Another CNN top executive resigns as WarnerMedia CEO cites ethical lapses

Allison Gollust, who resigned on Tuesday as CNN's chief marketing officer, is shown in this photo from Jan. 3, 2013, in Albany, N.Y.

Mike Groll / Mike Groll

CNN’s chief marketing officer resigned Tuesday night as the CEO over the network’s parent company, WarnerMedia, released a memo saying that a formal probe found that she was among three top figures at CNN who had violated its official journalism standards and practices.

Allison Gollust is just the latest to be pulled under in the riptide of scandal that started with the sexual harassment allegations against former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, led to questions about the behavior of his brother, the former CNN primetime star Chris Cuomo, and ultimately put the conduct of former CNN President Jeff Zucker under an unwelcome spotlight.

Zucker fired Chris Cuomo, a friend, in December for doing more than he had conceded on behalf of his brother and after a woman said the news anchor had sexually harassed her years ago at ABC News; Zucker was forced out earlier this month when he had acknowledged he had not disclosed a romantic involvement with Gollust, as company policy requires.

The departures led to threats of lawsuit from Cuomo and upheaval at CNN just as the network and its parent company are about to be taken over by new owners at Discovery Inc. A major investor, John Malone, has signaled he believes the network became too explicitly liberal. The network is on the cusp of launching its new streaming service, CNN+. And all the change has led some of the top hosts and correspondents questioning the network’s leadership vacuum and wondering where it is headed.

An outside law firm’s probe

On Tuesday night, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar announced the conclusion of an outside law firm’s investigation into Chris Cuomo. The investigation, he wrote in a memo to CNN staffers, found that Cuomo, Gollust and Zucker all committed “violations of Company policies, including CNN’s News Standards and Practices.”

Through a representative, Gollust put out her own statement Tuesday night, denouncing Kilar, saying he was seeking to “retaliate against me and change the media narrative in the wake of their disastrous handling of the last two weeks.”

Kilar issued the memo as The New York Times published an investigative piece of the ties that had previously bound Zucker, Cuomo and Gollust – including the latter’s brief stint as communications director for Andrew Cuomo a decade ago. Zucker and Cuomo had forged a strong and personal bond in the nearly nine years since the executive recruited the host to the network. And Gollust and Zucker had worked together closely for a generation. Both are divorced. They say their romantic attachment arose during the pandemic.

The Times reported that Cuomo had devoted a segment on his CNN show to the firm of a woman who had previously been a very junior colleague of his at ABC News. Her accusation, previously disclosed, that Cuomo had sexually harassed her at ABC 11 years ago helped propel Zucker’s decision to fire him; the newspaper also reported she had alleged he had sexually assaulted her. Cuomo had reached out to her after a raft of sexual harassment scandals hit major television networks at the peak of the #MeToo moment to offer the segment.

In a letter to CNN, her attorney, Debra Katz, wrote that the younger woman suspected Cuomo was trying to mollify her with the affirming television coverage.

An expression of brotherly love curdles

Chris Cuomo’s spokesman said in a statement that “the allegations in the anonymous letter are false” and that he was fired before being given a chance to rebut them.

The seeds of the great unraveling at CNN started with a primetime expression of brotherly love – a ratings stunt, as was often the case with Zucker’s experimentation at CNN.

Cuomo had for years been barred from interviewing his brother, the three-term governor, on the air. Yet Zucker relaxed that rule, even encouraging him to bring Andrew Cuomo on. The fraternal bantering and bickering provided a comedic diversion in the early months of the pandemic, and allowed the politician to portray himself as an effective leader against the spread of COVID-19.

That image curdled in 2021, however, as a twin set of allegations arose. Andrew Cuomo’s policies were investigated to see whether they helped lead to hundreds of deaths at senior care facilities. And numerous women who had worked for him in state government alleged that he had sexually harassed them. Before the governor’s resignation, Chris Cuomo acknowledged advising his elder brother in how to manage the crisis – a no-go zone for journalists; Zucker initially defended the host’s conduct as understandable if wrong to consult with the governor’s aides. As more information emerged, he suspended Cuomo.

When Zucker fired Cuomo, he did so saying that still more details had come to light from formal investigations showing the news host’s involvement was more extensive than disclosed. His spokeswoman affirmed that stance Tuesday night.

Late Tuesday, Chris Cuomo contradicted that. In a statement, a spokesman for Cuomo said “Mr. Zucker and Ms. Gollust were not only entirely aware but fully supportive of what he was doing to help his brother.” The spokesman said WarnerMedia should release the investigation’s full results and “explain its supposed basis for terminating Mr. Cuomo.”

Cuomo’s spokesman said Zucker’s ouster was never simply about an undisclosed relationship. His associates have been making the case that Zucker and Gollust themselves had advised Gov. Cuomo during his crisis, the very actions for which Chris Cuomo was fired. The two executives have denied that claim through a spokeswoman, saying Zucker’s departure was triggered by their secret relationship.

Kilar’s statement did not offer any detail as to the violations of standards and practices involved. WarnerMedia spokespersons did not respond to requests for greater clarification.

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