The CNN effect
It's bad enough that CNN is beset with ethical lapses, conflicts of interest, and shoddy journalism. What's worse is its star talent defending the guy who made it all happen.
It is a cliche at this point to lament the ethical minefield that is TV news. But even in an era of media cynicism, CNN somehow manages to push the envelope with the audacity of its crimes against journalism.
CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker, was in an ongoing, long-term, undisclosed (to HR) affair with his subordinate, marketing head Allison Gollust.
While employed by CNN, Gollust worked privately with her former boss, New York governor Andrew Cuomo, to set up favorable TV appearances for him. Not content with simply “relaying his preferred topics to CNN producers,” Gollust went so far as to text Cuomo: “I’m pretty sure I stopped being your publicist 8 years ago, but apparently I still am.” She also congratulated him after his TV appearances with text messages like, “Well done . . . Cuomo-W. Trump-L,” and he asked her for feedback on how he’d done. Their ongoing communication included sexual innuendo that at least implicitly suggests a potential affair, as well as her asking him for a business favor for a friend. (Cuomo: “Yes, u do ask me for favors, and that’s okay. It’s mutual.”)
During the 2016 presidential campaign, “Zucker and Trump spoke directly about coverage” and, per leaked audio, Zucker allegedly “praised Trump’s campaigning, offered advice for that night’s Republican debate, and said he wanted to discuss giving Trump a weekly show.”
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, CNN allowed its anchor Chris Cuomo to repeatedly interview his own brother Andrew, the governor of New York, on TV. Later, when Andrew Cuomo was under investigation for sexual misconduct, Chris Cuomo exploited his sources to assist Andrew in fighting his critics.
CNN anchor Don Lemon allegedly advised the actor Jussie Smollett (who just this past week was sentenced to nearly half a year of jail time for reporting a fake hate crime) “not to hand over his phone records to Chicago police.” (Lemon has reported on the case on his show.)
(The Rolling Stone piece has many more details in addition to these above — including Zucker’s career-long pattern of supporting prominent men who would eventually be accused of serious sexual misconduct — so I recommend taking the time to read it in full.)
If this were the whole story, that would be bad enough: the idea that perhaps the most instantly recognizable TV news brand in America is full of blatant ethics violations, journalistic malpractice, and conflicts of interest — within and throughout the very top echelons of the company — is (or should be) shocking on its own.
What makes it worse, however, are two key additional problems, which I get into below. First, some of these unethical practices and conflicts of interest were widely known within the CNN newsroom for years. And second, not only did this knowledge apparently fail to raise any visible alarms during all of this time but, even worse, once Zucker was fired for them, CNN’s top talent angrily rallied to his defense.
Indeed, multiple reports, including the Rolling Stone one, have emphasized the open secret that was Zucker’s and Gollust’s relationship. Siegel writes:
All the while, sources say, Zucker was conducting his affair with his subordinate, Gollust, in plain sight, bringing her from one network to the other, promoting her — and approving her compensation — at every stage of his ascension.
Shawn McCreesh at New York Magazine reported on the same phenomenon. In a piece subtitled “His office romance has been an open secret for years. So why is he really leaving?” McCreesh reports:
For starters, Zucker and Gollust’s relationship was one of the biggest open secrets in media. CNN staffers awkwardly navigated the pairing, since every time they dealt with her, they were keenly aware that she was involved with the boss. They were rolling their eyes at Gollust’s own statement that said “recently, our relationship changed during Covid.” It had been going on for much longer: Page Six would wink at it from time to time, and the two have known each other since they worked together at NBC decades ago. As Katie Couric wrote in her dishy memoir: “I had to wonder why Jeff was angling so hard to bring Allison on board” at Couric’s talk show, Katie. “She and her husband and kids had moved into the apartment right above Jeff and Caryn’s — everyone who heard about the arrangement thought it was super strange.”
It is not yet clear how much, if any, insight CNN’s on-air talent had into all of the network’s non-sexual ethics-related violations — for example, Gollust’s PR work for Cuomo while employed at CNN or Don Lemon’s alleged private advice to Jussie Smollett. But we know for a fact they were aware of at least some of them well before Zucker’s firing and their subsequent defense of him.
For example, the fact that Zucker provided then-candidate Trump with debate advice in 2016 was covered in detail on FOX News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight show all the way back in September 2020:
Carlson bore down on the part of the call where Zucker — who has openly acknowledged political ambitions — dispensed some debate advice.
COHEN: How many times do you think Cruz is going to call him a conman tonight?
ZUCKER: No, Rubio.
COHEN: I mean, Rubio. How many times do you think?
ZUCKER: A lot.
COHEN: I say a hundred.
ZUCKER: You know what you should do? Whoever is around him today should just be calling him a con man all day so that he gets so used to it, so that when he hears it from Rubio, it doesn’t matter. Hey, conman. Hey, conman. Hey, conman.
COHEN: Yeah, great — you want to get smacked in the head?
ZUCKER: He thinks that’s his name, you know?
That Zucker’s debate-prep tip was so dumb doesn’t diminish its ethical depravity. CNN makes a big deal of its journalistic purity, its standards and practices, its protection of sources. Here was a clear violation from a the man who supervises the network’s 3,000 employees at 36 “editorial operations” around the world. Any of those folks could have told Zucker not to pass along tips to a presidential campaign. (We’ve asked CNN for comment and will update this piece if we receive a response.)
And it goes without saying that everyone at CNN was well aware that Chris Cuomo was conducting frivolous interviews with his own New York governor brother on live television, like this hard-hitting exchange from the depths of the pandemic in June 2020:
Obviously, I love you as a brother; obviously, I’ll never be objective; obviously, I think you’re the best politician in the country. But I hope you feel good about what you did for your people because I know they appreciate it.
Beyond these specific incidents, Jeff Zucker’s deliberate conflation of news and entertainment has been well-covered for years, as in this 2017 New York Times Magazine profile:
Zucker is a big sports fan and from the early days of the campaign had spoken at editorial meetings about wanting to incorporate elements of ESPN’s programming into CNN’s election coverage. “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way,” he told me. Toward that end, the network built “pregame” sets outside debate halls with excited crowds in the background and created a temporary rooftop studio for the final weeks of the campaign with sweeping views of the White House and the Washington Monument. An on-screen countdown clock ticked down the days (then hours) to Nov. 8. Trump, the trash-talking (and trash-Tweeting) underdog who inspired raw, powerful feelings among supporters and detractors alike, was the ideal subject for this narrative framework…
As Zucker sees it, his pro-Trump panelists are not just spokespeople for a worldview; they are “characters in a drama,” members of CNN’s extended ensemble cast. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you have Jeffrey Lord or Kayleigh McEnany,’ but you know what?” Zucker told me with some satisfaction. “They know who Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany are.”
It defies belief that someone as keyed-in as, say, The Lead anchor Jake Tapper would have failed to notice all of this while everyone around him did. And yet when WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar fired Zucker, Tapper — whose perceived journalistic integrity inspired Trump-era headlines like “CNN’s Jake Tapper Is the Realest Man in ‘Fake News’” and “Why (Almost) Everyone Likes Jake Tapper” — grilled Kilar and implied Zucker’s firing was primarily a publicity problem (emphases below mine):
If you could address the perception…that Chris Cuomo gets fired by CNN, Chris Cuomo hires high-powered lawyer who has a scorched earth policy, who then makes it very clear to the world that unless Jeff [Zucker] gives Chris Cuomo his money, they’re going to blow the place up. Stuff starts getting leaked to gossip websites about Jeff [Zucker] and Allison [Gollust]…and then weeks later Jeff comes forward and disclosed this and resigns, not willingly. An outside observer might say, well it looks like Chris Cuomo succeeded. He threatened, Jeff [Zucker] said we don’t negotiate with terrorists, and Chris blew the place up. How do we get past that perception that this is the bad guy winning?
Even leaving aside his musings on internal CNN palace intrigue, Tapper’s summary dismissal of Zucker’s affair with Gollust suggests he viewed it as a PR risk rather than as the abuse of power and ethical conflict rolled into one that it actually was.
CNN’s chief White House correspondent Kaitlin Collins agreed with Tapper:
CNN’s chief political correspondent Dana Bash was in the same boat, telling Kilar that “the punishment didn't fit the crime.” (This might surprise the countless employees of corporations around the world who have been fired for violating company policies.)
As recently as last August, CNN’s chief media reporter and Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter used his own show to (incoherently) defend CNN’s decision to allow Chris Cuomo to interview his brother:
What I found is a more complicated story than you might think. This has been a conundrum for CNN that has no perfect answer, no perfect solution. Some think CNN made it worse by letting Chris interview his brother when covid-19 was ravaging New York. But that was an unprecedented time period.
Stelter also presaged Jake Tapper’s later concern with ending the bad publicity surrounding Chris Cuomo’s strategy calls with his scandal-ridden brother, rather than addressing the underlying ethical catastrophe:
I want you all to know, it’s not like Chris [Cuomo] is walking around the New York Bureau newsroom hanging out with the reporters who are covering the [Andrew Cuomo sexual misconduct] story. He works several floors away. He doesn’t have that kind of interaction. Still, there is an optics problem.
Two days later, Stelter followed this up with an interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in which he inexplicably claimed that “if we open up the journalism ethics book, there’s no page for this. It’s the craziest set of circumstances you can imagine. Right — a governor and a brother, both in these high-profile jobs.”
It is, perhaps, only fitting that a news network whose on-air personalities frequently depicted Trump as a carnival barker would so blatantly embrace a bread-and-circuses contempt for its own audience.
And while the occasional critic has successfully smuggled an ethics critique onto the air on CNN itself — such as Washington Post’s Erik Wemple’s admirable attempt last March — one gets the distinct sense that the political media ecosystem’s elevation of TV hits into a sort of social currency acts as a self-censor for any on-air guests who might otherwise find these ethical minefields disturbing enough to bring up on live TV.
So is CNN fixed, now that Zucker is out? Is it destined to take its journalistic mission more seriously? Perhaps the best way of answering that question is by noting who CNN announced as Zucker’s successor: the current producer of CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, a late-night comedy program.