Yesterday’s news that Jeff Zucker was abruptly leaving his job as head of CNN president sent shock waves through both the news and entertainment industries. Zucker sent a letter of resignation to his teams after he disclosed he failed to tell Warner Media management about a consensual relationship he had been having with his longtime CMO, Alison Gollust.
It may not have been the first time a big wig at CNN had a consensual relationship with a colleague.
Let’s start at the back of the alphabet. Warner Media, in the closing stretch of a multibillion dollar with Discovery, has strict policies about executives having such consensual relationships, and Zucker’s name emerged as Gollust’s turned up in outside counsel’s investigations regarding the Cuomo family.As we know, Chris abruptly left CNN after reports of alleged conflicts of interest regarding the reporting of revelations regarding his equally polyamorous brother Andrew. Andrew just happened to pursue his pousoir with some of his subordinates while serving as the governor of the State of New York.
As tabloid media gleefully peeled the layers of this onion yesterday, it was revealed that Gollust and Zucker had a professional alliance for more than two decades, dating back to Zucker’s tenure at NBC. According to tweets from former CNN employees Roland Martin and Soledad O’Brien, the knowledge that they were more than colleagues was an open secret being whispered around the halls for quite a long time. As O’Brien snarkily tweeted per the release of Zucker’s internal memo, Zucker and Gollust’s dalliance “was basically an open secret, so the ‘stunned’ part is that he’s resigning, not the relationship”.
Puck News’ Matt Belloni threw oil on this fire as well, reporting : “I’m told CNN received a litigation hold letter recently from Chris Cuomo lawyers, demanding, among other things, preservation of all communications between Zucker, comms chief Allison Gollust, and Andrew Cuomo.”
Jeff Zucker joined CNN in early 2013 after leaving Comcast, one of the few times in the last twenty-some years Gollust did not work with him, During 2012 Golus briefly left media to serve as a communications director for…drum roll…Andrew Cuomo.
Whispers in the hallway have been part of Hollywood and media for more than a century. It had been almost a badge of honor for office gossip to emerge about those in power having extramarital sex with attractive colleagues. Sadly, in decades past many women (and yes, men) were more than willing to indulge.
Which brings us to the front of the alphabet, and the CNN world I personally knew in the early 1990s. Ted Turner was very much in charge of his empire at the time, expanding to the West Coast with his acquisitions of Castle Rock and New Line, among other companies. I was briefly in his orbit, fortunate enough to frequently jet into Atlanta and back for numerous meetings that Ted would lead, punctuating his observations with a drawn-out “awwwwwwwwww” while he thought up his next rejoinder or insight. He was iconic, capitivating and brilliant. He literally built CNN from nothing and at the time I was associated with him the network had reached record audiences and influence during their coverage of the Gulf War.
He also had an attractive subordinate named Liz Wickersham. Wickersham came to his attention after being named Miss Georgia and posing for Playboy in April 1981. Soon after, Wickersham turned up as the co-anchor for a WTBS lifestyle magazine show, GOOD NEWS, and in subsequent years was a co-anchor of their Entertainment Tonight clone SHOWBIZ TODAY.
My “hallway” was the bar at the Omni hotel within CNN Center where I’d typically unwind in air conditioned comfort after a sweaty flight from LA. The bartender there was a TV trivia buff and he loved trying to challenge me, partiuclarly after he added extra vodka to my sappy Sea Breezes. He had been there since it opened and had served Mr. Turner and Ms, Wickersham many times, frequently on many late nights before they separately disappeared for the elevators, where Ted kept an apartment that the network paid for. I personally observed them both in separate groups and as part of one they both dined with, my bartender friend whispering to me with similar insights that O’Brien supplied.
Bartender: “You know, she flies on his private plane when they come out yor way and makes sure he takes his lithium”.
Semi-Drunk Me: “What about his viagra?”
Bartender: “Would YOU need it?”
Semi-Drunk Me: “Next question”.
Bartender: “Who played Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch”?
Turner built CNN; Zucker undeniably took it to new heights. A year ago CNN was the number one cable news network in prime time with its largest audience in its history–yes, it was beating Tucker Carlson, Hannity et al. Zucker had emerged as a survivor as many other Warner Media execs departed. Zucker had been expected to be one of David Zaslav’s chief allies as Discovery management takes over–remember Zaslav was an NBC sales executive during Zucker’s era there.
The key word in both cases is that whatever was going on with Zucker, Turner and their female subordinates was CONSENSUAL and was not materially impacting their ability to perform their jobs and deliver value for their investors. Sure, it’s juvenile for others to gossip like Mean Girls about it, and no one should minimize the impacts it may have had on their spouses. But why should WE CARE?!?!
As Zucker slinks out, FOX News gleefully reported that CNN had lost more than three-quarters of that audience year-to-year, while their own prime time lineup was up +4% year-to-year and once again back on top of the heap. Source of that tidbit: FOX News’ website, of course. His fall from grace was meticulously covered by those personalities last night. Of course, Donald Trump weighed in as well, calling Zucker a “world-class sleazebag” and triumphantly “Jeff Zucker is gone–congratulations to all!” (Stormy Daniels, your thoughts?)
It’s not the first time he’s been mocked. I knew several NBC creative executives who were disappointed when Zucker rose from his role as boy wonder Today Show producer to head of the network in the mid-oughts. When Zucker made a controversial decision to strip Jay Leno’s talk show in the 10 pm hour in 2009, he closed the door on several scripted series having time slots and caused consternation among the producers and executives who hoped to pad their personal portfolios with still more marginal procedurals. During that time, Zucker evolved into a more dapper-looking Hollywood type, shaving his head. One of those execs, during yet another Sea Breeze binge, said that Zucker had been dubbed “The Human Penis” by many in the entertainment division. Look at his prominent scalp. Self-explanatory. And these days, I’m all the more sympatico. In psychology, that’s called displacement. Well, there was apparently a significant reason Jeff chose his chrome dome look, unlike myself.
Jeff Zucker survived CANCER.
He’ll survive this.
I personally hope if he and Alison can do so they should head to a remote warm climate, turn off their cell phones, break out their bathing suits and cuddle on a beach. God, I sometimes wish I had that option.
Like myself, Zucker was raised Jewish in New York. Whenever two people would part, it was customary to hug them and say “Gei gazinta hait”. That’s Yiddish for “Go in good health”.
Gei gazinta hait, Jeff. I can’t wait for what you do next, and I’m throwing my hat in the ring to be a part of it.
Until next time…