How Warner used CNN to lobby Andrew Cuomo

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The Scoop

CNN and its parent company Warner Bros. Discovery, reeling from firing CEO Chris Licht last week, are now facing a new, high-stakes drama.

Later this month, the company will begin arbitration with former host Chris Cuomo over his $125 million claim he was wrongly fired in in 2021. The New York proceeding includes previously undisclosed text messages in which CNN’s parent company, then known as WarnerMedia, sought to use the news network’s close relationship with then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — Chris’ brother — to advance Warner’s commercial interests.

The September 22, 2020 texts are between Governor Cuomo and CNN’s then-chief marketing officer, Allison Gollust. She had left his office years earlier for CNN but kept in frequent touch, helping to arrange appearances on CNN shows and smoothing over bumps when the governor was double-booked on other networks.

But while Gollust was assisting the network’s programming side, that day she crossed over into advocating for the business interests of CNN’s parent company, texting a request that the governor speak to WarnerMedia’s studio chief, Ann Sarnoff.

"She's bummed you don't open theaters in NY, but perhaps you can hear her out,” Gollust said in the message, which was read to Semafor by a person with firsthand access to the exchange.

The next day, Cuomo heeded Gollust’s request and called Sarnoff, who lobbied the governor to loosen restrictions on movie theaters, according to a person familiar with the exchange.

Know More

The text was, at the time, just another blip in a friendly relationship between top CNN executives and Cuomo, who had emerged as a hero to liberals across the country appalled by President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic. CNN had benefited from the governor’s ascension to national prominence and had briefly aided in it by allowing him to appear on air alongside his brother, who hosted CNN’s 9PM primetime show.

That all ended badly, when allegations of sexual harassment by the governor led to a scandal in which his brother, Gollust, and her boss and romantic partner Jeff Zucker all lost their jobs in quick succession.

Gollust and WarnerMedia declined to comment. Sarnoff and Chris Cuomo did not respond to requests for comment.

Max's view

The exchange, though it feels like ancient history, undermines some of what central players have claimed about the messy 2021 CNN scandals in the ongoing, five-sided blame game in and around the iconic news network.

  • WarnerMedia fired Zucker and Gollust in 2021, expressing shock at how close they were to the governor. It’s hard to square that shock with their using the relationship to lobby him.

  • The exchange could help illustrate a point that Chris Cuomo’s legal team has made publicly: The close ties between the governor and the network in the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic extended far beyond the relationship between Andrew Cuomo and his brother.

  • And while Zucker’s defenders rolled their eyes at the notion that media executives shouldn’t talk regularly to politicians, the September 22 texts strayed into questions of government policy and corporate favor-seeking.

Reopening theaters was a priority at the time for WarnerMedia. At the behest of director Christopher Nolan, the company was trying to juice ticket sales for , his trippy, big-budget science fiction epic, which the studio had hoped would be its summer blockbuster — even as CNN warned Americans about the threat of Covid-19. Theaters had reopened on a state-by-state basis, and New York’s governor had lagged behind other states that had allowed audiences back in. Just a few weeks after the call with Sarnoff, the then-governor announced that most theaters in the state outside New York City would reopen.

Today, that era is remembered fondly at CNN, one of high ratings and searing national relevance. Zucker’s decision to fire Cuomo was about a dozen CNN scandals ago, and is largely off the radar of most people at the network today.

But Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav’s decision to fire Chris Licht has further complicated the messy arbitration. That’s because CNN and its parent company have fired many of the people the media companies now hope will represent them.

Zucker and Gollust are preparing to answer questions about the circumstances around Cuomo’s departure, two sources familiar with their plans told Semafor.

Another key witness, former CNN head of strategic communications Matt Dornic, had already begun preparing for the hearings before he was fired on Wednesday along with his boss Licht. One person familiar with the plans said former Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter has been subpoenaed and could also be called as a witness, though it’s unclear whether Stelter will be asked to answer questions. Stelter was laid off by Licht last year amid cost cutting and a broader ideological realignment that targeted anti-Trump CNN personalities.

There are bizarre complications on the other side as well. Attorney Bryan Freedman, who is representing Cuomo, also signed on to help former host Don Lemon after he was fired by Licht. When Lemon needed PR help around his exit, he hired Gollust, who will presumably be questioned by Freedman during the arbitration hearings.

To sort some of this out, CNN has enlisted outside counsel Dan Petrocelli, who successfully represented AT&T and Time Warner against the Department of Justice’s attempt to block the merger.

There are indications that however frustrated ex-employees may feel toward CNN, they’ll likely still prove to be tough witnesses. Many former CNN staffers have “cooperation agreements” in their exit deals that compel them to work with the network on litigation if it should arise later.

Room for Disagreement

Gollust was an executive at WarnerMedia, and Governor Cuomo was talking to alarmed business leaders every day. In that context — only in that context — there was nothing out of the ordinary about her connecting him to Sarnoff.


  • Gollust and Zucker will also likely be asked about messages disclosed in Rolling Stone’s lengthy profile of the situation last year. The exchange shows Gollust congratulating the New York governor on his media appearances, and comparing his response to Covid to Trump’s response.

  • In 2013, CNN executives told Chris Cuomo that he could not interview his brother on air. But Covid-19 briefly changed the calculus for CNN, when Zucker saw the opportunity to create riveting television featuring one of the key players in America’s coronavirus response.

  • Since his ouster from CNN, Cuomo has spoken at length about the “hurt and embarrassment” he felt after he was fired. He told Anthony Scaramucci in an interview earlier this year that he is also suing his publisher for scrapping his book after he was fired from CNN.