- Warner Bros. Discovery and CNN head David Zaslav has criticized former CNN president Jeff Zucker, calling him ‘a weakling who had tears in his eyes’
- A New York Times report sheds light on Zaslav’s interactions with key CNN figures, including Zucker and former CNN CEO Chris Licht, who Zaslav fired
- Management wasn’t the sole focus of Zaslav’s changes; several anchors, including Don Lemon and Brian Stelter, were let go
A media mogul who oversees CNN branded former network head Jeff Zucker ‘a weakling who had tears in his eyes,’ after a random meeting following Zucker’s axing, it is claimed.
David Zaslav, who runs CNN parent company Warner Bros. Discovery, is said to have been unimpressed with his old friend’s behavior after running into him in Miami following Zucker’s February 2022 ousting over a relationship with a junior colleague.
The two power players had been good friends from previously working together at NBCUniversal – but things went awry when Zucker upbraided Zaslav for failing to contact him after he was forced to resign, the New York Times reported.
Zaslav reportedly then texted Zucker to say ‘Let’s move forward.’ But he is then said to have bad-mouthed him to his CNN replacement Chris Licht over the emotional outburst, saying: ‘Can you believe this?’
Warner Bros. Discovery and CNN boss David Zaslav has branded the former president of CNN, Jeff Zucker, ‘a weakling who had tears in his eyes’ following his ouster from the network in February 2022.
Zucker’s ouster potentially saved Zaslav from another awkward encounter, as he is said to have been considering ditching the doomed ex-CNN boss over the network’s controversial anti-Trump, partisan stance that had taken root on Zucker’s watch.
Zaslav’s dealing with Don Lemon were also detailed in the Times – and paint a fascinating picture of behind the scenes machinations ahead of Lemon’s firing in April.
In Lemon’s case, he had been moved by Licht from his Don Lemon Tonight 10pm time slot to a revamped morning show, CNN This Morning. Lemon was not a fan as he had to share the limelight with two other female hosts.
It was as one of the first major programming moves under Licht.
In twisted web of complex relationships, Lemon believed he had the backing and protection of Zaslav with the boss encouraging him to speak freely about how Licht was performing as the head of CNN.
Lemon revealed how Licht was not inspiring confidence to the journalists and producers in CNN’s newsroom, but Lemon’s career went off the rails after he made a sexist comment regarding 51-year-old presidential candidate Nikki Haley.
Lemon said on-air that Haley ‘isn’t in her prime,’ and that a woman is in her prime only ‘in her 20s and 30s and, maybe, 40s.’
At the time, co-hosts Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins challenged Lemon, trying to clarify what he was referencing: ‘I think we need to qualify. Are you talking about prime for childbearing or are you talking about prime for being president?’
‘Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just saying what the facts are,’ Lemon responded.
Lemon issued a statement the same day saying he regretted his ‘inartful and irrelevant’ comments.
He was subsequently absent from the show for three days, returning the following week with a tweeted apology but no mention of the episode on air.
Zaslav’s patience ran out as he demanded to know ‘Why hasn’t he been fired?’
CNN offered no public explanation for Lemon’s dismissal so he was left to do it himself.
‘After 17 years at CNN I would have thought someone in management would have the decency to tell me directly,’ Lemon said.
CNN said that Lemon was given the opportunity to meet with management but released a statement on Twitter instead.
The show had made little headway in the ratings against the more popular Fox & Friends and Morning Joe on cable news competitors.
The lousy vibes were beginning to cost CNN advertising sales with some potential guests becoming reluctant to appear on CNN This Morning,
In March of this year, Zaslav pledged to Discovery board members how Lemon would be off the morning show before Memorial Day. Ultimately, he was fired in late April just five months into his new show.
Lemon later met with Zaslav following his departure. Zaslav apologized for the handling of the situation – and while the discussion was said to have been cordial, their social relationship has since ceased.
At one time, Zaslav had been friends with Lemon, 57, Licht, 52, and Zucker 58 – visiting their homes in the Hampton’s on Long Island, and attending social engagements with one another including parties.
But the friendships floundered and fell by the wayside once he took on the role as the head of CNN’s parent company in 2022.
The oversight of the fledgling news organization took precedence over personal connections, often years in the making.
The Times says their account of Zaslav’s interactions with key figures at CNN is based on a series of interviews with more than a dozen individuals familiar with the inner workings of the network.
Zaslav appears to have been plotting how to reshape ‘the most trusted name in news’ long before he was leading Warner Bros. Discovery – even having discussions with Licht about running CNN while Zucker was still at the helm.
Zucker’s departure ultimately occurred due to reasons unrelated to Zaslav, coming after he violated company policies – namely, failing to disclose a consensual relationship with the former chief marketing officer of CNN Worldwide 49-year-old Allison Gollust.
He left the $6million-a-year post after admitting to employees that he violated the company’s Standards of Business Conduct.
Zaslav and Zucker’s relationship soured further about a year after his departure when the pair eventually spoke during a chance meeting at a Miami Beach hotel, with Zaslav allegedly belittling Zucker.
Zucker told Zaslav that he was disappointed he had not heard from him, while Zaslav wanted to make clear that he was not behind his ousting.
Zaslav also explained that he couldn’t reach out to him because the merger between WarnerMedia’s AT&T and Discovery had not yet closed.
The pair agreed to ‘move forward’ but later during a phone call with Licht, Zaslav described Zucker ‘as a weakling who had tears in his eyes’, during their meeting according to The Times.
According to sources, the pair no longer communicate.
Zucker is now at RedBird IMI, an investment fund specializing in digital media, sports, entertainment and news, founded by RedBird Capital Partners, a private-equity firm, and International Media Investments, a funder with connections to the government of the United Arab Emirates.
In the case of Chris Licht, Zaslav had reached out for him to run CNN even while Zucker was in charge.
Following Zucker’s departure, Licht accepted the position in February 2022 but once again it came at a cost of their friendship.
‘We’ve been friends for 15 years. We’re not friends anymore. You work for me,’ Zaslav told Licht as he took on the role.
Licht’s ouster from CNN came barely one year later and in June 2023 he was gone after a profile in The Atlantic revealed how employees had become unhappy with him over actions taken during his tenure.
The article saw saw more than 100 CNN employees questioning his ability to lead the organization into the future.
Licht’s departure capped a tumultuous year marked by layoffs, shrinking profits, low ratings, the firing of two anchors, and rock-bottom employee morale.
‘This was an exciting but incredibly challenging assignment and I learned a lot over the past 13 months,’ Licht said in a statement at the time.
‘I’ve been lucky enough to have had a successful, fulfilling career and I look forward to my next chapter. I wish the team at CNN the very best, always.’
Licht had been brought on to overhaul the network following Zucker’s departure and after the firing of Chris Cuomo, its most successful anchor.
His mission was to cleanse the network of its inherent left-wing bias and boost ratings.
Instead, he insulated himself in a corporate office on the 22nd floor – five floors above the newsroom – and seemed constantly unavailable to staff who were disgusted with his efforts to bring the network back to the political center.
Following years of sensational coverage of the Trump White House and the COVID-19 pandemic, the network began enduring the so-called Trump slump, and even with a presidential cycle heating up, the network’s numbers are down.
The magazine gained extraordinary access to Licht, presenting him as boastful where he was interviewed at the gym, describing himself as ‘a machine’ – saying predecessor Zucker ‘couldn’t do this s**t’.
Following the explosive piece, Zaslav warned him to ‘fix the narrative within six months’ – but Licht was dismissed by Zaslav within days – yet another working relationship and former friendship now in tatters.