Romance, vendettas and the media spotlight: CNN reels from president’s resignation

A scandal involving Jeff Zucker’s relationship with a colleague is just the tip of the iceberg at the news network, which is mired in a reputational and financial crisis

Jeff Zucker
Jeff Zucker, who has resigned as president of CNN Worldwide, at the Fox Theatre in Detroit on July 30, 2019.Paul Sancya (AP)
María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo

The US Justice Department last week approved the merger of two giants: WarnerMedia, the owner of the CNN news network and the HBO platform, and Discovery. The deal paves the way for the launch of CNN+, a new step in the revolution of streaming and a challenge for traditional media outlets such as cable television.

Dozens of Democratic lawmakers, including the progressives Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, had expressed their concern that the merger could break anti-monopoly laws, but the green light from the regulators has cleared up those doubts. What is yet to be resolved, however, are the numerous questions that have been raised by the resignation of CNN president Jeff Zucker for having had a consensual relationship with a work colleague, another executive at the company. His departure was announced when the merger was under scrutiny, and many consider it to be the tip of the iceberg of a multifaceted crisis.

For two divorced adults to start a relationship – one that, what’s more, was an open secret in the company – would not be newsworthy even though it breaks CNN’s corporate rules, which oblige staff to report any in-house romance. That is why Zucker’s decision to quit has been interpreted in other ways, such as the first thread to pull on to explain a tangled corporate and image crisis, with power games and squabbles. It would be a good plotline for a TV show in fact: love affairs, boards of directors and the blinding media focus.

Many are asking if a viewer will be willing to part with another dozen or so dollars a month for news shows and documentaries, when cable TV services already offer these

Many factors have agitated the choppy seas at CNN. The most apparent are the major debts of AT&T, the global telecoms giant and parent company of WarnerMedia ($156.2 billion at the end of 2021); dwindling audience numbers after the arrival of Joe Biden as president (Donald Trump’s time in office was a goldmine in news terms); the steamroller effect of streaming, including the growing thirst for non-fiction; and the investigation that led to the firing in December of the channel’s prime time anchor Chris Cuomo.

After having initially suspended him, the channel ended Cuomo’s contract after he incurred in conflicts of interest and violated ethical rules by advising his brother, the then-governor of New York Andrew Cuomo, who had been reported for sexual assault by a dozen or so women – it was a scandal that eventually cost the politician his job.

According to an internal investigation, Chris Cuomo – who is yet to be replaced on a permanent basis by CNN – called a number of journalists in a bid to discredit the women who had accused his brother of misconduct.

Many sources – although it is impossible to reach a direct one, such is the secrecy surrounding the scandal – confirm that Zucker’s relationship with the network’s chief marketing officer, Allison Gollust, was mentioned deliberately by Chris Cuomo’s lawyers during litigation over his severance pay. It was a kind of perfect vendetta, and it happened despite the support that Zucker showed him during the probe into his role in the scandal surrounding his brother.

But the romance between Zucker and Gollust is not enough to explain the crisis at CNN, and by extension at WarnerMedia and AT&T. Nor the challenges facing CNN+ in a saturated sector such as streaming, starting with the audience: many are asking if a viewer will be willing to part with another dozen or so dollars a month for news shows and documentaries, when cable TV services already offer these. Another reasonable doubt is the decline of pay TV itself: in the last year, around four million US households have canceled their cable subscriptions, according to the analysis firm MoffettNathanson.

CNN has not skimped on star signings for CNN+, which is planning to launch at the end of March. Actress Eva Longoria will host a show about Mexican cuisine, former Fox host Chris Wallace will have a weekly interview show, while the influential ex-NBA star Rex Chapman will present a “positive news” program, whatever that might be.

CNN is not alone on its quest to increase its offerings with a digital platform. Fox News, for example, launched a similar service in 2018 to that currently being prepared by its rival: a mix of documentaries, lifestyle shows and well-known faces from the network, such as Tucker Carlson. CNN will also make use of its own stars, with Anderson Cooper slated to host two shows, one about bringing up children. Cooper and his husband became parents of twins in 2020 via surrogacy.

The sudden exit of Zucker after nine years as president, during which he drove the transformation of the network, leaves behind it a trail of appreciation (in particular among his students, whom he pampered and protected), as well as much criticism, and too many unanswered questions. He was the man who dared to sue Trump’s White House for vetoing his political correspondent, and emerged from that fight victorious.

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