Jeff Zucker announced his sudden resignation as president of CNN on Wednesday morning after admitting to a yearslong romantic relationship with a senior colleague, CNN’s executive vice-president Allison Gollust. The news of Zucker’s departure exploded across the network and the wider media world, which gasped at the fall of a titan who took the news network to new heights during his nine-year reign, following a legendary run at the head of NBC’s Today show beginning in the 1990s.
Zucker told staff in a memo issued around 11 a.m. Wednesday that his relationship with Gollust came up during an investigation into former CNN host Chris Cuomo, whom he personally terminated last December. “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,” he wrote. “I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong.”
Minutes later, Gollust — who remains at the network — issued a separate statement. “Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over 20 years,” she wrote, referencing their time together at Today. “Recently, our relationship changed during COVID. I regret that we didn’t disclose it at the right time.”
Their relationship was “definitely an open secret” at the network, one former staffer tells Intelligencer, and Radar Online reported last month that the two were known to be an item. In 2017, the New York Post reported that media bigwigs saw the two arguing at a party where “Zucker and Gollust suddenly began speaking intensely and making anguished hand gestures before Gollust strode purposefully away into the crowd.” One person was quoted saying, “It looked like she was reprimanding her husband or something.”
Still, Zucker’s resignation on Wednesday after being away all week was a surprise to insiders. “No one saw this coming,” says one. Zucker also resigned his post at CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia, which is in the final stages of being acquired by Discovery, run by Zucker’s pal David Zaslav. While the exact details of Zucker’s departure remain to be known, he was known to have butted heads with Jason Kilar, the outgoing CEO of WarnerMedia, who accepted Zucker’s resignation in what’s been likened to a plotline from Game of Thrones. (WarnerMedia has named three executives to lead the network: Michael Bass, known as Zucker’s closest deputy, Amy Entelis, and Ken Jautz.)
Aside from shock, the reaction of many inside CNN was that of dismay given Zucker’s reputation as an energetic leader credited with turning around the ailing network when he took over in 2013. Once in charge, he focused coverage on a few obsessive stories, such as the Malaysian jetliner that went missing in 2014 and, the following year, Donald Trump’s run for president. (At NBC, Zucker rehabbed Trump’s career by green-lighting The Apprentice in 2004, though the goodwill would not endure Trump’s calling the network “fake news.”) During the pandemic, he was known to keep in close touch with both on-air and behind-the-scenes staffers as remote work stretched into its third year. Of course, he was heavily criticized during his tenure for giving Trump too much free media in 2016 and for tortured justifications for letting Chris Cuomo cover his brother Andrew, and even tolerating Chris doing PR work for the governor during the sexual-misconduct scandal that brought down the governor.
Zucker’s relationship with Gollust was raised, he says, during the network’s inquiry into Chris Cuomo’s conduct regarding his brother. After the investigation concluded, Zucker said he made the decision to terminate the star anchor for allegedly not disclosing fully the work he was doing for Andrew. In turn, Chris Cuomo is reportedly preparing to sue CNN for millions of dollars for wrongful termination. In a bizarre coincidence, Gollust served as communications director for Andrew Cuomo for four months in 2012 and joined CNN one month after Zucker became president. “Chris got her the job with Andrew, she lasted a few months, then she went back to CNN,” says one knowledgable source.