Five unanswered questions on the crisis at CNN
The crisis enveloping CNN deepened Tuesday with the departure of key executive Allison Gollust and a New York Times report shedding new light on internal turmoil at the network.
Gollust served as CNN’s chief marketing officer. She is in a relationship with Jeff Zucker, who was ousted as the president of the network on Feb. 2.
Zucker’s failure to disclose the relationship was the official reason given for his departure, though there has been plenty of speculation about other factors that might have been at play.
Gollust’s departure, like Zucker’s, looks like an involuntary resignation. In a statement, she described it as “deeply disappointing” that she “would be treated this way” as she leaves.
Meanwhile, the New York Times story provided more detail on an allegation of sexual assault against former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. The allegation — which Cuomo vehemently denies — dates back to his pre-CNN days at ABC News.
But the Times report included a claim from his accuser’s lawyer that Cuomo, while at CNN, may have sought to dissuade the woman from coming forward by airing a segment on the company where she worked as the “Me Too” movement gathered steam. If true, that would be a clear and grave breach of journalistic ethics.
The new twists ensure that the saga roiling the network founded in 1980 by Ted Turner will keep on running.
Here are five key questions that have yet to be answered.
What changed with Allison Gollust?
Two weeks ago, when Zucker resigned, both he and Gollust issued statements acknowledging they should have disclosed their relationship and did not.
At that time, Gollust appeared set to stay with the network. Why has that changed?
Zucker and Gollust have worked together for decades, having first met when Zucker was the young executive producer of NBC’s “Today” and Gollust was an NBC publicist.
The status of their relationship has been a subject of gossip in New York media circles for years. Former “Today” anchor Katie Couric described the dynamics between the two in eyebrow-arching terms in the memoir she published last fall.
Zucker and Gollust have asserted that they were close friends and colleagues until the pandemic, when their relationship became a romantic one. Both are divorced and there is no suggestion of coercion or abuse of power.
In a memo announcing Gollust’s departure on Tuesday, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar said that an investigation “performed by a third-party law firm and led by a former federal judge” had begun last September and concluded this past weekend.
Kilar added that the probe had “found violations of Company policies, including CNN’s News Standards and Practices, by Jeff Zucker, Allison Gollust, and Chris Cuomo.”
But the careful phrasing says nothing about whether the job-ending violation for Gollust was her failure to disclose her relationship with Zucker.
If it was, why did she seem in the clear to stay in her position just two weeks ago? If it wasn’t, what new infraction has come to light?
Gollust, for her part, says that the claims from WarnerMedia are “an attempt to retaliate against me and change the media narrative in the wake of their disastrous handling of the last two weeks.”
Are new revelations coming about CNN and Andrew Cuomo?
The thread that has caused the higher reaches of CNN to unravel begins with the relationship between Chris Cuomo and his elder brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).
During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chris Cuomo conducted several interviews on his CNN prime-time show with the then-governor. The interviews were ethically questionable but strongly backed by Zucker.
Familial banter between the brothers about topics including which one was favored by their mother made for compelling television even while critics voiced queasiness.
The situation became more serious when the New York governor was accused by multiple women of inappropriate behavior. In time, it emerged that Chris Cuomo had played a role in helping his brother push back against those allegations.
Zucker defended the CNN anchor when the first details emerged of those efforts. But the problem deepened in November, when new documentation released by New York Attorney General Letitia James showed that Chris Cuomo had sought to get advance warning of damaging stories about his brother and appeared to be seeking ways to cast doubt on at least one of his accusers.
Zucker ultimately fired Cuomo, with whom he had been personally close as well as professionally allied.
But there are big complications.
For a start, Gollust had worked for Andrew Cuomo, albeit for a brief period almost a decade ago.
Perhaps more pertinently, there are now suggestions that Zucker crossed journalistic lines in his dealings with Andrew Cuomo.
Tuesday’s Times report noted that, after Chris Cuomo was fired, people on his team “soon began whispering to reporters that Mr. Zucker had coached Governor Cuomo on how to use his televised briefings [on the pandemic] to go after” then-President Trump.
The Times included a denial from a Zucker spokeswoman that the ousted CNN president had ever given Andrew Cuomo “advice.”
If that denial were to be disproved, it would cause serious outrage — and would buttress the argument of those who believe the media in general, and CNN in particular, are too cozy with Democratic politicians.
Will CNN’s on-air tone shift?
Beyond the specifics of what exactly happened with Cuomo, Zucker and Gollust, there are bigger questions facing CNN.
Zucker is widely credited — or blamed, depending on your point of view — for driving CNN in a more opinionated direction, especially during the Trump presidency.
To his supporters, Zucker understood that the 45th president — whose career he had previously revitalized while at NBC by making him the star of “The Apprentice” — required a paradigm shift in journalistic coverage. The network’s ratings soared as anchors, including Chris Cuomo and others, aimed daily barbs at Trump.
To his detractors, Zucker pushed a view of politics-as-reality-show to unhealthy extremes. Zucker’s influence undercut CNN’s credibility and accelerated a general coarsening of journalistic and political culture, according to this critique.
Does the network reverse course now?
CNN and the rest of WarnerMedia is in the process of being spun off by its corporate owner, AT&T. Assuming that deal goes through, those properties will then merge with Discovery Inc.
But longtime media mogul and Discovery board member John Malone caused a stir back in November when he told CNBC, “I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with — and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.”
CNN is also readying a streaming service, CNN+, for launch. Zucker was central to that project, but he had also recruited some broadcasters who represent a break with the opinionated anti-Trump approach — notably Chris Wallace, formerly of Fox News, and Kasie Hunt, formerly of NBC News.
With Zucker gone, and so much else in flux, any shift in the network’s tone will be closely parsed.
Does the whole controversy impact ratings?
The old maxim holds that it is never good for journalists — or media organizations — to become the news.
But whether it matters to the audience is another matter.
Other networks and big-name shows have endured scandal in recent years — and endured just fine.
The late Roger Ailes, the driving force behind the rise of Fox News, faced multiple accusations of sexual harassment, leading to his ouster from the network in 2016. Despite this, Fox News remains the ratings leader among all cable networks.
Matt Lauer, the longtime co-anchor of “Today,” was fired in 2017, with NBC citing a report of “inappropriate sexual behavior.” Other allegations against Lauer followed.
Lauer has acknowledged causing other people “pain” for which he feels “sorrow and regret” but has denied ever coercing anyone into sex. There has been no long-standing damage to “Today,” which remains in a close battle with ABC’s “Good Morning America” for primacy among morning shows.
There is no real reason to think CNN will suffer any worse fate.
That said, the network’s ratings were way off the highs of the Trump years even before the current furor kicked off.
What happens with on-air talent?
Multiple media reports have indicated that some of CNN’s biggest names are dismayed by Zucker’s departure.
There have also been insinuations from the journalistic ranks that Zucker was really pushed out not for a terminal ethical lapse, but because of a battle for corporate power between him and Kilar.
There are no signs yet of any big names actually departing the organization.
But the prolonged controversy is surely bad for morale, among rank-and-file staff and on-screen stars alike.
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