Jeff Zucker, the United States television executive whose programming decisions helped cement Donald Trump’s status as a pop culture icon and propel him to the White House, is resigning as president of CNN Worldwide over an office relationship.
In a memo to staff on Wednesday, Zucker said his departure was the result of his failure to disclose what he described as a “consensual relationship with my closest colleague” that came to light during an investigation into former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.
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“I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong. As a result, I am resigning today.”
Jeff Zucker just announced his resignation to a stunned CNN. pic.twitter.com/sWXYNBO20d
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) February 2, 2022
CNN anchor Brian Stelter reported that the subordinate with whom Zucker had the relationship is Allison Gollust, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of CNN Worldwide.
In a statement read aloud on CNN by Stelter, Gollust was quoted as saying: “Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over 20 years. Recently our relationship changed during COVID. I regret that we didn’t disclose it at the right time.”
.@brianstelter reads a statement from Allison Gollust, the colleague who was having a consensual relationship with Jeff Zucker:
"Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over 20 years. Recently our relationship changed during Covid." pic.twitter.com/Cd13FR1pBB
— Mediaite (@Mediaite) February 2, 2022
Gollust formerly served as communications director for New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, who resigned last summer amid a storm of sexual harassment allegations.
The political scandal eventually cost Andrew Cuomo’s brother, Chris Cuomo, his job at CNN. The network fired the top-rated anchor over revelations that surfaced during a probe into Chris’s efforts to help his brother navigate the barrage of sexual misconduct claims.
That investigation into Chris Cuomo has now led to the downfall of Jeff Zucker at CNN.
Infotainment and Trump’s rise
Zucker’s abrupt departure draws a line under his nine-year turn at the helm of CNN, where he delivered outsized ratings and profits through a relentless melding of news and entertainment – often described as “infotainment”.
Zucker programmed CNN’s flagship domestic channel to concentrate on one or two big stories, jettisoning the network’s long-standing approach of keeping viewers well informed on a broad selection of domestic and international affairs, and running with breaking news only when events warranted.
Under Zucker, CNN stretched the definition of breaking news to drip-feed developments and outright speculation surrounding stories viewers became hooked on, such as the 2014 disappearance of Malaysian Airline flight MH370. The wall-to-wall coverage led to some bizarre on-air moments. CNN anchor Don Lemon asked an aviation export whether the airliner could have disappeared into a black hole, to which the guest responded: “a small black hole would suck in our entire universe so we know it’s not that.”
But the biggest ratings juggernaut on Zucker’s watch was the candidacy and then presidency of Donald Trump.
Zucker’s involvement with Trump predated his time at CNN. During his turn as head of NBC Entertainment, Zucker greenlit The Apprentice – a reality TV show Donald Trump hosted for 14 years.
Trump’s turn as Apprentice host amplified and secured his public image as a successful business figure and tough dealmaker – brand recognition he capitalised on in 2015 when he announced his run for the US presidency.
Zucker saw ratings gold in the real-estate mogul turned reality TV star. In a crowded field of Republican candidates, Zucker devoted outsized airtime to Trump, even going so far as to broadcast his rallies in their entirety.
Though Zucker defended CNN’s Trump coverage at the time on the grounds that the network was simply doing its job, he struck a more reflective tone in a 2020 Retro Report documentary, Enemies of the People.
“Donald Trump would say outrageous things, or say things that weren’t true, and it just became accepted as, ‘Oh, that’s what he does’,” said Zucker. “Not calling that out more for what it was, and then holding the other side more accountable, that was probably a mistake.”
But CNN and its viewers remained hooked on Trump – even as the network’s coverage took a highly critical tone of the former president compared to conservative-leaning news networks. But the increasingly acrimonious relationship between Trump and CNN kept eyeballs riveted.
In 2020, relentless coverage of all things Trump and the COVID-19 pandemic helped deliver CNN’s strongest ratings year on record. They continued to soar in January 2021 – the month Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol building.
But the ratings bonanza fizzled out once Trump left office.
On Wednesday, Trump responded to news of Zucker’s departure by calling him a “world-class sleazebag” in a statement and suggesting that the television news executive had been “terminated” because “CNN has lost its way with viewers and everybody else.”