Jeff Zucker’s Downfall at CNN Was Months within the Making

Late within the day on Nov. 30, Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN Worldwide, summoned his star anchor and good friend, Chris Cuomo, to a gathering within the community’s skyscraper overlooking the Hudson River.

Mr. Zucker was joined by the community’s chief advertising officer — and his secret romantic accomplice — Allison Gollust. They needed to ship a fragile message.

Mr. Zucker advised Mr. Cuomo that CNN was suspending him due to his unethical interactions together with his brother, New York’s governor. Mr. Cuomo was shocked and supplied to resign. Mr. Zucker countered that the anchor would possibly be capable to return in some unspecified time in the future, in response to individuals with data of the dialog.

Mr. Cuomo felt reassured. He and Mr. Zucker have been confidants, their fortunes entwined. Mr. Cuomo didn’t hassle to seek the advice of a lawyer.

Barely 24 hours later, a letter arrived at CNN. It was from a lawyer representing a lady who had labored with Mr. Cuomo years earlier at ABC Information. She mentioned he had sexually assaulted her and that, within the warmth of the #MeToo motion, Mr. Cuomo had tried to maintain her quiet by arranging a flattering CNN section about her employer on the time.

The letter described it as an “abuse of energy at CNN to try to silence my shopper.”

Whereas a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo denied the allegations within the letter, it set in movement a series of occasions that will rapidly upend one of many world’s strongest information networks.

By week’s finish, Mr. Zucker had fired Mr. Cuomo, telling him {that a} drumbeat of scandals had grow to be “an excessive amount of for us.”

Two months later, Mr. Zucker was compelled to resign.

Publicly, Mr. Zucker blamed the failure to reveal his relationship with Ms. Gollust. However different forces had set the stage for his downfall.

CNN had skidded into third place in cable information scores. A key investor had criticized the community’s opinionated, personality-driven programming. Mr. Zucker had clashed with a high government at CNN’s guardian firm. And he had made highly effective enemies out of Mr. Cuomo and his brother, the previous New York governor.

By the point of Mr. Cuomo’s ouster, the regulation agency that had been employed to analyze his conduct had turned its consideration to Mr. Zucker and his administration of a community the place his intimacy with sources and workers had been each his calling card and Achilles’ heel.

Mr. Zucker’s abrupt departure has thrown the way forward for CNN into chaos, simply because it was poised to introduce a extremely anticipated streaming service and to return beneath new company possession.

Mr. Cuomo is hoping to extract tens of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} from CNN. Star anchors are revolting. Staff are questioning whether or not, with out Mr. Zucker on the helm, the community’s soon-to-be-owners at Discovery Inc. will basically change CNN’s sprawling information operations.

Risa Heller, a spokeswoman for Mr. Zucker, mentioned, “Jeff was by no means conscious of the total extent of what Chris Cuomo was doing for his brother, which is why Chris was fired.”

Steven Goldberg, a spokesman for Chris Cuomo, mentioned, “Mr. Cuomo felt very shut personally and professionally to Mr. Zucker, which is a part of what makes this so tough and hurtful.”

Greater than 30 individuals accustomed to the latest tumult — together with the girl on whose behalf the letter was written to CNN — described the occasions and moral violations that led to a management collapse at “essentially the most trusted identify in information.”

The ties between Mr. Zucker, Ms. Gollust and Mr. Cuomo — in addition to Andrew Cuomo, who resigned as governor final August — ran deep.

Mr. Zucker had met Ms. Gollust at NBC, when she was a younger publicist for the “In the present day” present and he was its 26-year-old government producer. As he climbed the ranks, finally changing into NBCUniversal’s chief government, the pair continued to work carefully collectively. Ms. Gollust even moved her household to the ground above Mr. Zucker’s in an Higher East Aspect constructing.

Then, in 2011, NBC’s new guardian firm compelled Mr. Zucker out.

Round then, Governor Cuomo was planning to throw a party for his girlfriend, the life-style impresario Sandra Lee. He requested Ms. Lee to suggest somebody to prepare the occasion. She advised Ms. Gollust.

The ensuing get together — a clambake on a Hamptons seashore — was such a powerful success that Mr. Cuomo determined Ms. Gollust ought to work for him. In 2012 she grew to become the governor’s communications director.

A number of months later, in January 2013, CNN employed Mr. Zucker. The following month, Ms. Gollust left Mr. Cuomo and Albany and rejoined her former boss because the community’s head of communications.

CNN was struggling. As soon as the chief in 24/7 information, its scores had fallen, its programming seen as stale. Mr. Zucker’s mission was to rejuvenate the community.

At NBC, he had turned across the moribund “In the present day” present by embracing feel-good information and nurturing stars like Katie Couric. Extra triumphs adopted for Mr. Zucker, as exhibits like “The Apprentice” and “Concern Issue” have been hits with viewers and helped elevate Donald J. Trump and Joe Rogan into cultural touchstones.

At CNN, one in every of Mr. Zucker’s first creations was a peppy morning present known as “New Day.” To co-host the present, Mr. Zucker recruited Chris Cuomo, an ABC Information correspondent who had shined in reporting from struggle and catastrophe zones.

Inside months of his arrival, Mr. Cuomo started pushing moral boundaries.

In December 2013, he interviewed Governor Cuomo a couple of practice crash within the Bronx. Media critics objected that it was not possible for somebody to impartially report on their sibling.

Afterward, Mr. Zucker barred Chris from interviewing or overlaying Andrew.

“New Day” was a modest hit. However Mr. Cuomo was polarizing. Some colleagues mentioned he may go from charming to bullying in a flash. Greater than as soon as, he despatched emails and textual content messages that colleagues thought-about impolite and even threatening.

But Mr. Zucker was loyal. In 2018 he awarded Mr. Cuomo his personal present within the coveted 9 p.m. slot, competing with stars like Rachel Maddow at MSNBC and Sean Hannity at Fox Information.

Mr. Cuomo’s combative type made him a really perfect on-air foil for President Trump. “Cuomo Prime Time” rapidly grew to become CNN’s highest-rated present. The success solely strengthened Mr. Cuomo’s bond with Mr. Zucker.

After Mr. Zucker underwent coronary heart surgical procedure in 2018, he and Mr. Cuomo spent hours speaking throughout lengthy walks in Central Park.

Mr. Zucker quickly signed off on a multiyear contract that paid Mr. Cuomo greater than $6 million yearly.

The onset of the pandemic stoked Mr. Zucker’s hypercompetitive instincts, on show since his days as a highschool tennis champion. Throughout the Trump years, he had led CNN to record-high scores and roughly $1 billion in annual revenue.

Now, within the Cuomo brothers, he noticed a singular alternative.

Governor Cuomo was having a second. His televised briefings have been calm and crammed with information, a stark distinction to the usually baffling pronouncements from the Trump administration. There was discuss of him working for president.

Then Chris Cuomo contracted Covid. He quarantined in and broadcast from the basement of his 6,000-square-foot house in East Hampton, N.Y. His scores soared.

Along with his eye for spectacle, Mr. Zucker lifted the ban on Chris Cuomo interviewing his brother. Starting in April 2020, the Cuomos ruminated on air about how the virus had disrupted society and their lives.

Mr. Zucker liked it. “Authenticity and relatability and vulnerability — that’s what the brothers Cuomo are giving us proper now,” he gushed to The New York Times in April 2020.

However their on-air bonding seemed much less charming after The Washington Publish reported that Governor Cuomo had helped his brother get preferential entry to scarce Covid exams, with state troopers escorting his nasal swabs to a lab.

CNN defended its anchor, saying he had “turned to anybody he may for recommendation and help, as any human being would.”

One night in March 2021, Chris Cuomo made a comment on stay tv that helped precipitate his downfall — and finally Mr. Zucker’s.

The New York legal professional normal had simply introduced that her workplace was investigating sexual harassment allegations in opposition to Andrew Cuomo.

With the governor in bother, Mr. Zucker reimposed the ban on Chris Cuomo overlaying him. As Mr. Cuomo defined to his viewers that he can be stepping away from the story, he gazed into the digital camera and denounced sexual harassment.

“I’ve at all times cared very deeply about these points and profoundly so,” he declared.

The girl who had labored with him at ABC Information watched in disbelief.

She mentioned in an interview with The Instances that she was haunted by the similarities between her expertise and people of the governor’s accusers. She wished to guard different ladies however didn’t need to go public, fearing retaliation and the lack of her privateness.

Quickly, although, she would rent a lawyer.

The governor’s rise had fueled his brother’s. Now, as Andrew Cuomo’s place worsened, so did Chris’s.

In Might 2021, The Washington Post reported that Chris Cuomo had been advising the governor’s workers on the way to fend off the harassment scandal. CNN — whose guardian firm had simply introduced plans to merge the community with Discovery — mentioned the conversations have been “inappropriate” however didn’t self-discipline him.

Some CNN workers have been aghast. An anchor, Jake Tapper, told The Times that Mr. Cuomo “put us in a nasty spot.”

Then, on Aug. 3, the New York legal professional normal, Letitia James, released a damning report about Andrew Cuomo’s sexual harassment. The information was coated all through the day on CNN — till 9 p.m., when Chris Cuomo got here on air.

He didn’t point out the scandal.

Per week later, the governor resigned.

Complaints quickly started surfacing in regards to the youthful Mr. Cuomo.

Shelley Ross, a longtime TV information government and Mr. Cuomo’s former boss at ABC, wrote in a Times opinion piece in September that Mr. Cuomo had groped her at a 2005 get together. (Mr. Cuomo apologized.)

Across the identical time, The New York Post reported that Mr. Cuomo’s former producer, Melanie Buck, had requested to be faraway from “Cuomo Prime Time” as a result of she discovered his conduct to be threatening.

CNN executives grew involved. They requested the community’s longtime regulation agency, Cravath Swaine & Moore, to look into the matter, in response to an individual accustomed to the investigation.

In late November, Ms. James’s workplace launched a fresh crop of emails and text messages that exposed how Chris Cuomo had collected details about forthcoming articles about his brother and tried to undermine the credibility of one in every of his brother’s accusers.

The following day, Nov. 30, Mr. Cuomo was chauffeured to CNN’s Manhattan headquarters to sketch out that night’s present. Mr. Zucker requested him to return to a gathering.

The community president had spent years standing by his anchor. Now, feeling that Mr. Cuomo had misled him, Mr. Zucker was dropping endurance. He had initially deliberate to fireplace Mr. Cuomo, earlier than deciding to carry off.

Mr. Zucker tried to be diplomatic as he broke the information that Mr. Cuomo was suspended. He advised there was an opportunity he may return after the community’s investigation ran its course, in response to individuals accustomed to the dialog.

CNN went again to Cravath and requested the agency to look at the brand new details about the interactions between the Cuomo brothers.

The following morning, Dec. 1, the CNN reporter Brian Stelter mentioned on-air that Mr. Cuomo may “be again in January.”

That evening, the fateful letter arrived at CNN. It was from Debra S. Katz, a outstanding sexual harassment lawyer, and it was addressed to David Vigilante, CNN’s normal counsel.

The letter was on behalf of the girl who had labored with Mr. Cuomo at ABC Information.

It relayed a narrative that had begun in 2011 when the girl, who was known as Jane Doe, was a younger short-term ABC worker hoping for a full-time job. In the future, after Mr. Cuomo, an anchor, had supplied her profession recommendation, he invited her to lunch in his workplace, in response to the letter, interviews with the girl and emails between her and Mr. Cuomo.

When she arrived, there was no meals. As a substitute, Mr. Cuomo badgered her for intercourse, and after she declined, he assaulted her, she mentioned. She ran out of the room.

Later that day, the girl, who was nonetheless searching for a job, tried to clean issues over by writing Mr. Cuomo pleasant emails.

The Instances interviewed 5 pals and former colleagues who mentioned the girl advised them Mr. Cuomo had made unwelcome sexual requests. She mentioned that solely prior to now 12 months did she start to inform those that Mr. Cuomo had additionally assaulted her, which she hadn’t beforehand divulged as a result of it was personal and painful.

The encounter in Mr. Cuomo’s workplace at ABC was not the tip of her story.

Ms. Katz’s letter mentioned that on the peak of the #MeToo rebellion, after TV personalities like Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer have been felled by misconduct allegations, Mr. Cuomo contacted the girl, seemingly out of the blue.

Mr. Cuomo proposed arranging a CNN section in regards to the firm the place she labored doing public relations. The girl tried to keep away from any contact with Mr. Cuomo, however CNN in the end broadcast a section anyway.

“After years with none substantive communication from Mr. Cuomo by any means, Ms. Doe suspected he was involved about her coming ahead publicly together with her allegations and wished to make use of the proposed section as a possibility to ‘take a look at the waters’ and discourage her from happening the document about his sexual misconduct,” Ms. Katz wrote.

The Instances reviewed Mr. Cuomo’s messages to the girl and the section and spoke together with her boss on the time. Her boss mentioned that after the section aired, the girl shared a few of the particulars of the encounter and Mr. Cuomo’s subsequent outreach.

Ms. Katz mentioned the girl, who has been “deeply traumatized,” doesn’t need to grow to be “a pawn in an internecine struggle between Zucker, Chris Cuomo and CNN” and received’t be saying something additional. She “deserves and requests privateness,” Ms. Katz mentioned.

On Friday, Dec. 3, two days after Ms. Katz despatched the letter, she and a lawyer for CNN made plans for her at hand over proof to substantiate the girl’s claims.

Earlier than that even occurred, Mr. Zucker fired Mr. Cuomo the subsequent afternoon.

From Mr. Cuomo’s perspective, Mr. Zucker had fired him with out due course of, fearful that the girl’s allegations would possibly seem within the media, in response to an individual accustomed to his considering.

Mr. Goldberg, the spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, mentioned the allegations in Ms. Katz’s letter “are false. He was by no means requested in regards to the allegations previous to being terminated or given a possibility to reply.” He refused to elaborate.

The day after he was fired, Mr. Cuomo employed Bryan Freedman, a Hollywood litigator identified for powerful negotiating ways and for securing multimillion-dollar settlements for aggrieved tv stars. (In Mr. Cuomo’s case, he deliberate to hunt cash owed beneath the anchor’s contract and compensation for future misplaced earnings.)

On Dec. 5, Mr. Freedman despatched a letter to CNN demanding that the community protect all paperwork associated to any dealings between any CNN worker and anybody within the governor’s workplace.

It was a transparent sign {that a} key component of Mr. Cuomo’s protection can be that Mr. Zucker and others at CNN had acted equally to Mr. Cuomo in speaking with the governor, with no repercussions.

Folks in Mr. Cuomo’s camp quickly started whispering to reporters that Mr. Zucker had coached Governor Cuomo on the way to use his televised briefings to go after Mr. Trump.

Ms. Heller, the spokeswoman for Mr. Zucker, mentioned he solely spoke to the governor about showing on CNN. “He by no means gave Andrew Cuomo recommendation,” she mentioned.

Quickly, an article appeared on the gossip web site Radar. It asserted that Mr. Zucker and Ms. Gollust had been engaged in a yearslong romantic relationship. The CNN president’s profession was about to unravel.

Mr. Zucker commanded loyalty from star anchors, and he had received the respect of many CNN journalists for standing as much as Mr. Trump, who repeatedly attacked the community.

However by late final 12 months, his standing together with his company superiors had wavered. The ugly scenario with Mr. Cuomo was solely the most recent blow.

In mid-November, John Malone, a number one shareholder in Discovery, appeared on CNBC. “I want to see CNN evolve again to the type of journalism that it began with and really have journalists, which might be distinctive and refreshing,” Mr. Malone mentioned.

The barb raised questions on whether or not the community’s future house owners would search main editorial adjustments.

Plus, the community’s scores have been down. And Mr. Zucker had a testy relationship with Jason Kilar, the WarnerMedia chief government.

In August 2020, Mr. Kilar introduced adjustments to CNN’s company construction with out consulting Mr. Zucker. Days later, Mr. Zucker was noticeably absent from a digital “city corridor” assembly that Mr. Kilar hosted.

As a substitute, the CNN president attended a fiftieth party for Chris Cuomo within the Hamptons, in response to two individuals accustomed to the matter.

By early January, Cravath’s investigation was shifting ahead, and the tenor of its questions had begun to shift.

What had began with a deal with Mr. Cuomo’s conduct was morphing right into a broader have a look at Mr. Zucker’s dealing with of the anchor and his interactions with the Cuomos.

Amongst different issues, the legal professionals requested CNN workers about how Mr. Zucker had dealt with Mr. Cuomo’s suspension and firing, what he knew about Chris Cuomo’s interactions together with his brother — and whether or not any workers have been conscious of communications between Mr. Zucker and Andrew Cuomo.

When the legal professionals questioned Mr. Zucker and Ms. Gollust, they requested about their romance. Mr. Zucker advised them that the connection had turned sexual through the pandemic.

Mr. Zucker didn’t disclose it to anybody in human sources or his superiors at WarnerMedia, together with Mr. Kilar.

The affair violated the corporate’s code of conduct, which prohibited workers from supervising anybody with whom they’ve a private relationship.

On Monday, Jan. 31, Mr. Zucker was absent from his typical function main CNN’s day by day 9 a.m. information assembly. He didn’t present up on Tuesday or Wednesday mornings, both.

At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Mr. Zucker emailed CNN workers with surprising information: He was resigning.

Mr. Zucker mentioned he was leaving as a result of he hadn’t disclosed the romantic relationship when it started. “I used to be improper,” he wrote.

Mr. Kilar had approached Mr. Zucker a couple of days earlier, shortly after he was interviewed by the Cravath legal professionals, and advised him he needed to go. Mr. Zucker requested to remain till the Discovery merger was full in a couple of months.

Mr. Kilar mentioned no.

Ben Smith contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill and Susan Beachy contributed analysis. Jeff Zucker’s Downfall at CNN Was Months within the Making

Fry Electronics Team

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