Forty-eight hours after one of the media business' more stunning executive exits in recent memory, speculation continues to swirl as to who, if anyone, put the knife in the back of former CNN chief Jeff Zucker, and what will happen now to the cable news network and its soon-to-launch digital offshoot, CNN Plus.
On Friday, in separate CNBC appearances, Discovery CEO David Zaslav and AT&T chief executive John Stankey each, somewhat indirectly, addressed those concerns.
Zaslav, who will oversee the combined Warner Bros. Discovery once the $43 billion deal to spin off CNN parent WarnerMedia from AT&T and combine it with Discovery closes in the next several months, dismissed an emerging rumor suggesting that Zucker was pushed out by the powerful John Malone.
The mogul sits on the Discovery board and has expressed frustration with CNN's perceived leftward repositioning on the political spectrum under Zucker. (This is actually a debatable narrative, given the extreme rightward reorientation of Fox News and other conservative cable channels in recent years.)
Notably, the approval of WarnerMedia's acquisition by AT&T faced rugged regulatory seas back in 2018, with the Trump White House far more unhappy with CNN's coverage than Malone ever was. Discovery and AT&T are obviously hoping the regulatory process goes smoother this time around.
“None of us had anything to do with it,” Zaslav said when asked about those Malone rumors.
Zucker abruptly resigned Wednesday morning, citing his failure to disclose a romantic relationship with a top-level CNN marketing executive under his command, Allison Gollust.
Zaslav said he learned about Zucker's departure only hours before it was announced.
“Jeff is a good friend of mine, but I can’t speak to this issue,” he told CNBC.
Zaslav, however, did tip his hand as to how he views CNN's political orientation, a view that seems to align with comments made last year by Malone, who has been openly critical about Zucker's programming strategy.
“We have this great entertainment menu, which should keep people in the home, from the kids to the grandparents. Why would they go anywhere else? And then we’re the leader in news to the left,” Zaslav said.
Meanwhile, away from the Discovery board room, speculation has swirled that Zucker's relationship with Gollust -- long a not very well-kept secret -- became an issue only recently amid the acrimonious firing of top-rated CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.
Did Cuomo exact revenge on his former boss, who refused to pay him a severance? Did the relationship merely provide an excuse for WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who was widely reported to have a chilly relationship with the popular newsroom leader, a reason to fire Zucker?
“I am not going to speculate on your theory,” Stankey said during his CNBC appearance. “I have always had a practice of not commenting on personnel decisions, and I’m not going to do that here.”
If the unreported romantic relationship between a supervisor and subordinate was a fireable offense, why is marketing chief Gollust still employed by CNN, Stankey was also asked?
“Allison, her circumstances are different, and I don’t want to get involved in discussing her situation," Stankey added. ■
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Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!