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As head of CNN, Jeff Zucker was "the most craven TV executive of the Trump era"

  • Zucker, who was forced to step down as CNN president on Wednesday for failing to disclose an improper relationship with colleague Allison Gollust, wrecked CNN and did lasting damage to the country by promoting Donald Trump, says Alex Shephard. "It may be said that Zucker was, for a time, one of Trump’s most important enablers—first for gleefully handing the editorial reins over to Trump’s insurgent campaign, then for speaking out against the then-president’s constant stream of invective directed at the network and its journalists," says Shephard. "But his ties to Trump came at a cost. Trump, never one to see the benefits of a nuanced relationship, only wanted nonstop hagiography. CNN quickly became branded part of the liberal media—a label it had, more or less, eschewed—before entering into a post-Trump identity crisis." Shephard adds: "Were Zucker’s sins all that original? During the interminable 2016 election, other networks made the same calculus that Zucker did. Other executives did, as well: CBS’s Les Moonves, before being ousted amid multiple sexual assault allegations, famously told investors that Trump’s campaign “may not be good for America” but was 'damn good for CBS.' Still, no one attached themselves, remora-like, to the mogul with more gusto than Zucker. The defining shot of Zucker’s tenure at CNN may very well be a lingering look at an empty lectern at a Trump rally. Cable news aficionados can no doubt recall how those shots could extend indefinitely, almost as a piece of performance art about what stares back when you stare into the void. Deferring to no news event or editorial decision, the lectern long shots were a CNN mainstay, lingering on the lens with a fiendish determination as the network’s overstuffed panels of alleged experts shouted at each other off-screen. Flashy political conflict and substance-free debate between participants from America’s two political teams has long been a defining feature of American cable news television. But Zucker pushed it to, and past, its limits. Some of this, it should be stressed, was driven by a desire to accurately reflect the current makeup of our very broken politics. CNN, particularly in the early Trump years, featured a rotating cast of cable news stock characters who were intended to stand in for the president and his supporters. (In another accurate reflection of our broken politics, many of these were pushed out amid scandal.) But Zucker’s commitment to Trumpification wasn’t founded in the idea that CNN viewers deserved an accurate or nuanced view of those beliefs or politics. Rather, it was a cynical bet that as long as CNN could keep viewers twigged-out about Trump, the ratings would be well and duly goosed and the money would come in stacks. It worked for a long, long time. CNN was one of the big winners in the Trump media bonanza: In 2016, it raked in nearly a billion dollars in gross profit. The craven nature of Zucker’s strategies were as obvious as Trump’s unfitness for office and the consequent danger he posed to democracy and the rule of law. "


    • AT&T reportedly decided to boot Jeff Zucker rather than pay Chris Cuomo the $18 million left on his contract: "When former CNN chief Jeff Zucker stonewalled Chris Cuomo and refused to pay out the roughly $18 million that was on the remainder of his contract, Cuomo’s lawyers decided to go over his head: They went to AT&T, CNN’s owner, sources familiar with the matter told The Post," reports the New York Post's Lydia Moynihan. "Cuomo’s lawyers argued AT&T was involved in selective enforcement, according to the sources. Zucker — who violated company policy by dating a colleague without disclosing it — was able to hold onto his cushy job, but Cuomo had gotten the boot for helping his brother, now-former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, navigate sexual harassment claims. Given those circumstances, Cuomo’s lawyers argued, AT&T should pay Cuomo the full $18 million he was demanding. But instead of paying up, AT&T forced Zucker to resign after Cuomo squealed on him to the telecom giant, sources told The Post. From a financial standpoint, it appears Cuomo hasn’t gotten the windfall he was seeking. Sources familiar with the matter say AT&T hasn’t coughed up the $18 million. But from another standpoint, he might have achieved some vindication."
    • Jeff Zucker may still have his job if he had disclosed his relationship with Allison Gollust: "Zucker’s reference to Cuomo quickly triggered speculation that the former CNN anchor, fired in December, was exacting some kind of payback, as he has hired an attorney, Bryan Freedman, to secure the remaining money on his contract," reports Deadline's Dominic Patten and Ted Johnson. "In other words, if Cuomo broke company policy, so did Zucker. CNN’s Brian Stelter even said on the air on Wednesday that a source told him that Cuomo, upset over his treatment, was 'trying to burn the place down.' CNN’s Brian Stelter even said on the air on Wednesday that a source told him that Cuomo, upset over his treatment, was 'trying to burn the place down.' But according to sources familiar with what happened, an attorney from the law firm CNN and WarnerMedia hired to investigate Zucker, Cravath, Swain & Moore asked Zucker and Gollust about the relationship. Even though both are divorced, the problem was that under company policy, it should have been disclosed a year earlier, according to a source familiar with the matter. The attorney contacted (Jason) Kilar, telling him that there was a problem with Zucker’s answers, and that was when the West Coast-based WarnerMedia CEO confronted East Coast-set Zucker."
    • This was a case of the "#MeToo domino theory": "Let's call it the #MeToo domino theory. When a powerful man loses his job and status because of sexual harassment allegations, there's often a string of buddies and enablers in the background hoping they don't get caught out as well," says Joel Mathis. "Sometimes they aren't — but sometimes they are." Mathis adds: "Let's trace the falling dominoes back to their source. Zucker fell because Chris Cuomo fell. And Cuomo fell because his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, fell. The governor fell — he resigned last year under pressure — because of his own, separate, sexual harassment scandals; Chris came under the microscope because of the work he did advising his brother as the allegations mounted. All three men are responsible for their actions, and all three deserve to face their own, individual accountability. But it's not a stretch to suggest that Chris Cuomo and Jeff Zucker might still have their jobs today if Andrew Cuomo hadn't behaved so badly. Once that first domino went down, it was inevitable the others would as well. There's one other interesting thing to note about the CNN news. Since the modern #MeToo movement exploded in 2017 with the assault allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, many observers have expressed fears that the attempts to root out sexual harassment in professional settings might devolve into a witch hunt. That's a fair concern. But it's also striking how fast the careers of Jeff Zucker, Andrew Cuomo, and Chris Cuomo unraveled once anybody subjected them to even a small bit of scrutiny. It makes you wonder how many other dominoes might yet fall."
    • People like Jeff Zucker, Allison Gollust, and the Cuomos have been in power for too long to not be tangled up with each other: "To me, this is a story of how rich and powerful people largely do whatever they want, and only in very rare cases do they suffer consequences for it," says Jack Crosbie. "But when you take down someone big enough, often more dominoes will fall with them. The rot is so prominent in elite institutions, and people like Zucker and Gollust and Cuomo have been in power for so long that they are often inextricably entangled with one another. Let’s keep hunting heads."
    • Report: Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo's staff tried to get him to pull out of his CNN appearances with Chris Cuomo, but Jeff Zucker and Allison Gollust lobbied him to continue: "According to several sources, Gollust and Zucker were instrumental in securing the Cuomo-on-Cuomo interviews," reports The Washington Post's Erik Wemple. "Though Andrew Cuomo’s staff assented to the early appearances, they had second thoughts about continuing the series. When the governor’s staff pushed back at CNN booking appeals, according to sources, Gollust appealed directly to the governor, who she’d known from her short stint as his communications director years before. A CNN spokesperson notes that executives pressing public officials for interviews is standard practice, and that’s 100 percent correct. Gollust reportedly argued for appearances on non-Chris Cuomo shows, too. Yet it’s noteworthy that the upper reaches of the organization got personally involved in arranging interviews that conflicted with CNN standards, even if the network famously crafted an exception for the Cuomo-on-Cuomo affairs."
    • That a scandal involving Chris Cuomo would end with Zucker’s resignation marks a remarkable twist to this cable news drama: "The former ABC News anchor was among Zucker’s first hires after the latter joined CNN in January 2013," says Wemple. "The idea was to fortify CNN’s early-morning offerings with New Day, co-hosted by Chris Cuomo before he moved in 2018 to prime-time programming....Other CNN journalists have long praised Zucker’s energy and day-in, day-out passion for their journalism. That passion sometimes expressed itself as what many critics viewed as over-coverage of dubious news events, such as the famous 'poop cruise' and the disappearance of Flight MH370. The Zucker-led CNN, too, quickly embraced wall-to-wall coverage of Trump to the point that it provided live coverage of his rallies — a move that Zucker later admitted was a mistake. But the Trump-era ratings weren’t a mistake; they were phenomenal. It just so happens, however, that the Chris Cuomo scandal overlapped with a cratering of the CNN viewership in fall 2021, as Justin Baragona explained in the Daily Beast. In fact, the only CNN show to finish 2021 in the cable news top 25 was … the one anchored by Chris Cuomo."
    • Some female staffers wonder why Gollust is allowed to keep her job following Zucker's resignation
    • CNN staffers grilled WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar on Wednesday night, asking why Zucker wasn't given a second chance
    • On The Daily Show, Trevor Noah jokes Chris Cuomo is "Ronan Farrow but by accident"

    TOPICS: Jeff Zucker, CNN, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Allison Gollust, Chris Cuomo, Jason Kilar, Cable News, WarnerMedia