CNN executive ousting shakes up top staff at pivotal moment

By David Bauder

NEW YORK (AP) — The abrupt ousting of CNN chief executive Jeff Zucker over a labor relationship has left some high-profile employees feeling angry and uncertain about the direction of their network at a pivotal time. .

The company is set to change ownership, launch a paid streaming service and replace its most popular on-air host in a time of plummeting ratings.

It became clear Thursday that Zucker’s exit after nine years at the helm of CNN was anything but voluntary.

Zucker said he was leaving for violating company policy by not disclosing the nature of his relationship with his second in command, Allison Gollust. But he reportedly had no choice with WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who called the change his decision during an emotional meeting with CNN Washington staffers on Wednesday night. The AP obtained an audio recording of this meeting.

The nature of that meeting, coupled with the fact that Zucker’s exit became a water cooler issue — former President Donald Trump has released two statements about 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,” Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra University’s school of communications and a former colleague of Zucker’s, told NBC News. .

Kilar was peppered with questions from CNN staff in Washington. They questioned whether he sought advice from other leaders, why Zucker was not granted a transition period and whether rumored antipathy between the two men played a role in the decision, according to the report. ‘registration.

“Given that these are two consenting adults…why is this a dismissable offence?” asked White House reporter Kaitlyn Collins.

TV host Jake Tapper said there was a perception that Chris Cuomo – fired in December as a CNN host because he privately advised his brother, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — had essentially succeeded in threatening to embarrass the company by exposing the relationship if she didn’t pay a settlement fee.

“How can we overcome the perception that the bad guy wins?” Tapper asked during the meeting.

Even some of the people named to temporarily replace Zucker — veteran CNN executives Michael Bass, Amy Entelis and Ken Jautz — spoke about his impact on the organization and said they would follow the direction he set.

Jautz said at the staff meeting that after CNN founder Ted Turner, “Jeff has had more impact on this place than anyone, certainly no more than any executive.”

CNN’s John King described Zucker’s direct influence on what happened on air and the fear of the unknown without him.

“You may not agree with every decision,” King said during the meeting. “But you knew someone was going to make a decision, you would know which direction you were going. And this company has had long periods when that didn’t exist and those are unpleasant times.

The selection of a new leader will ultimately fall to David Zaslav, appointed to lead the new company created by the impending merger of Discovery, Inc. and WarnerMedia.

But that means CNN is suddenly without its caller as it prepares to launch the CNN+ streaming service this spring. Zucker has been active in recruiting talent like former Fox News host Chris Wallace, building his features and was on the verge of becoming a public cheerleader for it.

Kilar, at the Washington meeting, described the launch of CNN+ as just as important as the start of CNN itself. To add to the challenge, it will be a paid service at a time when there are others in the industry, with the exception of Fox Nation, which offer free access.

CNN is also set to replace Cuomo in its primetime programming and is offering a series of substitutes. Zucker recently approached Gayle King for the job before she decided to re-sign with CBS News.

Viewership for network television has dropped dramatically over the past year. Ratings have always been cyclical and the 2020 election has drawn record numbers, but there is always the question of when or if they will return.

CNN is also emerging from a controversial period where Trump has frequently called the network “fake news.” During the meeting with Kilar, CNN’s Jim Acosta said Zucker stood up to the attacks and wondered if anyone else would do the same.

CNN’s on-air staff under Zucker, like Acosta, have become much more opinionated and it hasn’t always been popular.

“It’s interesting to see if that culture will change 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 major Discovery shareholder, who told CNBC in November that “I’d like to see CNN go back to the kind of journalism it started with.”

Lukasiewicz said he saw no reason to think that change was going to happen. What’s most interesting is how the emergence of streaming as a news platform with a different audience will mean for the industry, he said.

It’s a difficult time for CNN to enter a period with interim leadership, Lukasiewicz said. But not all of these troubled times end up being negative.

“Sometimes the change in direction, although not welcome at the moment, can lead to good things down the line,” he said.

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