Jeff Zucker resigns from CNN over consensual relationship with key lieutenant
Zucker’s stunning announcement came less than two months after he fired prime-time anchor Chris Cuomo for improperly advising his brother, then New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, on how to handle allegations of sexual misconduct.
“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’ve worked with for over 20 years,” he said. Zucker told employees in a memo. “I acknowledged that the relationship has evolved over the past few years. I was required to disclose this when it began, but I did not. I was wrong. Accordingly, I am resigning today.”
Zucker didn’t name his colleague, but the relationship is with Allison Gollust, his top lieutenant for the past two decades. Gollust remains at CNN.
Zucker and Gollus began working together at NBC in 1998. They rose through the network ranks together, and when Zucker joined CNN, Gollust was among his first hires. Just before coming to CNN, Gollust had worked briefly as communications director for Andrew Cuomo. She is currently Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at CNN.
In a personal statement, Gollust said, “Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over 20 years. Recently our relationship changed during COVID. I regret that we didn’t reveal this at the right time. . I’m incredibly proud of my time at CNN and I look forward to continuing the great work we do every day.”
Both Zucker and Gollus divorced their partners years ago. Rumors that their close working relationship had turned into a romantic one have long been the subject of speculation and have occasionally surfaced in gossip columns. Journalist Katie Couric, who once worked closely with Zucker but later fell out with him, even alluded to it in her tell-all memoir published last year.
News of Zucker’s resignation sent shockwaves through CNN and the entire industry. CNN employees had no idea what was to come until Zucker’s email arrived in their inbox shortly after 11 a.m. ET.
Zucker spoke with some of CNN’s top executives on Wednesday morning, shortly before announcing his departure. He indicated that he would have liked to stay for a short time, to help with a smooth transition, but WarnerMedia wanted otherwise.
According to two people involved in the case, Zucker was at risk of being fired if he did not resign.
Underscoring how unexpected the news was, some of Zucker’s direct reports were out of the office and traveling on Wednesday.
Kilar, who flew to New York to oversee the transition, stepped in to lead the Wednesday meeting that Zucker usually holds with his management team.
Kilar also plans to meet with staff in Washington and Atlanta, a source said.
WarnerMedia is merging with Discovery. Many media observers believed Zucker was in line for a promotion once that deal was done. That’s not the only reason this is a pivotal time for the network: CNN plans to launch an ambitious streaming service, CNN+, in the spring, and it’s also set to roll out a new 9 p.m. replace Cuomo.
In an email to staffers on Wednesday afternoon, Jason Kilar, CEO of CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia, said three senior executives would run CNN until the merger with Discovery is complete: Michael Bass , Amy Entelis and Ken Jautz.
“I have full confidence that Michael, Amy and Ken, as interim chiefs of News, will provide the leadership this organization needs during this time of transition,” Kilar said, adding that employees will “hear more” of the three leaders “in the days to come.”
Zucker, with Gollus on his management team, took over CNN in 2013, at a time when industry watchers said the network was facing an identity crisis.
Zucker revamped the network’s lineup. A veteran of NBC, where he rose from producer of the “Today” show to president of the entire network, Zucker brought an eye to news and talent. He also brought a hands-on management style and won the trust and respect of talents and employees across the network.
In recent years, Zucker has led the network as it faced sustained attacks from former President Trump and his supporters. Under Zucker, CNN adopted a “Facts First” slogan and approach to reporting and repeatedly called out Trump for his lies.
This approach turned Zucker into a villain for Trump, with the then-president going after him during his years in office. Zucker has also become a regular boogeyman in right-wing media, with Fox hosts viciously attacking him in prime time.
All of this was proof of Zucker’s larger-than-life status in the news business and his influence on the broader discourse of American politics.
The fallout from the Cuomo scandal
Zucker defended Chris Cuomo for the better part of a year while critics said the presenter should have been benched or worse for what was then publicly known about how he advised his brother. Zucker finally fired Cuomo in early December, after new revelations about how the brothers worked together to fight allegations against Andrew.
Before taking action, CNN retained the services of Cravath, a white shoe law firm, to review the Cuomo case.
When Cuomo was fired, CNN said Cravath’s findings alone were “grounds for termination.” But the network also said it received a sexual misconduct allegation from a “former junior colleague” against Chris Cuomo. Although Cuomo denied the allegation, a CNN spokesperson said at the time, “When new allegations came to us this week, we took them seriously and saw no reason to delay taking immediate action.”
Cravath continued its investigation, according to sources familiar with the matter. A complicating factor is Cuomo’s ongoing legal battle with CNN, which apparently explains why Zucker was asked about his relationship with Gollus, one of the sources said.
According to WarnerMedia’s Standards of Business Conduct Handbook, “Employees should not hire or supervise (directly or indirectly) anyone with whom they have a personal relationship, and if you are in a position to influence the employment, advancement or hiring of a person with whom you have a personal relationship or a business with which they are associated or in which they have an interest, you must notify the Human Resources department before taking any action.