have spent so much time mourning him on air over the past week. If you dwell in this state of blessed ignorance, here is an explanation: Jeff Zucker was the president of CNN Worldwide, making him its head honcho. But judging from what CNN itself is saying, you could be forgiven for thinking he was much more than that.
Here is Clarissa Ward, its highly respected chief international correspondent:
Here is Brian Stelter, the network’s chief media correspondent, being quite defensive about criticism that Zucker transformed CNN from a news organization into a platform for various talking heads:
And here is Don Lemon, one of the network’s most popular anchors: “It’s been a really tough day today and a tough few days for us here at CNN. All week, really. I didn’t want to talk about it until tonight,” a distraught Lemon told viewers on Friday evening. He concluded, “So, thank you, Jeff Zucker, for everything you did for everyone at this network and for what you did to the entire country — for the entire country.”
Jake Tapper, another of the network’s most popular anchors, “hosted a shiva-like get together at his home in Washington for bereaved colleagues,” Puck News reported. So is Jeff Zucker dead? Kind of sounds like it, but no. He just got fired.
The ostensible reason he got fired was that he failed to disclose a romantic relationship with Allison Gollust, a senior leader at the network who reported to him. The relationship was consensual, leading many within CNN to complain that he had been ousted unjustly or as part of a power struggle involving parent company WarnerMedia. As Puck, which has emerged as a clearinghouse for Zucker’s allies to vent their grievances, reported, chief political correspondent Dana Bash told WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, “For a lot of us, the feeling is that, for Jeff, the punishment didn’t fit the crime.”
But Gollust isn’t just CNN’s executive vice-president and chief marketing officer. She also used to work for Andrew Cuomo, as his communications director. This casts CNN’s hagiographic coverage of the former governor of New York, which featured ex-anchor Chris Cuomo gleefully interviewing his own brother, in a rather compromised light — not something the network needs as it fends off a lawsuit from the younger Cuomo, who was fired for doling out advice to Andrew when he was dealing with a sexual-harassment scandal. In fact, a source told Rolling Stone that Zucker and Gollust had advised Andrew Cuomo “at the beginning of the COVID pandemic in ways not dissimilar to what led to Chris Cuomo’s dismissal.”
CNN’s entanglement with the Cuomos is squarely on Zucker, and this now-soured relationship at least indirectly led to Zucker’s current troubles. But you wouldn’t know that from watching CNN, which has fallen back on the usual pundit-centered drama instead of actually reporting the news.