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 Gov. Andrew Cuomo, about how to address sexual misconduct allegations.
“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 have worked with for more than 20 years,” Zucker told employees in a memo. “I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong. As a result, I am resigning today.”
Zucker did not name his colleague, but the relationship is with Allison Gollust, his key lieutenant for the last two decades. Gollust is remaining at CNN.
Zucker and Gollust began working together at NBC in 1998. They rose through the ranks at the network 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 statement of her own, 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 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.”
News of Zucker’s resignation sent shockwaves inside CNN and across the industry. CNN employees had no idea what was coming before Zucker’s email landed in their inboxes shortly after 11 a.m. ET.
Zucker spoke with some of CNN’s top executives on Wednesday morning, shortly before he announced his departure. He indicated that he would have liked to stay on for a short period, to help with a smooth transition, but WarnerMedia wanted otherwise.
According to two people involved in the matter, Zucker was facing termination if he did not resign.
Underscoring just 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 run the Wednesday meeting Zucker usually holds with his top executive team.
Kilar also plans to meet with staffers in Washington and Atlanta, a source said.
WarnerMedia is in the process of merging with Discovery. Many media observers thought Zucker was in line for a promotion once that deal is complete. That is 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 also needs to roll out a new 9 p.m. program to replace Cuomo.
In an email to staffers Wednesday afternoon, Jason Kilar, the CEO of CNN parent WarnerMedia, said three senior executives will lead 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 heads for News, will provide the leadership this organization needs during this time of transition,” Kilar said, adding that employees will “hear more” from the three executives “in the coming days.”
Zucker, with Gollust on his leadership team, took over CNN in 2013, at a time when industry observers said the network was facing an identity crisis.
Zucker revamped the network’s programming. A veteran of NBC, where he climbed from a producer on the “Today” show to president of the entire network, Zucker brought an eye for news and talent. He also brought a hands-on management style and gained the trust and respect of talent and staffers throughout the network.
In recent years, Zucker 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 the news and was unrelenting in calling out Trump for his lies.
The approach turned Zucker into a villain for Trump, with the then-president lashing out at him during his years in office. Zucker also became a regular boogeyman in right-wing media, with Fox hosts viciously attacking him in prime time.
It was all evidence of Zucker’s larger-than-life status in the news business and influence over the broader discourse in American politics.
Fallout from Cuomo scandal
Zucker defended Chris Cuomo for the better part of a year while critics said the anchorman should have been benched or worse for what was then publicly known about how he’d advised his brother. Zucker eventually fired Cuomo in early December, after further revelations about how the brothers worked together to combat the allegations against Andrew.
Before taking action, CNN retained Cravath, a white-shoe law firm, to review the Cuomo matter.
When Cuomo was fired, CNN said that Cravath’s findings alone were “cause to terminate.” But the network also said it had received an allegation of sexual misconduct from a “former junior colleague” against Chris Cuomo. Though 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 has continued its probe, according to sources familiar with the matter. One complicating factor is Cuomo’s ongoing legal battle with CNN, which is apparently why Zucker was questioned about his relationship with Gollust, one of the sources said.
According to WarnerMedia’s Standards of Business Conduct handbook, “employees must not hire or supervise (directly or indirectly) someone with whom they have a personal relationship, and if you are in a position to influence the employment, advancement or hiring of someone with whom you have a personal relationship or a business they are associated with or have an interest in, you must inform the HR department in advance of taking any action.”