Former CNN President Jeff Zucker told students at Yale University that he was led to believe that the former owners of the network used his relationship with Allison Gollust as an excuse to terminate him, individuals familiar with his comments told The New York Times.
“I gave them a gun, and they shot me with it,” Zucker said, according to those sources.
Zucker’s abrupt resignation in February 2022 put a spotlight on Gollust, his longtime lieutenant and the network’s chief marketing officer. Gollust, who had worked with Zucker for decades and rejoined CNN in 2013 as his “closest colleague,” had been identified as the woman with whom he had a “consensual relationship,” which he didn’t disclose to CNN owner at the time, AT&T, in apparent violation of company policies.
Gollust resigned two weeks after Zucker’s ouster and following a WarnerMedia investigation into Chris Cuomo and his efforts to help his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar said in a memo at the time, “The investigation found violations of Company policies, including CNN’s News Standards and Practices, by Jeff Zucker, Allison Gollust and Chris Cuomo.”
Since their terminations, Zucker and Gollust have continued their relationship out in the open, traveling to Las Vegas to see Taylor Swift in concert and attending the Sports Emmy Awards at the invitation of Bryant Gumbel and Matt Lauer.
Zucker’s frequent expression of frustration and dissatisfaction with the terms of his exit and criticism of the current CNN chief, Chris Licht, has become louder as time has passed. According to the Times, Zucker has become the go-to guy for current employees of the network who have grievances about Licht’s choice of direction.
But the network’s numbers legitimize criticism. The news division, once profiting $1 billion a year, generated just $750 million in 2022, $200 million of which Warner Bros. Discovery said was due to losses from the CNN+ streaming service. In addition, according to Nielsen data, ratings have dropped 30% compared to the first quarter of 2020 when Donald Trump was the big driver on cable news.
CNN’s town hall with Trump in May proved to be one of Licht’s more noteworthy slips in recent months. According to reporter Tim Alberta’s recent profile of the executive for The Atlantic, Licht knew that the crowd’s makeup skewed more towards MAGA enthusiasts than the “GOP-leaning independents” CNN originally claimed would occupy these seats. Ahead of the town hall, Licht even made a comment to his deputies about the crowd being “extra Trumpy.”
As Licht’s employees leak his organization’s failings to other outlets, many on the left have criticized the network’s renewed focus on the right. Meanwhile, many on the right remain skeptical of the network as a whole.
According to sources who spoke with The Times, Zucker’s criticism of the network has ruffled many feathers at WBD, who even suspect “Zucker has leaked unflattering information about the network’s operations to the press” and that he’s “waging a proxy war against” Licht.
Zucker’s spokesperson, Risa Heller, told the Times, “It is wholly unsurprising that Jeff Zucker, the architect of CNN’s unprecedented success, would have deep misgivings about the direction the network has taken since he left.”