The shock that reverberated when CNN boss Jeff Zucker announced he was standing down as president appeared to be genuine.
Often people say they have no idea that news of such nature was coming.
In Zucker’s case, CNN had been under something of a cloud after its top anchor Chris Cuomo was forced out after it emerged he had not been entirely forthcoming about the level of support he had offered his brother, Andrew Cuomo, then the governor of New York , as I have sought to fight off allegations of sexual harassment. Zucker had initially stood by his star from him.
The reason given for Zucker’s departure was a consensual relationship with another, senior member of staff, something he was supposed to have informed his own bosses about.
One of the reasons for the shock? It appears everyone had long known about it.
“It feels crazy,” one television producer who previously worked with Zucker at NBC News, and who asked not to be identified, told The Independent.
“Because people have known about this for years.”
In an email sent to staff on Wednesday morning, Zucker, 56, said that as part of the investigation into Cuomo’s tenure at CNN, he was “asked about a consensual relationship with my closest colleague, someone I have worked with for more than 20 years ”.
“I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong,” he added.
The colleague he was referring to was Allison Gollust, CNN’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, one of the most senior executives at the network, and said to be involved in many decisions about the company’s business. Both she and Zucker are said to be divorced.
“Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over 20 years,” she said in a statement. “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.”
Jeff Zucker: CNN boss resigns after admitting relationship with colleague
The developments will, for Zucker, mark the latest twist in a career that has spanned three decades at the highest levels of the industry.
Born in Homestead, Florida, Zucker was editor of the school news paper before studying at Harvard University. In his final year, he became the editor of the university’s storied student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson.
After graduating, he got a job at NBC News, rapidly catching people’s attention and being made a field producer for the highly successful Today programme, which for 16 years topped the ratings. For much of that time, her main anchor was Katie Couric.
In 2000, he was named NBC Entertainment’s president, a role that gave him control over much of the network’s entertainment schedule.
During that period he is credited with having negotiated with the main stars of friends to renew their contracts.
He also gave the green light to a show created by British producer Mark Burnett, featuring Donald Trump and called The Apprentice. It ran for 15 seasons and was hugely popular.
On Wednesday, Trump greeted the news of Zucker’s ousting in typical fashion.
“Jeff Zucker, a world-class sleazebag who has headed CNN ratings and real-news-challenged for far too long, has been terminated for numerous reasons, but predominantly because CNN has lost its way with viewers,” he said.
Those who study the media industry, and particularly its intersection with politics, may feel Trump ought to have been more gracious to Zucker.
For much of his business career, Trump was a joke and easy tabloid fodder, a regular on the New York Post’s page six gossip round-up, and someone who had suffered several bankruptcies.
Yet in The Apprenticewhich was first broadcast in 2004, a vision was beamed into the homes of millions of viewers, of a square-jawed, tough-minded decision maker, who lived in opulence and was surrounded by smart assistants who did his bidding.
The show would make lots of money for Trump, NBC and Burnett, but it also transformed the image of the brash New Yorker and gave him a platform from which he could ponder, and later launch, a political bid.
“The Apprentice mythologized him anew, and on a much bigger scale, turning him into an icon of American success,” Jay Bienstock, a longtime collaborator of Burnett’s and a showrunner on The Apprenticetold the new yorker in a 2019 article headlined “How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success.”
“Mark always likes to compare his shows to great films or novels. All of Mark’s shows feel bigger than life, and this is by design.”
In late 2015, as Trump’s hardcore political campaign was gathering pace, Zucker was asked about whether he had any regrets in his role in his rise.
“I have no regrets about the part that I played in his career.”
The former NBC News employee who asked not to be named said Zucker was “one of the titans in the industry.” They also described a visit from him to his offices in Los Angeles, where there were neon signs and lots of twisting passages.
“He had assistants and his assistants had assistants,” they said.
The former employee also referred to a report in RadarOnline from January, that he had talked about Zucker and Gollust and photographed them together at a Billy Joel concert.
The report said news of the relationship inside CNN was a “major complexifier in the decision to dump Cuomo, who is said to have hired high-powered lawyer Bryan Freedman to fight for an $18 million exit paycheck, believed to be the remainder of his contract ”.
“The talk in the corridors of CNN about Jeff and Allison’s purported relationship complicates the sticky decision to fire Chris,” one source told the website. “Have they sullied the network’s reputation? One could argue they have; it just hasn’t been made public yet.”
That report also quoted a line from Couric’s 2021 memoir going therein which she expressed her “disappointment” over her former colleague.
“At a certain point, Jeff made a huge push to bring on Allison Gollust,” Couric wrote. “They were joined at the hip. The problem was, we’d already hired a PR person for the show. There really wasn’t a role for Allison.”
on wednesday, Politician reported that Chris Cuomo’s legal team, which continues to negotiate his exit from the network, 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.
That will be something of an irony given Zucker had stood by Cuomo until more and more details emerged about his support for his brother, and then in September, Shelley Ross, a veteran television journalist and former executive producer at ABC and CBS, wrote an article saying the journalist had grabbed her behind at a leaving party in 2005. Cuomo later apologized.
Zucker had been heavily involved in CNN’s plans to launch a streaming service, CNN+ in the Spring.
Zucker has many friends within the industry. It remains unclear what he plans to do next. But, his time at CNN is over.
Jason Kilar, the CEO of CNN’s parent WarnerMedia, said in an email to staff: “I have accepted Jeff Zucker’s resignation as Chairman of WarnerMedia News and Sports, and President of CNN Worldwide. We thank Jeff for his contributions over the past 9 years.”
He added: “We will be announcing an interim leadership plan shortly. Both of these organizations are at the top of their respective games and are well prepared for their next chapters.”