Good morning, all. We made it through another incredibly newsy week in the media, highlighted by Jeff Zucker’s stunning resignation as president of CNN, and Whoopi Goldberg’s suspension from ABC. Here are some of my thoughts on what has happened, what’s up next, as well as my weekend reading recommendations.
Zucker had to go. But first, what’s next?
This Jeff Zucker story isn’t going away for a while. It has legs to last a long time, and tentacles to reach in a lot of different directions.
A lot of questions remain, such as ….
What role does recently-fired Chris Cuomo play in all of this? Does any of this somehow tie back to former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the sexual misconduct allegations that forced him out of office? Who will permanently replace Zucker? What does this mean for the launch of the streaming service, CNN+ — which is supposed to get off the ground this spring? How does this impact Allison Gollust, CNN’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, who is in a relationship with Zucker?
For now, Michael Bass, Amy Entelis, and Ken Jautz will share leadership duties. Interestingly, before all this went down, Zucker was expected to leave CNN sooner rather than later anyway, and do you know who’s name occasionally floated as a potential replacement? Allison Gollust. Who knows if there was anything to that, but Gollust certainly has had a strong presence at CNN.
Why did Zucker have to go?
I want to revisit something that has come up more than once at CNN, including on the air. Look, I get that many at CNN loved working for Zucker, and are upset that he is no longer there. By most accounts, Zucker was well-respected and well-liked inside the company. But, frankly, I’m a little surprised at how many there are reportedly confused as to why Zucker had to resign. The argument of some, including on-air anchor Alisyn Camerota, is that Zucker and Gollust were single and that their relationship was consensual. So what’s the problem?
According to CNN’s Brian Stelter, CNN anchor Dana Bash said in a tense employees’ meeting with WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar that the “punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”
In other words, did Zucker have to go?
The problem starts with the fact that Zucker and Gollust didn’t officially disclose that they were romantically involved. Maybe their relationship was an open secret, but it was not officially disclosed. There had always been rumors. “But,” The New York Times’ John Koblin and Michael M. Grynbaum wrote, “the rumors stayed only rumors, until Wednesday.”
That’s a big issue.
Koblin and Grynbaum wrote, “WarnerMedia’s standards policy states that personal relationships must be disclosed immediately to ‘avoid a conflict of interest,’ particularly if one of the people is in a ‘position to influence’ a career track.”
That’s it in a nutshell, as well as the potential of lawsuits from any number of CNN employees in the future, including Gollust if her relationship with Zucker ended somehow while Zucker was still the big boss.
Then again …
Having said all that, it does sound as if everybody knew about the relationship between Zucker and Gollust. To say it was an “open secret” might not do it justice. One source told Variety’s Matt Donnelly and Elizabeth Wagmeister, “It wasn’t even an open secret. It was just open.”
Did WarnerMedia simply look the other way? And why is it now, all of a sudden, that the relationship is a problem? (Again, that fuels speculation that this Cuomo part of the story has fingerprints all over this and, if you don’t mind me mixing my metaphors, the other shoe is eventually going to drop.)
For the record, Stelter reported that Kilar just learned of the Zucker-Gollust relationship and there are reports that Kilar and Zucker had a “frosty” relationship. Stelter also reported that Kilar’s meeting with CNN’s Washington, D.C,. staff, including some prominent on-air personalities, didn’t go over well because Kilar didn’t get into specifics. However, he told staff, “I feel comfortable in my decision. I do.”
To be clear, as Stelter reported, if Zucker hadn’t resigned, Kilar would have fired him. Again, that’s what at least two sources told Stelter.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan went a different route in the Zucker story with her column, “Jeff Zucker’s legacy is defined by his promotion of Donald Trump.”
Sullivan wrote, “Zucker, as much as any other person in the world, created and burnished the Trump persona — first as a reality-TV star who morphed into a worldwide celebrity, then as a candidate for president who was given large amounts of free publicity. The through line? Nothing nobler than TV ratings, which always were Zucker’s guiding light, his be-all and end-all and, ultimately, his fatal flaw.”
Sullivan closed with this damning indictment: “But why is American democracy in peril? Some portion of the blame — not a tiny portion — belongs to the network executive who couldn’t resist the ‘ratings machine.’”
More from The Washington Post
Post media critic Erik Wemple’s latest piece: “Jeff Zucker, Allison Gollust personally pushed for Andrew Cuomo-Chris Cuomo interviews.”
Wemple wrote, “… here you have the top officials at CNN personally engaged in securing interviews that breach the network’s standards, all in the interest of ratings and buzz. They had a hand in the very brand of line-crossing that eventually helped to sink Chris Cuomo. The awkwardness filtered across organizations, too: Do you think Andrew Cuomo wanted to say no to his brother’s bosses? As the Erik Wemple Blog argued months ago, Chris Cuomo deserved some company in suffering accountability from this entire mess. It seems he now has some.”
One last thing (today) on Zucker
I need to be upfront. In my 2021 Year in Media column, I named Zucker my “Media Personality of the Year.” I praised him for his decision to cut ties with Cuomo, someone he had been close to over the years. For that, I called him a “strong leader.” That particular endorsement might come back to haunt me if we learn more about the Cuomo situation in the coming days and weeks. And you can obviously find those who aren’t Zucker’s biggest fans. (See: Margaret Sullivan’s column above.)
But I’m also going to stand behind my claim that Zucker is an influential media figure who deserves credit for the solid work he has done at CNN, including what I expect to be a rather successful CNN+ service that will launch soon. His CNN colleagues, as we have seen, rave about him. Was this a messy end to his time at CNN? No question. Is CNN fighting the ratings at the moment? Yes. But was he an effective news leader who did plenty of positive things and still has more to contribute to the media landscape? I believe so.
The Olympics are here
The Olympics are underway in Beijing and open in earnest today with the opening ceremonies. As far as TV, these Games are expected to be among the lowest — if not the lowest — rated Olympics in history. Several dark clouds are hanging over the Games from COVID-19, to no fans, to the uncomfortable realization that the Games are being hosted by a government with a horrendous human rights record.
Washington Post sports columnist Barry Svrluga writes, “These pandemic Olympics will be held largely without fans on what amounts to a soundstage. They are little more than a Hollywood production, lacking only two-dimensional storefronts. But the precise location must be remembered: These Olympics are in China, and that carries with it grave entanglements. The lasting impact of these Games must not to be to celebrate China. It must be to scrutinize its leadership.”
Former NBC sportscaster Bob Costas, who hosted the network’s Olympic coverage for more than two decades, told The New York Times’ John Koblin, “My friends and colleagues at NBC have been dealt the worst hand imaginable.”
NBC will have about 600 employees in China for the Games. Prime-time host Mike Tirico will spend the first few days in China, and the “Today” show’s Craig Melvin also will be there. Lester Holt will be in New York, but will anchor the weekend editions of the “NBC Nightly News.”
But all of the commentators will call the events from NBC’s home base in Stamford, Connecticut. As Koblin points out, “NBC will not have access to many aspects of the Games that viewers are accustomed to: charming travelogue segments about a host city; live shots of an athlete’s family and friends, who have traveled to a foreign country to see a loved one compete; commentators rushing up to a competitor who just scored gold.”
NBC is used to covering events in this time of COVID-19 and has figured out how to effectively do things remotely, but it still will feel … different.
Again, you have issues caused by COVID-19, time differences, China’s government and more. Costas told Koblin, “But inevitably, no matter how good a job they do, those circumstances are going to have an impact.”
The New York Times does as good of a job as anybody covering the Olympic games. This is an event that has always been in the Times’ wheelhouse. I mentioned this in Thursday’s newsletter, but if you missed it, check out this really good project: “What Scares the World’s Most Daring Olympians.”
And here’s another must-read: John Branch with “Eileen Gu Is Trying to Soar Over the Geopolitical Divide.”
But, Times sports columnist Kurt Streeter asks a fair question when he writes, “Many, including me, are asking should these Games even be happening? Should a second straight Olympiad be held amid a pandemic that has killed more than five million people worldwide?”
Streeter also adds that here is yet another Olympics with Russia gathering troops on some other country’s border. And, as mentioned, there is China’s government and human rights issues
And throughout, don’t expect the International Olympic Committee to wade too deep, if at all, into any commentary about any of it.
The Games will go on and, as always, there will be remarkable athletes and incredible stories that will capture our attention. In the U.S., we are paying particular attention to skier Mikaela Shiffrin, snowboarders Shaun White and Chloe Kim, the U.S. women’s hockey team and probably someone you don’t know now who could become a household name in two weeks.
But, as Streeter notes, “always remember what is really going on.”
I should add …
The Washington Post and USA Today also have superb Olympic coverage with plenty of journalists in China, so be sure to check out their work as well.
And to catch you up in general, the Post’s Les Carpenter has an excellent primer with “The Beijing Olympics begin Feb. 4. Here’s what you need to know.”
Goldberg’s suspension continues
There’s still lots of buzz over Whoopi Goldberg’s “the Holocaust was not about race” comments on ABC’s “The View” that drew her a two-week suspension.
And much of it centers on the suspension itself — as in, what is the point of it?
Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah has a column with the headline: “Whoopi Goldberg’s Holocaust comments show why we need critical race analysis.”
Attiah wrote, “More deeply, however, Goldberg’s misguided rant shows why there is a need for including critical race-based analysis of how we teach world history. By silencing her, ABC demonstrates how American media continues to show a near-complete inability to responsibly interrogate whiteness and White Christian supremacy.”
She later added, “ABC could have provided a space to educate Goldberg and the rest of its audience about the centuries-old history of global white supremacy, and to push back on current efforts to marginalize the voices of the oppressed. Instead, it chose one of America’s favorite pastimes — silencing Black women.”
Meanwhile, NBC News’ race, identity and culture writer Michael Crawford wrote, “… the suspension felt more like a hollow and performative spectacle designed to douse the continuing firestorm of critical tweets than an attempt to make a bad situation better. Instead of providing a much-needed platform for education, the company’s leaders fumbled a critical opportunity to engage in honest and much-needed dialogue that could have led to healing.”
Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, was a guest on “The View” with Goldberg the day after her initial comments. He later accepted Goldberg’s apology on Twitter and thanked her for having him on the show. In an op-ed for USA Today titled, “Why I forgave Whoopi Goldberg on national TV a day after her remarks on the Holocaust,” Greenblatt wrote that he felt Goldberg’s apology and subsequent comments were “immediate and unconditional,” and “heartfelt and sincere,” and that she showed true remorse. He also pointed to Goldberg’s record of being a friend to the Jewish community.
Greenblatt wrote, “At the Anti-Defamation League, we believe that when an individual — whether a celebrity, an elected leader or even a close friend — makes a mistake, they should be given a second chance. And that a mistake, no matter how hurtful, can serve as an opportunity for learning and growth. In Jewish religious tradition, there is a concept known as ‘T’shuvah,’ or repentance, which offers someone an opportunity to reflect on misdeeds and to repair them. That certainly applies here.”
Will Whoopi stay?
There have been reports that Goldberg is “livid” over her suspension, as are her fellow panelists. You can understand why the panelists might be upset. After all, it might be one of them who next says something insensitive. As I mentioned in Thursday’s newsletter, shows such as “The View” are designed to have charged conversations about controversial topics and it’s actually surprising more dumb things aren’t said. Panelists are trying to be provocative and that often leads to trouble.
And as others have pointed out, oftentimes these shows talk about things that require nuance and expertise and the panelists don’t always know enough about a particular topic to offer that kind of commentary. That’s not a knock against the panelists. After all, you can’t know everything about everything.
- Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick looks at the Joe Rogan controversy in “Why Spotify Will Win.”
- William C. Rhoden for The Undefeated with “Will the Brian Flores lawsuit force a racial reckoning for the NFL?”
- The Ringer’s Alan Siegel writes about the “Jackass” franchise in “Brothers in Broken Arms.”
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at email@example.com.
Clarification: This story has been updated to say Lester Holt is anchoring the weekend editions of the “NBC Nightly News” from New York, not China.
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