CNN staffers who spend a lot of time delivering the latest headlines may have something else to give their corporate overseers: a raised middle finger.
Executives who run companies like WarnerMedia and Discovery spend much of their time these days trying to keep investors enthused about their prospects, even as the consumers who watch their movies and TV shows keep moving away to new streaming venues. Now they may have to take up some of their hours soothing a roiled staff at CNN, where many employees remain furious about the ouster of Jeff Zucker, the company’s president for the past nine years. After all, CNN remains a pivotal part of WarnerMedia, which is slated to merge with Discovery in a deal expected to close within weeks.
“It has been an emotional tornado, the equivalent of going back to your block and looking around and seeing what the tornado has done and trying to figure out how you even sort of pick up the pieces,” one longtime employee tells Variety. Some staffers believe the WarnerMedia decision was “impulsive,” according to another source, and ties between CNN employees and the company that employs them appear “strained” — a mood demonstrated in the past 24 hours when Jason Kilar, CEO of WarnerMedia, visited employees at CNN’s Washington, D.C. and Atlanta operations.
Correspondents and producers, meanwhile, have spent the last 24 hours processing Zucker’s abrupt, surprise departure. The executive was forced to leave WarnerMedia, where he also oversaw sports, after a company investigation into the firing of former anchor Chris Cuomo revealed Zucker had not disclosed a consensual relationship with a colleague, Allison Gollust, CNN’s chief marketing officer. Gollust has said she intends to return to CNN.
“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. I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t,” Zucker wrote in a memo to staff. “I was wrong.”
Journalists are known to be a surly lot, with high-pressure jobs and, sometimes, quick-trigger tempers that accompany them. But a restive CNN does little to help WarnerMedia, or Discovery, where CEO David Zaslav has described the news unit as a critical operation. Though CNN has seen its ratings plummet in recent months — the result of news audiences leaving in the wake of the 2020 election and the appeal of new streaming services — the company is an integral part of the finances of WarnerMedia and has been estimated to throw off in excess of $1 billion in profit. Zaslav has articulated a strategy under which CNN helps its new owner expand its international news holdings and boost streaming ambitions. “We do have news with the leader in Poland, and we’ve had a great experience with it, and I think with CNN’s international business, this gives us a chance to really lean into that footprint,” Zaslav said in May.
WarnerMedia declined to comment on the tone of recent meetings between Kilar and CNN staffers, but people with knowledge of the meetings said the level of contention was high, with on-air personnel like Jake Tapper and Kaitlan Collins suggesting in questions that Kilar may have had animus toward Zucker. WarnerMedia also declined to comment on whether the company believed further steps may be necessary to maintain CNN employee morale.
Other companies have faced the thorny issues of two senior executives having a relationship, and let things stand. Peter Kann, the former CEO of Dow Jones, was married to Karen Elliott House, a senior executive who supervised the company’s international businesses and then served as publisher of The Wall Street Journal. But those took place before the recent focus on the way people treat one another in professional relationships. Media companies like Fox Corp., the former CBS and NBCUniversal have been roiled by allegations against top personnel that included sexual assault and favoritism. It’s difficult to see how Zucker and Gollust could have navigated scrutiny under the current national lens.
One management expert thinks their relationship should not be classified as one with more sinister implications. “This is not a me-too violation. This was way more than consensual, and this was known. Why was this an issue now? And that’s the real story,” says Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management. He can understand why CNN staffers may have a difficult time understanding the corporate calculus behind Zucker’s ouster and even says he believes Zucker could be “a victim of corporate intrigue and a rush to close” the deal between Discovery and AT&T.
Some CNN staffers have hit the bars. But many are “reeling,” according to another person familiar with the mood of the employee base. “They are devastated, to a person,” says another.
To be sure, life at CNN has not been the easiest in recent months, with a merger looming and Cuomo being ousted after helping aides to his brother, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, while the elder Cuomo faced allegations of sexual harassment. Yet during his time at CNN, Zucker made it plain he had everyone’s back, reaching out to employees who got sick or lost a relative. During the Trump administration, the run-up to the 2016 and 2020 elections and coverage of the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, it was Zucker, multiple employees say, who gave them support to get their jobs done. Many would walk through fire for him.
All are left pondering what Discovery has in store, and whether Zucker’s vision for the place is likely to continue.