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.”
So how could WarnerMedia, CNN’s parent company, not have known? A source close to Jason Kilar, the outgoing boss at WarnerMedia who accepted Zucker’s resignation, claims he didn’t know the rumors to be true until the Cuomo investigation surfaced them. The source says Kilar had first heard about the relationship when Radar Online put up an item in December but thought it was just rumormongering. (This is why you shouldn’t hire a Silicon Valley person to run a New York media company — they don’t even know the good gossip.) The honchos did not get along: Zucker was infuriated by Kilar’s scrambling the company’s org chart so that Gollust and other senior CNN staffers would report directly to WarnerMedia. “It’s like Allison and Jeff were on some sort of codependent power trip,” says someone who has known the pair since their NBC days.
Zucker hadn’t been on the network’s morning editorial calls this week, where he closely guided coverage, but that wasn’t necessarily seen as odd — some assumed he was merely preparing for a bigger job to come. Indeed, Zucker was about to be in the catbird seat: Discovery, run by his pal David Zaslav, is in the final stages of merging with WarnerMedia, and Zucker’s continued reign seemed all but assured. “Everyone thinks this is Kilar taking his succession swipe back at Jeff,” says one CNN staffer. “I feel like people didn’t think that this didn’t need to be this way; Jeff said he would stay till the merger, and that’s just around the corner.”
Many CNN staffers were dismayed by his departure, given how he was credited with turning around the network when he took over nine years ago. “Jeff was a great leader during a tumultuous time in the country,” says one senior network correspondent. “This is a huge waste of talent and vision at a critical time for the network and a damn shame.” Another staffer says, “It’s a mixture of shock and heartbreak. Jeff had relationships with everyone, from anchors to reporters to producers. Everyone loves Jeff.” And it’s still Zucker’s shop. One of three interim bosses put in charge today is Michael Bass, who has been friends with Zucker since their days at Harvard together. “He’s Jeff Jr.,” says one person who knows both men.
It’s a long fall for Zucker, who began his career as the “the Today show’s 27-year-old executive producer and bratty child star,” in the words of Spy magazine at the time. Of course, his legacy will also be bound up with that of Donald Trump. Zucker rehabbed Trump’s career in 2004 by green-lighting The Apprentice. During the early days of his first presidential run, Trump was ratings gold for CNN, which covered him incessantly before he turned on it as “fake news.” When tapes leaked of Zucker on a call with Michael Cohen in 2016, offering up debate advice for Trump and saying that he had “all these proposals” for a weekly show with Trump, few were surprised. As Trump himself put it in a 2015 interview with The Hollywood Reporter: “Jeff is a friend of mine, but if I didn’t get ratings he would not have all Trump all the time. I kid him about it.”
Now Zucker, Trump, and both Cuomos are out of work. Maybe they can start something together.