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In a stunning move, Jeff Zucker resigned as CNN president Wednesday, citing his failure to disclose a relationship with a longtime colleague.
Zucker's sudden departure was announced in a memo sent to CNN employees, sending shock waves through the WarnerMedia unit.
His exit marks a dramatic fall for one of the industry's most prominent media figures and comes at a crucial time for WarnerMedia, which is planning to finalize its merger with Discovery Inc. later this year.
"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 said in a memo to employees. "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."
The relationship was with Allison Gollust, CNN’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer.
“Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over 20 years," Gollust 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.”
Zucker said in his memo that the relationship surfaced during CNN's investigation into former anchor Chris Cuomo, who was fired in December after revelations about his involvement in managing the sexual harassment scandal that forced his brother Andrew to resign as governor of New York.
He is the latest media executive forced to step down over a relationship with a subordinate colleague, in this case a consensual one that was not disclosed to an employer, a common requirement in such situations.
In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, which brought down a number of high-profile industry players — including former CBS chief Leslie Moonves, former "Today" host Matt Lauer and former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes — such misconduct is no longer tolerated.
CNN named an interim leadership team made up of veteran executives Amy Entelis, Michael Bass and Ken Jautz. Entelis currently oversees talent development and CNN's original series programming. Bass is an executive vice president for programming, and Jautz oversees HLN and business operations.
The three are expected to lead the company until Discovery completes its $43-billion acquisition of WarnerMedia.
Zucker, 56, who also served as chairman of WarnerMedia's news and sports divisions, was expected to have a larger role in the combined company before his nine-year run at CNN suddenly ended.
The high-profile executive and Gollust have been close associates for years, going back to their days at NBC, and have long been the subject of rumors that they were romantically involved. They both divorced their previous spouses in recent years.
Katie Couric, former host of NBC's "Today" show, raised questions about their association in her recent memoir. When Zucker was executive producer of Couric's failed syndicated talk show in 2012, he asked the host to consider hiring Gollust to handle communications, she wrote.
The relationship received more scrutiny in media industry circles during the controversy at CNN over Cuomo's involvement in managing the sexual harassment scandal that forced his brother to step down as New York governor.
Zucker faced criticism for not disciplining or suspending Chris Cuomo when it was first revealed in May that he was assisting his brother in handling the crisis, a blatant violation of journalistic practices.
Gollust also had a connection to Andrew Cuomo, having served as his communications director for four months in 2013 before joining Zucker at CNN.
Zucker fired Chris Cuomo in December. The decision came after a stinging report from the New York state attorney general's office revealed that the anchor had been more involved in his brother's dealings than CNN executives previously realized.
An outside law firm was brought in by CNN to review the testimony by Chris Cuomo and other materials, such as text messages, which depict him developing strategies that included contacting journalists covering his brother’s situation.
After the report was released and Cuomo was suspended, a former female colleague of his at ABC News came forward with an allegation of sexual assault, which sealed his fate. A representative for Chris Cuomo denied the allegation.
“It’s extraordinary to me that Zucker knew he had potential risk and liability with his own employment and went out on a limb to protect Chris Cuomo, who engaged in serious misconduct,” said Debra Katz, a Washington attorney who represents one of the women who accused Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment and the woman who came forward regarding Chris Cuomo's behavior.
Chris Cuomo had told friends that Zucker was well aware of his activities on behalf of his brother, especially as CNN promoted joint on-air appearances with him in 2020 as the former governor was riding high for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shortly after Cuomo's firing — depriving him of a $6-million annual salary — a detailed speculative account on the Zucker-Gollust relationship appeared on the website Radar Online.
An insider at WarnerMedia who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly said the relationship was raised by Cuomo's camp in connection with possible litigation challenging the popular anchor's termination.
Cuomo's supporters have linked his termination to comments by Discovery board member John Malone, who on Nov. 18 told CNBC that he was unhappy with CNN's move into opinion programming and compared the network unfavorably to Fox News, which Malone asserted did a better job of separating commentary from straight news reporting.
Malone's remarks stung Zucker and his team, who have long had a free hand in operating the highly profitable unit. Zucker energized CNN with the addition of hosts such as Cuomo, who injected commentary into the network's coverage, an approach that draws more viewers than straight news.
However, when the company learned of the relationship with Gollust, WarnerMedia Chief Executive Jason Kilar immediately recognized that Zucker had violated the company's ethics policies, the insider said.
It was Zucker's responsibility, as the supervisor, to report to his superiors the nature of his relationship with a subordinate.
Until his resignation, Zucker was seen as having a secure future at WarnerMedia because the company's new leader — Discovery CEO David Zaslav — is a longtime close friend from their years together at NBC.
Zucker's role had not been decided, the WarnerMedia insider said.
But he was unlikely to have any oversight of the company's scripted entertainment divisions, as his relationships with Hollywood creative types and agents were rocky during his tenure running NBC.
Now WarnerMedia and its future management team will have to fill the void at CNN as Zucker was a larger-than-life presence in the global news organization, giving it a swagger it did not have under previous executives.
Zucker was known as a hands-on leader who was loyal to his troops and received their unwavering allegiance in return.
One of Zucker's hires, Alisyn Camerota, expressed anger over the circumstances surrounding his ouster during her afternoon program Wednesday.
"This is an incredible loss," Camerota said. "[Jeff] had this unique ability to make us feel special, and I don't think that comes around all the time. These are two consenting adults who were both executives. That they can't have a private relationship — it feels wrong."
Although Zucker was beloved by many internally, his aggressive pursuit of ratings also brought criticism. He admitted to giving too much free airtime to Donald Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign.
After shepherding Trump's reality hit "The Apprentice" at NBC, Zucker was keenly aware of the real estate mogul's appeal as a TV attraction. CNN's aggressive coverage of Trump's presidency almost seemed like an attempt at redemption for building him up as a candidate.
Zucker's willingness to stand by CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin after he was caught masturbating during a Zoom meeting with colleagues from the New Yorker rankled many female employees at the network.
But the fact that none spoke out publicly was a testament to their commitment to a boss who was willing to publicly fight for them.
Times staff writers Meg James and Stacy Perman contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.