One by one, the big-name brand messengers: Wolf Blitzer, Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and about two dozen of their CNN colleagues, bored, confused, and ready to take the plunge.
Their miner was Jason Kilar, the Hollywood-based WarnerMedia executive who was flown in for an emergency meeting on the ninth floor of CNN’s Washington office by Union Station.
It’s just a few hours later Jeff Zucker, the longtime president of CNN and a mentor to many of the stars in the room, stunned his network by resigning at the behest of Mr. Kilar. Mr. Zucker admitted he violated company policy by not disclosing a romantic relationship with Allison Gollust, a close colleague.
Ms. Bash summed up the mood, according to an audio recording made by an attendee obtained by The New York Times. “For a lot of us,” she said, “the feeling was that for Jeff, the punishment didn’t match the crime.” Anchor Pamela Brown asked if Kilar’s past tensions with Mr. Zucker influenced his decision. “Why is it handled this way?” asked political analyst Gloria Borger.
It was as if a year’s worth of frustrations and pressures had poured in: uncertainty about CNN’s ownership of the company; the shooting of the anchor Chris Cuomo in an embarrassing moral scandal; a looming merger with Discovery Inc.; and now the sudden departure of a leader who has remade the network, to some praise and some criticism, during his nine-year tenure.
Mr. Zucker acknowledged his relationship with Ms. Gollust, the executive vice president, as part of WarnerMedia’s investigation into Mr. Cuomo’s tenure. For months, Mr. Zucker defended Mr. Cuomo, his most prized person, even after it was revealed he advised his brother, former New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo, against the case. sexual harassment scandal. Lawyers for Mr. Cuomo, who is currently fighting over his severance pay, recently brought up the topic of Mr. Zucker’s affair with the network.
A moment of change at CNN
On Wednesday, Mr. Tapper asked about perceptions that Mr. Cuomo had successfully used Mr. Zucker’s connections to force him to resign.
“Jeff said we don’t negotiate with terrorists, and Chris blew up the place,” Mr. Tapper said. “How do we overcome the perception that this is the bad guy winning?”
“All I can give you, Jake, is every minute of every day, what we have on screen behind you,” Mr. Kilar replied. “I believe that’s what will define us going beyond what happened today.”
Mr. Kilar said WarnerMedia’s investigation into Cuomo’s tenure was “completed”. He refused to expand on the process that led to Mr. Zucker’s departure, which fueled speculation in the newsroom that other factors may have played a role. Those unanswered questions are just one of the obstacles facing CNN today, CNN is facing a leadership vacuum and a rapidly shrinking audience is abandoning cable television.
All of this comes as a major corporate merger is weeks away from regulatory approval, potentially reshaping the fortunes of WarnerMedia, its struggling parent company, AT&T, and prominent news managers and capable media executives in Manhattan, Hollywood, and Dallas.
AT&T has the most at stake. The Justice Department’s swift approval of the Discovery merger is particularly important for the telecommunications company, whose foray into the world of news and entertainment with WarnerMedia has not gone well.
Burdened with $180 billion in debt and a stock that has lost two-thirds of its value in the past five years, AT&T is looking to regulators to sign the deal and remove WarnerMedia from its balance sheet. The deal will generate an estimated $43 billion that the company could use to ease its debt burden.
The past few days have meant a reversal of Mr. Zucker’s fortunes. He is best friend with David Zaslav, the media giant who is poised to lead the combined WarnerMedia and Discovery, and his role in the new corporate structure seems secure.
Online journalists watched his future carefully, and were surprised in November, when John C. Malone, Discovery’s largest shareholder and billionaire chairman of Liberty Media – a The consortium, which has stakes in radio stations SiriusXM, Formula One and the Atlanta Braves – issued an interview with CNBC, which was interpreted as a criticism of the more scathing commentary Mr. Zucker had posted to CNN. In recent years.
“I would like to see CNN grow back to its original form of journalism and actually have journalists, which is going to be very unique and new,” Malone told CNBC.
Mr. Zucker’s strategy was successful during the Trump administration, but the network’s ratings have plummeted since then. More recently, Mr. Zucker built CNN+, a digital news subscription service slated to start in the next few weeks, representing CNN’s belated gamble on streaming as a to attract more viewers.
Two of Mr. Zucker’s streamers – Chris Wallace, formerly of Fox News, and Kasie Hunt, formerly of MSNBC – attended Mr. Kilar’s session on Wednesday. It’s a reminder that CNN+, the network that hired 500 new employees, will now continue to operate without its leadership.
Many in Hollywood and New York believed that Mr. Kilar would leave WarnerMedia after the merger. He and Mr. Zucker have had a strained relationship since shortly after Mr. Kilar took over as chief executive in May 2020.
One of Mr. Kilar’s initial moves was to strip Mr. Zucker of oversight of the network’s communications and HR teams. Mr. Zucker was notified just minutes before the announcement and was furious, and soon began to suggest that he would not renew his contract.
In the months that followed, Mr. Kilar went to great lengths to show how much he wanted Mr. Zucker to stay. “I think it would be great if Jeff was here for the next 50 years,” Mr. Kilar told The Times in late 2020.
Mr. Zucker stayed, and Mr. Kilar saw his own fortunes dwindle after he hid his considerations for the Discovery deal from AT&T until it was announced shortly before it was announced. So far this week, many CNN journalists have figured out that Mr. Kilar, who has barely seen CNN staff because of the pandemic and the frenzy of the 2020 presidential election, is weeks away from disappearing. their life.
Instead, on Wednesday, Mr. Kilar appeared in court in the Pennsylvania Avenue boardroom of the Washington office, and Mr. Zucker was no longer a CNN employee.
Amid all the corporate intrigue, some journalists and producers at CNN are now wondering what, if any, role Zaslav, Kilar and John Stankey, AT&T chief executive officer, have played. role in the decision to remove Mr. Zucker.
The future of the network Mr. Zaslav is expected to inherit could be determined in part by any further revelations about the circumstances of Mr. Zucker’s departure.
Asked on Wednesday by Kaitlan Collins, CNN’s White House correspondent, when he first learned of Mr. Zucker’s romantic relationship with Ms. Gollust – which has been widely rumored in the television industry – Mr. Kilar said he didn’t know about it until the investigation.
When pressed by Mrs. Collins, Mr. Kilar refused to say more. “Out of respect for the process, out of respect for Jeff, I absolutely won’t answer,” he said.
Peter Eavis contribution report.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/04/business/media/jeff-zucker-cnn.html At CNN, Personal and Corporate Tensions Clash After Jeff Zucker Leaves