In relationships, timing is everything. And the timeline on Jeff Zucker and Allison Gollust’s coupledom is not only off by more than two decades, say sources who have worked with the pair — the CNN power couple also repeatedly lied about their relationship to their corporate bosses.
According to CNN president Zucker’s Feb. 2 resignation memo to staff, the romantic relationship — which marked a flagrant violation of corporate policy given that Gollust, the network’s top communications executive, was a direct report to Zucker for most of her nine-year tenure there — began sometime in the past two years. Gollust said in that same memo: “Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over 20 years. Recently, our relationship changed during Covid. I regret that we didn’t disclose it at the right time.” Added Zucker: “The relationship evolved in recent years.”
Zucker noted in his memo that WarnerMedia’s ongoing investigation into Chris Cuomo — who was fired in December for a breach of ethics after it was discovered he’d been advising his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, while the latter faced accusations of sexual harassment — brought the affair to light and prompted his resignation. And it seems the probe, which is being overseen by the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, is unearthing plenty of embarrassing details about the goings-on at CNN. The scope of the investigation has now expanded to include Zucker and Gollust’s relationship with Andrew Cuomo, too, a WarnerMedia source acknowledged.
But sources who worked closely with Zucker and Gollust dating back to their days at The Today Show in the mid-Nineties dispute their statements in the memo. In reality, these sources tell Rolling Stone, Zucker became romantically entangled with Gollust back in 1996, when she was a trainee in NBC’s corporate communications group and he was the married executive producer of The Today Show. “It was the worst-kept secret, but Jeff was seen as untouchable,” says one insider. “And their statements [in the memo] are total bullshit.”
In fact, the pair have skirted the issue multiple times in the past, and at least one investigation into their relationship had been carried out by WarnerMedia well before Covid. Yet Zucker and Gollust denied the romance “over and over again,” says a knowledgeable source, and nothing changed in the corporate hierarchy’s reporting structure. A WarnerMedia spokesperson denied that any such investigation had ever been launched but acknowledged that both parties had been asked about the nature of their relationship multiple times, including after a New York Post gossip item hinted at a romance when they were spotted arguing at a Hollywood Reporter party in 2017. The pair repeatedly denied any impropriety. Neither Zucker nor Gollust responded immediately to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.
While Zucker claimed the Cravath investigation marked the first time his undisclosed relationship with Gollust had become an issue, that flies in the face of what sources tell Rolling Stone.
On May 1, 2020, Jason Kilar took the reins as CEO of WarnerMedia and immediately set about overhauling the sprawling entertainment and media conglomerate owned by AT&T. In the process, Zucker, who also served as chairman of WarnerMedia’s news and sports division, lost oversight of CNN’s finances and human resources as well as corporate communications — the division run by top executive Gollust. Sources say Kilar was aware of rumors that Zucker was in a long-term relationship with Gollust, who was also the network’s chief marketing officer — and that Zucker, given just 24 hours notice of the move, was livid.
Kilar’s sudden restructuring prompted several journalists to begin chasing the story of Zucker and Gollust’s unorthodox union. Back in September 2020, this reporter placed calls to WarnerMedia and specifically asked if Kilar’s decision to move Gollust out from under Zucker was a result of learning about their relationship, which was in violation of the company’s code of conduct. At the time, a WarnerMedia spokesperson declined to answer and referred the matter to Gollust herself.
Still, a behind-the-scenes executive showdown ensued, and Zucker appeared to have prevailed: After the May 2021 announcement that AT&T would be spinning off WarnerMedia and merging it with Discovery, Kilar, reportedly blindsided by the news, began negotiating his exit, while Zucker was rumored to be getting a bigger role in the new entity given his close relationship with Discovery CEO David Zaslav. Gollust, in turn, was reportedly poised to take over for Zucker at CNN.
But those well-laid plans came crashing down when the investigation into Chris Cuomo began sweeping up embarrassing details concerning Zucker and Gollust, including emails and other “evidence” that painted an undeniable picture of the duo’s romantic relationship. The evidence only surfaced in recent days, say two sources, and Kilar took swift action in confronting the CNN president. Facing termination, Zucker resigned and is not poised to receive any severance. Sources say Zaslav was not involved in the decision to cut ties with Zucker.
The exposed affair isn’t the only red flag the investigation has raised on Zucker and Gollust. The probe, which is nearly complete, is being overseen by Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s Katherine Forrest, a former U.S. district judge who has conducted multiple investigations for WarnerMedia in the past. (She was brought in to look into Justice League star Ray Fisher’s claims of racism but “found no credible support” for the actor’s claims.) And a source familiar with Forrest’s work on the matter says that it’s not just Chris Cuomo’s alleged role in helping his brother Andrew navigate a sexual harassment scandal that has come under her scrutiny.
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.”
Over the past three decades, the Zucker-Gollust relationship was no secret inside the newsrooms of NBC or CNN. Within a year of Zucker and Gollust commencing their affair, multiple sources say, Gollust leapfrogged from trainee to the role of senior publicist for Today, and Zucker became her boss, a paradigm that continued for years to come with only two brief interruptions. Through a series of promotions, her purview expanded, and she added oversight duties for NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC, and the Weather Channel as well as NBC Nightly News, Dateline, and Meet the Press.
In 2000, Zucker became president of NBC Entertainment and quickly pulled off a series of splashy deals, including signing Donald Trump to host The Apprentice and Joe Rogan to host Fear Factor. He ascended the corporate ladder, and in 2006, became president and CEO of NBC Universal. One year later, he moved into an ultra-expensive Upper East Side co-op with views of Central Park. According to public records, Gollust moved into the same building with her then-husband and children a year later.
In 2009, Gollust was named executive VP of corporate communications at NBC Universal, becoming the top communications staffer at the network and the chief spokesperson for Zucker. But in June 2010, Zucker was ousted as Comcast was about to complete its 51-percent acquisition of NBC Universal. He was paid $30 million to $40 million to leave. Five months later, Gollust resigned.
As Zucker was plotting his media-world comeback, he and Gollust became intertwined with the Cuomo brothers. In 2012, Gollust took a post as communications director for then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Not long after, Zucker joined CNN, and one of his first hires was Chris Cuomo. In short succession, Gollust resigned from her position in the governor’s office and joined Zucker at CNN. She was named senior vice president of communications for CNN Worldwide. A press release at the time said Gollust would report to Jeff Matteson, senior VP for Turner Broadcasting, “while working closely with her longtime colleague [Zucker].” But that reporting structure didn’t last long. Seven months later, Gollust was promoted, adding chief marketing officer for CNN Worldwide to her title. She began reporting directly to Zucker.
After AT&T acquired WarnerMedia, the Zucker-Gollust union became a potential problem at the entertainment giant. In recent years, corporations have become less tolerant of consensual relationships. In November 2019, McDonald’s fired its CEO, Steve Easterbrook, for dating an employee. One month later, BlackRock top executive Mark Wiseman was terminated for failing to disclose a relationship with an underling.
But the recent Chris Cuomo investigation pushed the Zucker-Gollust relationship to the surface once again. As the star anchor’s fight with his former employer took a nasty turn, he hired Megyn Kelly’s lawyer Bryan Freedman to sue for some $20 million left on his contract, while CNN brought in O’Melveny & Myers partner Daniel Petrocelli to represent the network.
As the dust settles on Zucker’s abrupt resignation, Gollust, who is now divorced like Zucker, says she plans to stay with the network even if any ascension plans have evaporated. In the meantime, Kilar announced to shaken staff that Michael Bass, Amy Entelis, and Ken Jautz will serve as interim co-heads of CNN. The trio would lead serve in that role through the close of the company’s merger with Discovery, which is expected in the second quarter of this year.