“More shoes to drop.” That was a phrase repeated many times in media circles on the day after the abrupt resignation of CNN Jeff Zucker, though it remained unclear whether there really were more shoes and where they might drop.
The implication was that Zucker and his significant other, Allison Gollust, may have been uncomfortably intertwined with the Cuomo brothers in a manner yet to be revealed, including possibly providing advice to embattled then-New York Governor Andrew in a manner not unlike that which cost Chris his job. Was this real, or were players at AT&T/WarnerMedia/Discovery putting it into the water after facing noisy blowback from loyal CNN talent? That remains unclear. But even before that particular known-unknown came into focus, the outraged response of some top CNN talent read as far more emotional than analytical, especially for a group of news professionals.
Controversial as he was, damned though he was in many circles for his role in building up and promoting Donald Trump, Zucker was, to many, a beloved boss, seen as an essential player by his staff. But journalists are supposed to be skeptical, to consider that there may be facts they don’t know. Sometimes they have to confront facts that they do know but don’t like. And though it was clearly an emotional day at CNN, journalists are supposed to keep their cool, even in the midst of war. Recently, we’ve seen a reporter literally get hit by a car during a live broadcast, and she still finished her segment. That’s not recommended, but it’s what reporters do.
Yet within hours of the Zucker news breaking, Alisyn Camerota was on the air, decrying the decision to force his resignation. “If what you’re reporting is true, these are two consenting adults who are both executives,” she told CNN’s Brian Stelter. “That they can’t have a private relationship feels wrong.” In a subsequent meeting in CNN’s Washington bureau that evening, with WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, Dana Bash is reported to have complained that “the punishment did not fit the crime.” Some in the group seemed to have rushed to the conclusion that Kilar had seized an opportunity to vanquish an adversary, using a minor violation that should have been forgiven. And maybe that is an element of the story. Possibly, as some have speculated, incoming chief David Zaslav might not mind getting a clear shot at reshaping CNN without having to confront his close friend Zucker (assuming the Discovery-Warner Media deal is approved).
But maybe outraged CNN staffers could have noticed some things, starting with the fact that Zucker and Gollust didn’t exactly come clean in the statements they issued that day. Zucker said that when asked, “I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years.” Imagine a politician in the middle of this type of scandal who says the relationship “evolved in recent years.” Any reporter would dismiss that as vague, unsatisfactory and demanding more precision.
Gollust’s statement — and notably, she’s a top communications executive —was worse. “Recently, our relationship changed during COVID,” she said. Within a day, it was widely reported that the relationship between Zucker and Gollust had been the openest of secrets for years. Who couldn’t see those revelations coming?
Immediately after news of the resignation broke, the internet coughed up a passage from Katie Couric’s memoir in which she all but declared that Zucker and Gollust had been romantically involved during her short-lived syndicated TV show, which aired in 2012-2014. So much for “recent years” and “during COVID.” And though Gollust and Zucker are single now, they weren’t then, and Couric noted that Gollust and her family lived in an apartment above the one Zucker shared with his wife and children in a “cozy arrangement” that struck “everyone who heard about it” as “super strange.” As a close friend of Zucker’s wife, she continued, “it made me really uncomfortable.”
The day after Zucker’s resignation, a Rolling Stone article set the start of the relationship in 1996, when Gollust was a trainee in NBC’s corporate communications group and Zucker was the married executive producer of Today. That image, involving a very clear disparity of power, is a lot less appealing than that of “two consenting adults who are both executives.” In the years that followed, Gollust ascended rapidly at NBC and then CNN, largely while reporting to Zucker. (The magazine also reported that WarnerMedia had previously investigated the relationship and that the pair had repeatedly denied romantic involvement.)
And there was more to the Couric anecdote: She wrote that Zucker had pushed to find Gollust a job on Today even though Couric felt her services were not needed. “I had to wonder why Jeff was angling so hard to bring Allison on board,” she wrote. The appearance is that Zucker leaned on a top network star to accommodate an underling with whom he was romantically linked. An anecdote like that would seem revealing to any reporter writing a piece about a politician or executive, who would then look for other signs of rule-bending. That didn’t seem to break through to some high-profile members of the CNN staff.
In the confrontational meeting with Kilar, Jake Tapper raised questions about Chris Cuomo that in themselves could have been enough to give Zucker’s defenders pause. “Jason, if you could address the perception that Chris Cuomo gets fired by CNN, Chris Cuomo hires a high-powered lawyer who has a scorched-earth policy, who then makes it very clear to the world that unless Jeff gives Chris Cuomo his [severance] money, they’re going to blow the place up. Stuff starts getting leaked to gossip websites about Jeff and Allison, … and then weeks later, Jeff comes forward, discloses this and resigns — not willingly.” Tapper said. “An outside observer might say, ‘Wow, it looks like Chris Cuomo succeeded. He threatened, Jeff said, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” and he blew the place up.’ How do we get past that perception, that this is the bad guy winning?”
If Chris Cuomo is, in fact, the bad guy winning, it’s reasonable to ask: Who gave him the ammunition to get the job done? And there were questions that went beyond the mere fact of a Zucker-Gollust relationship, though similar conduct has cost other top executives their jobs in recent years. Dealings with the Cuomo brothers have been uncomfortable enough, even if there are no more shoes to drop about their interactions with Zucker and Gollust.
CNN was lenient with Chris for a long time as the Andrew story ground on. He had already stirred controversy for interviewing his brother on CNN’s air and, as a result, was no longer supposed to discuss Andrew at all. On Aug. 3, New York Attorney General Letitia James released her findings that Andrew had engaged in sexual harassment in violatation of federal and state law. Any news channel might have taken Chris off the air so that another anchor could cover one of the biggest stories in the country. But Chris was in the chair that night, pretending the story didn’t exist. Did Zucker ask him to take a break, only to be rebuffed because his anchor had lethal information about him? Was Zucker even in a position to ask?
These seem like questions that might occur to any reporter covering the story. Maybe by now some of Zucker’s defenders at CNN are starting to wonder — and fear — what the answers might be, no matter how much they loved having Zucker as a boss.