NEW YORK – The abrupt ouster of CNN chief executive Jeff Zucker because of a workplace relationship has left some prominent employees feeling angry and uncertain about the direction of their network at a pivotal moment.
The company is about to undergo a corporate ownership change, launch a paid streaming service and replace its most popular on-air host at a time of slumping ratings.
It became clear Thursday that Zucker's exit after nine years as CNN's leader was anything but voluntary.
Zucker said he was leaving for violating corporate policy by not disclosing the nature of his relationship with his second-in-command, Allison Gollust. But he was reportedly given no choice by WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who characterized the change as his decision at an emotional meeting with CNN Washington staff members Wednesday night. The Associated Press obtained an audio recording of that meeting.
The nature of that meeting, coupled with the fact that Zucker's exit became a watercooler issue — former President Donald Trump released two statements on it — speaks to his unusual influence as a media executive.
“He was a larger-than-life figure in the political ecosystem, the media ecosystem and at CNN,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra University's School of Communication and a former colleague of Zucker's at NBC News.
Kilar was peppered with questions by CNN's Washington staff. They wondered whether he sought advice from other executives, why Zucker wasn't given a transition period and whether rumored antipathy between the two men played a role in the decision, according to the recording.
“Given that these are two consenting adults ... why is that a fireable offense?” asked White House reporter Kaitlan Collins.
TV host Jake Tapper said that there is a perception that Chris Cuomo — fired in December as a CNN host because he'd been privately advising his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — had essentially succeeded in a threat to embarrass the company by revealing the relationship if it didn't pay a settlement fee.
“How do we get past the perception that this is the bad guy winning?” Tapper asked at the meeting.
Even some of the people named to temporarily replace Zucker — veteran CNN executives Michael Bass, Amy Entelis and Ken Jautz — spoke to his impact on the organization and said they would be following the direction he set.
Jautz said during the staff meeting that after CNN founder Ted Turner, “Jeff had more impact on this place than anybody, certainly any more than any executive.”
CNN's John King described Zucker's hands-on influence in what went on the air and a fear of the unknown without him.
“You may not agree with every decision,” King said at the meeting. “But you knew someone is going to make a decision, you're going to know which way you're going. And this company has had long periods of time where that didn't exist and those are unpleasant times.”
The selection of a new leader will ultimately rest with David Zaslav, named as head of the new company created by the pending merger of Discovery, Inc. and WarnerMedia.
But it means CNN is suddenly without its point person as it prepares to launch the CNN+ streaming service this spring. Zucker has been active in building its features and recruiting talent like former Fox News host Chris Wallace, and he was set to become a public cheerleader for it.
Kilar, in the Washington meeting, described the launch of CNN+ as every bit as important as the beginning of CNN itself. Adding to the challenge is that it will be a paid service at a time there are others in the industry, with the exception of Fox Nation, that are offering access for free.
CNN also needs to replace Cuomo in its primetime lineup, and is going with a series of substitutes. Zucker recently approached Gayle King for the job before she decided to re-sign with CBS News.
The television network's viewership has dropped dramatically in the past year. News ratings have always been cyclical, and the 2020 election brought record numbers of people in, but there's always the question of when, or if, they will come back.
CNN is also coming off a contentious period where Trump frequently referred to the network as “fake news.” In the meeting with Kilar, CNN's Jim Acosta said Zucker had stood strong against the attacks and worried whether anyone else would do the same.
CNN on-air personnel under Zucker, like Acosta, have become much more opinionated and that hasn't always been popular.
“It's interesting to see if that culture is going to shift with new leadership,” said Jennifer Thomas, a Howard University journalism professor who worked at CNN as a producer in the 2000s.
Some people, like Thomas, have called for a reset. One is influential cable executive John Malone, a top stockholder in Discovery, who said on CNBC in November that “I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with.”
Lukasiewicz said he didn't see any reason to think that shift is going to happen. What's most interesting is what the emergence of streaming as a news platform with a different audience will mean for the industry, he said.
It's a tough time for CNN to enter a period with interim leadership, Lukasiewicz said. But not all such times of turmoil end up being negative.
“Sometimes the change of leadership, while not welcome at the moment, can lead to good things down the line,” he said.