At this point I’m as offended by CNN staffers loudly mourning a cancer on the news industry like Jeff Zucker as I am by Zucker’s own unethical behavior in serially promoting his girlfriend.
All along we thought that Andrew Cuomo’s infamous appearances on his brother’s show early in the pandemic were a case of Chris lobbying management to let him do it. Not so, according to the New York Post. Zucker didn’t need to be talked into it. In fact, he and his mistress, Allison Gollust — a former comms director for Cuomo — reportedly leaned on the governor themselves to do the interviews.
Which means, amazingly, that turning CNN into a de facto PR service for an awful politician who grievously mismanaged New York’s COVID response wasn’t exclusively the fault of the guy named “Cuomo” who worked there. The cronyism went straight to the top.
Imagine being Chris Cuomo and getting fired for advising Andrew behind the scenes knowing that the guy who fired you and his Cuomo-alum girlfriend had done the same thing.
Looking to keep Andrew Cuomo on his brother’s show and boost ratings even as controversy swirled around the puffy segments, Gollust personally called Cuomo and leaned on her “good relationship” with the governor, sources with direct knowledge told The Post…
Zucker — who sources say had an “open secret” affair with Gollust for more than a decade — also directly reached out to Cuomo at least once to urge him to keep coming on his brother’s show, according to the source…
Meanwhile, CNN’s own investigation into Chris Cuomo also revealed that Zucker and Gollust had an inappropriately close friendship with Gov. Cuomo — even coaching him on what to say during his infamous COVID briefings…
“While those 11:30 a.m. daily briefings by Andrew were across every network, they boosted ratings in a poorly performing slot for CNN,” one source said. According to a source to Cuomo, “Zucker and Gollust even advised Andrew what to say — how to respond and particularly how to hit back at [President Donald] Trump to make it more compelling TV.
A spokesman for Zucker denied it, for what that’s worth. “No network head should be coaching an elected official. It’s absolutely the antithesis of CNN’s standards of business,” a source told the Post, correctly. And yet, reaction to Zucker’s resignation in the CNN newsroom sounds like the politburo finding out that Stalin had died:
"I know we're all in shock," Michael Bass said on CNN's 9am editorial call today. "You can't replace Jeff. It's not possible. There's no one else like him." So "the best thing we can do is honor his legacy and continue his mission." "Do what we've been doing every single day."
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) February 3, 2022
In reality, unethical behavior was par for the course for Zucker. Jonathan Last remembered today that CNN brought in Corey Lewandowski as a contributor in 2016 to comment on the presidential campaign just days after Trump had fired him, knowing full well that Lewandowski was under a nondisclosure agreement with Trump’s operation. How could a guy forthrightly opine about a candidate whom he had worked for when he was almost certainly bound by a nondisparagement clause at the time? Zucker didn’t care. He was too keen on leveraging Trumpmania for ratings to worry about ethical niceties.
As for Zucker’s skills as an executive, Last points to this career obituary by Richard Rushfield:
First of all, the mystery shouldn’t be why did Jeff Zucker’s career die; it’s why was it still alive to start with? This is the man who probably holds the record of screwing up in more ways and not just in more jobs, but in more different kinds of jobs than probably anyone in media history.
— Running a movie studio into the ground? Check!
— Destroying American democracy as a ratings stunt? Been there, done that.
— Providing shelter to all manner of men accused of misconduct? Covered!
His career was the equivalent of a patient stricken with cancer, a heart attack and Ebola, who had also fallen out of an airplane. And then showed up for work the next morning.
If Zucker was willing to advise Cuomo on what to say in public appearances in the name of goosing CNN’s ratings, the question must be asked: Did he do the same thing with Trump in 2016, a period when CNN was promoting Trump so lavishly that it would often run his rallies in their entirety? The two are old friends, remember; it was Zucker who brought “The Apprentice” to air. Trump may hate him now for all of the critical coverage CNN devoted to him while he was president but Zucker didn’t just give Trump loads of airtime in 2016, he hired some of the most over-the-top Trump sycophants in the righty media ecosystem to state the MAGA point of view during the network’s campaign coverage. If he was willing to go as far as that to milk the Trump cow for ratings, he presumably would have been willing to advise Trump behind the scenes on how to make his public appearances better TV. Now that CNN’s done with the Cuomo ethics investigation, it’s time for one on Zucker.
Update: Well, well. Rolling Stone says the Cuomo ethics investigation is already morphing into the Zucker/Gollust ethics investigation.
The source says the investigation suggests Zucker and Gollust were advising the governor at the beginning of the Covid pandemic in ways not dissimilar to what led to Chris Cuomo’s dismissal. As Andrew sparred on a daily basis with then-President Trump over Covid messaging, the couple provided the governor with talking points on how to respond to the president’s criticisms of the New York crisis. They also booked the governor to appear on the network exclusively, which became a ratings boon for CNN, with Chris Cuomo doing the interviewing. Cuomo and Gollust’s conduct, too, would appear to mark an ethical breach for executives acting on behalf of an impartial news outlet.
“The autonomy of a news organization requires it to not be engaged in any sort of direct activity with any political actor,” says Tim Gleason, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon and media ethics expert, speaking broadly. “If they’re advising a politician [while] presumably reporting on activity that that politician is engaged in, that’s duplicitous and deceptive and a disservice to the audience of a news organization.”
According to RS’s sources, Zucker and Gollust first became romantically involved in … 1996. Remember, both of them claimed yesterday in their statements that their relationship had begun only recently.