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CNN anchors grill CEO over ouster of ex-news chief Jeff Zucker as sale looms

CNN's Erin Burnett and Alisyn Camerota (at left and right) are among the stars who have raised sharp questions about the ouster of former network chief Jeff Zucker (center).
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images; Mike Coppola/Getty Images for WarnerMedia; Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
CNN's Erin Burnett and Alisyn Camerota (at left and right) are among the stars who have raised sharp questions about the ouster of former network chief Jeff Zucker (center).

For the past six days, CNN anchors have waged a campaign to defend the reputation of their ousted boss, Jeff Zucker, and to demand answers from the head of their parent company over why Zucker was forced to leave the network after acknowledging his consensual relationship with a top executive.

"We're grieving," OutFront host Erin Burnett told WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar at a meeting on Monday held with staffers in New York City, according to several participants. Burnett compared Zucker's departure to a death in the family and said staffers could not move past such a loss without answers to key questions. Among them: who their new boss will be.

At another meeting on Monday held remotely with international staffers based in London, including Christiane Amanpour and Clarissa Ward, questions were equally pointed, with a focus on the plans for CNN's international channel. This account is based on interviews with five people with direct knowledge of recent events at the network. NPR is not naming them due to the sensitivity of the matter.

On the air, some of CNN's most familiar faces, including CNN Newsroom host Alisyn Camerota and GPS host Fareed Zakaria, have aired tributes to Zucker as a charismatic and supportive leader.

"This is an incredible loss," Camerota told viewers. "He has this uncanny ability to make, I think, every one of us feel special and valuable in our own way, even though he is managing an international news organization of thousands of people."

"These are two consenting adults who are both executives," Camerota said, adding that if what has been reported proves true, "that they can't have a private relationship feels wrong."

Chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward posted a tribute on Instagram that started: "Jeff Zucker is the best boss I have ever had. By a country mile."

CNN stars question reasons given for Zucker's departure

The facts of the matter seem simple: Zucker acknowledged last week in a memo to CNN staff that he had not disclosed his romantic involvement with a senior colleague at its outset, as required by corporate policy. The couple say it started during the coronavirus pandemic, though tabloid publications have suggested it began far earlier.

Yet the ouster occurred against the backdrop of a lawsuit threatened by Chris Cuomo, the former CNN star fired by Zucker in December, and a $43 billion dealawaiting regulatory approval in which telecommunications giant AT&T will transfer WarnerMedia to the control of Discovery Inc.

In a series of meetings Kilar has held with CNN staffers, including those in Atlanta, Washington and London, journalists have asked him whether there was more damning behavior by Zucker that has not yet been disclosed. They asked whether the company intends to strike a financial settlement with Cuomo. And they asked whether Kilar's apparent decision to force Zucker out was prompted by professional animus between the two, as has been widely reported.

Kilar heard out the journalists but offered few direct answers, according to participants who later spoke to NPR. He instead invoked the company's values several times.

Several Zucker associates tell NPR that he has said the decision to leave was not his own. Other news outlets have reported much the same. In her own public statement, Allison Gollust, the network's chief marketing officer and its communications chief, confirmed she was involved with Zucker. Neither is married. In one of her roles, however, she reported to Zucker, a violation of corporate policy.

Not all CNN employees appear to be overwrought over Zucker's departure. Zucker created a star system and liked swarming coverage and a lot of talking heads, often to the exclusion of other stories. Many of those speaking out were championed by Zucker and became highly paid stars. Others have noted that the network's ratings have tumbled since the departure from office of former President Donald Trump, who was the focus of much of the network's relentless coverage.

Questions about Zucker and Gollust's relationship arose during an investigation of Cuomo, conducted by a law firm, over the extent to which he had advised his older brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, regarding allegations of sexual harassment. Zucker had defended Chris Cuomo's actions despite revelations of his involvement in the governor's efforts to strategize how to contain the scandal. Late last year, as more details surfaced, Zucker fired Chris Cuomo, saying he had lied to the network about his actions.

At a meeting held by Kilar last Wednesday in Washington, D.C., The Lead anchor Jake Tapper argued it appeared that the CNN executive's departure was Cuomo's revenge, inflicted by threats from his high-powered attorney. "How do we get past that perception that this is the bad guy winning?" Tapper asked, in remarks first reported by The New York Times.

Confusion reigns at CNN in Zucker's absence

Kilar deflected the question.

Kilar has publicly said he expects to lose his job when the Discovery deal is wrapped up; Zucker, who had been expected to leave prior to the announcement of the sale, is a close friend of Discovery CEO David Zaslav, and many analysts believed he could land a position as a senior executive in the new entertainment conglomerate.

CNN's own leadership is in some disarray, with a spokesman referring calls to its corporate parent. Gollust is not directing the network's PR strategy and is said not to be in the office. The network is currently being led by a trio of senior corporate deputies to Zucker, who have described themselves as equally taken aback at his abrupt departure last week.

At one of the meetings, Ken Jautz, one of those senior executives, called Zucker CNN's most consequential leader since CNN founder Ted Turner — a characterization that could cut in more than one direction.

Gollust has been associated with Zucker professionally for more than a generation. They worked together closely at NBC, where Zucker worked his way up to the top before arriving at CNN. Gollust worked for then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo before rejoining Zucker at CNN. A report in Rolling Stone by Tatiana Siegel, a veteran entertainment reporter who has frequently relied upon the law firm that Chris Cuomo has hired as a source, says that Zucker's and Cuomo's own advice to the former governor was also coming under scrutiny.

"The article is false," Risa Heller, a spokeswoman for Zucker, said in a written statement. "Jeff resigned due to an undisclosed personal relationship. WarnerMedia confirmed that it considers the matter of his resignation closed."

A spokeswoman for WarnerMedia did not comment on the Rolling Stone article and told NPR the company had no additional comment on Zucker and his departure. Chris Cuomo and his attorney, Bryan Freedman, have not responded to NPR's requests for comment.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.

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