CNN President Jeff Zucker abruptly resigned Wednesday after acknowledging a consensual relationship with another network executive — an entanglement that came to light during an investigation of now-fired anchor Chris Cuomo.
Zucker said he was asked about his relationship with longtime aide Allison Gollust as part of the Cuomo investigation, which revealed that the former anchor had aided his brother, then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as he navigated a sexual harassment scandal.
“I acknowledged the relationship had evolved in recent years,” Zucker wrote in a memo announcing the end of his nine-year tenure. “I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn't. I was wrong.”
A memo to employees from Jason Kilar, CEO of CNN parent WarnerMedia, said three senior executives at CNN would run the network on an interim basis.
Zucker, 56, has been an industry leader since he was executive producer of the “Today” show in the 1990s. In the following decade, he ran NBC's entertainment division, where he was instrumental in putting the reality show “The Apprentice” starring Donald Trump on the air.
He rose to become chief of NBC Universal and left in 2010 when Comcast took over.
In a statement Zucker said he wished that his tenure at CNN had ended differently but, “it was an amazing run. And I loved every minute.”
Gollust, a former publicist who rose to the rank of CNN's executive vice president and chief marketing officer, is staying at the network.
“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.”
Prior to joining CNN, Gollust served as communications director for Andrew Cuomo. Like Zucker, she worked at NBC prior to that. Both are divorced.
Chris Cuomo, at the time CNN's most popular prime-time anchor, was fired in December when it was revealed in documents released by New York Attorney General Letitia James that his behind-the-scenes role helping craft his brother's response to harassment charges was more extensive than previously acknowledged.
James' office found that Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed at least 11 women. The former governor resigned in August to avoid a likely impeachment trial.
Chris Cuomo is reportedly seeking a settlement from CNN, and speculation that Zucker and Gollust's relationship might come up in those talks was raised when Radaronline.com wrote a story about the two last month.
Cuomo's lawyer, Bryan Freedman, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
The resignation was met with shock within CNN, where Zucker was generally well liked. He sharpened the network's focus and, as a former producer, was often seen in the control rooms giving hands-on advice about running shows.
Like other news outlets, CNN has suffered in the the ratings following the end of the 2020 election, and has not yet named a replacement for Cuomo.
Particularly in prime time, CNN personalities have become much more likely to express their opinions on the air, and Zucker's downfall was met with glee in some conservative circles.
Ironically, Zucker had been criticized early in the 2016 election cycle when CNN gave extensive time to covering Trump's rallies live.
“Zucker made Donald Trump a star, more than once. That is his legacy,” tweeted media analyst Jeff Jarvis on Wednesday.
Yet in his presidency, Trump frequently called CNN “fake news” and criticized Zucker personally. The former president issued a statement crowing about his departure on Wednesday.
Experts said Zucker’s resignation might affect the upcoming CNN+ streaming service, which has been making an aggressive effort to recruit big media names like Fox News’ Chris Wallace and NPR’s Audie Cornish. That service is expected to launch in March.
“The timing of this departure is probably about as ill-timed as you can get,” for CNN+, said Tim Hanlon, CEO of media consultancy The Vertere Group. “CNN is making up for a lot of lost time with the arrival of their streaming service … The vision of CNN+ is very much in question. It has Jeff Zucker’s hallmarks all over it.”
There had been uncertainty over Zucker's future at CNN in recent years. He had previously announced he was leaving amid reports of friction with Kilar. But there was some hope at CNN that he would stay given a pending corporate merger that would put CNN under the umbrella of Discovery executive David Zaslav, known to be Zucker's close friend.
“This obviously makes it pretty clear that their future is more wide open,” said Moody's senior vice president Neil Begley. “It makes a cleaner slate for the new team to come in an decide what is the best way to optimize CNN and news overall.”
Zucker was named chairman of WarnerMedia News and Sports in March 2019. He has also served as president of CNN Worldwide since 2013.
He oversaw all of WarnerMedia’s live programming, including all divisions of CNN Worldwide and Turner Sports. At CNN, that includes the US television network, CNN International, HLN, and CNN’s digital properties. His sports portfolio included Turner Sports and Bleacher Report.
The circumstances of Zucker's resignation are likely to hurt CNN's reputation because it shows a pattern of ethical laxness, said Paul Argenti, a Dartmouth College professor of corporate communication.
CNN was criticized for moving too slowly when it was revealed that Chris Cuomo had been helping his brother behind the scenes. At about the same time, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, CNN bent its own rules to allow Chris to interview Andrew on the air.
“You’ve got to jump on these things quickly and respond by saying ‘We made a mistake and here’s what we’re doing so it never happens again,’” Argenti said. “They should have done that after Cuomo.”
The gender advocacy group UltraViolet on Wednesday called on CNN to launch an independent investigation into its leadership and workplace policies.
While Gollust and Zucker said their relationship had changed only recently, their closeness had been noted before. Katie Couric, in her 2021 memoir “Going There,” said Zucker had pushed her to hire Gollust when he was advising her on the 2012 launch of her syndicated daily talk show.
“When we worked together at NBC, she and Jeff cooked up ever bolder ways to draw attention to ‘Today’ and later to Jeff himself when he moved to entertainment,” she wrote. “They were joined at the hip.”
Associated Press Business Writer Mae Anderson in New York and Television Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.