Sunday, May 28

“We Are Waking Up This Morning With a War”: CNN Goes All In on Ukraine as the Next Act in Its Company Drama Begins

As Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, triggering what has already been called the most serious conflict Europe has seen since 1945, CNN snapped into the type of all-hands-on-deck, boots-on-the-ground coverage that is the network’s bread and butter. Erin Burnett anchored the 7 p.m. hour from the western city of Lviv. Matthew Chance hastily donned a flak jacket and helmet while reporting live from Kyiv for Don Lemon’s prime-time show. Also in the capital, Clarissa Ward broadcast from a subway doubling as a bomb shelter, telling viewers, “This feels to me like scenes from World War II and the Blitz.” The network sent out a list of anchors and correspondents covering the latest developments from Moscow to Odessa to Mariupol, where Alexander Marquardt described hearing artillery fire amid footage of civilians lining up at banks preparing to flee the country. As clips circulated on social media, the Twitter cognoscenti weighed in with the requisite acknowledgments that this is what CNN was made for.

For CNN journalists, its Ukraine coverage is bringing things back to their roots, far from the network’s own recent turmoil, which has played out in the press like a cross between a Shakespearean drama and an episode of Succession. The 42-year-old network has been through the ringer over the past three weeks, from Jeff Zucker’s ouster over failing to disclose a romantic relationship with his top lieutenant, Allison Gollust; to Gollust’s subsequent forced resignation as CNN’s marketing chief over unspecified infractions related to her correspondence with Andrew Cuomo; to presumably-outgoing WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar’s awkward handling of the crisis in a series of tense meetings with furious staffers. In the backdrop is the looming threat of litigation from Chris Cuomo, whose firing late last year—amid revelations of the role he played in responding to Andrew Cuomo’s sexual harassment scandal—effectively set the whole chain of events in motion.

CNN may be back to doing what it does best, flooding the zone on a major story as Zucker surely would have marshaled its talent to do were he still there. But the ramifications of CNN’s recent turbulence linger heavy in the air. People who have spoken to Zucker and Gollust, who has been dodging paparazzi outside her Upper East Side apartment building, tell me the two are weighing their options, and the big unknown on the minds of people both inside CNN and out is whether they will strike back.

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There is still the burning question of what exactly Gollust did to warrant her ouster. In a message to employees, Kilar said it resulted from an investigation that “found violations of Company policies.” But Gollust responded with fighting words, saying it was “an attempt to retaliate against me and change the media narrative,” a claim endorsed by people in the couple’s orbit. The closest we’ve come to the truth are varying accounts in The Wall Street Journal, which reported Gollust had misled investigators about the timing of her romantic relationship with Zucker, and The New York Times, which pinned it on “a trove of written communications between her and Governor Cuomo,” whom Gollust worked for briefly before following Zucker to CNN in 2013. Risa Heller, Gollust and Zucker’s spokeswoman, has said that Gollust’s previous work with Cuomo meant she acted as the principal booker for him “so he could share critical public health information on CNN’s air” during the early days of the pandemic, and that “this was well known by the entire network, and many producers relied on her for it on a regular basis.” Heller highlighted “one single occasion” in which the former governor suggested three topics for an upcoming interview, and where Gollust relayed this to staff but “in no way suggested that inclusion of these topics was a condition of the interview.” 

What everyone wants to know is whether WarnerMedia knows more about Gollust’s communications with Cuomo than what has already come out. I don’t have a concrete answer to that, but several sources familiar with the matter told me that a small circle of top CNN executives, including interim chiefs Michael Bass, Ken Jautz, and Amy Entelis, have been briefed on aspects of the investigation that have neither been communicated to the wider CNN community nor reported in the press. What exactly are these aspects? My sources wouldn’t say and WarnerMedia isn’t commenting, but I’m told that the decision regarding Gollust’s employment arose from a conversation between, Bass, Jautz, Entelis, and WarnerMedia communications executive vice president Christy Haubegger. The decision to oust Zucker, on the other hand, came directly from Kilar. Sources told me he learned about the relationship shortly before he was due to present at a board meeting of WarnerMedia’s parent company, AT&T. He brought the information to the board at that meeting, on January 28 in Dallas, sources said, and Zucker’s resignation was announced days later, on February 2.

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The other burning curiosity is what the future holds for CNN under its soon-to-be new owner, WarnerBros. Discovery, which is expected to complete its acquisition of WarnerMedia as early as mid-April. Now that, as of February 9, the merger has cleared regulatory hurdles, Discovery CEO David Zaslav and his team have been permitted to begin a series of limited business meetings with the heads of various departments across WarnerMedia. They were on the Warner lot the week before last and have also met with HBO Max and ad sales. One of their next scheduled meetings is with the brass of the company’s news and sports division, which includes CNN.

The billion-dollar question—if we’re to go by the network’s oft-touted annual profit figure under Zucker—involves who Zaslav will appoint to run the network, a decision I’m told will “very likely” be decided by the time the Discovery deal closes. So far there’s only been speculation about possible contenders, and it’s mostly the usual suspects—Ben Sherwood, David Rhodes, and so on. But one name that has recently entered the bloodstream, sources told me, is Josh Tyrangiel, the former Bloomberg Media and Vice News Tonight honcho who now works on Richard Plepler’s Apple TV+ portfolio. There haven’t been any conversations so far between Zaslav and Tyrangiel, but Tyrangiel has gotten calls from senior figures at CNN indicating they would like to see his hat tossed into the ring. (Tyrangiel declined to comment.) Another name that a source flagged for me shortly after this story was initially published is Jean-Briac Perrette, president and CEO of Discovery Streaming & International. (It goes without saying that you should take all of these names with a grain of salt at this point.)

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In the meantime, there’s a war to cover, and Zaslav’s comments on Discovery’s latest earnings call Thursday morning may be of some comfort to CNN journalists as they come under new ownership. “I’ve been watching a lot of CNN. This is where you see the difference between a news service that has real and meaningful resources globally, news-gathering resources, the biggest and largest group of global journalists of any media company, maybe with the exception of the BBC,” he said. “And here we are waking up this morning with a war, and CNN is going to multiple correspondents and journalists risking their lives in Ukraine, in Poland, in Russia…with journalists in bulletproof vests and helmets that are doing what journalists do best, which is fight to tell the truth in dangerous places.” 

This story has been updated.

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