CNN’s Gollus discussed interview topics with Governor Cuomo, probe found

On a Saturday in March 2020, as Covid-19 swept across the United States, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo took to CNN for a live interview. Among other topics, he was asked about a possible government-mandated quarantine in New York that had been initiated by President Donald J. Trump.

It was newsworthy, but its path to viewers’ screens would prove controversial — and very important to the future of one of the world’s most powerful news networks.

Prior to the interview, Governor Cuomo had spoken to senior CNN executive Allison Gollust about topics he would like to be asked about on air, according to several people familiar with the matter. Ms. Gollust, CNN’s longtime communications and marketing chief and former senior aide to the governor, relayed the topics to CNN producers and then reported back to the governor.

“Done,” she wrote.

On Tuesday, Ms. Gollus was forced to resign from CNN after an internal investigation found a trove of written communications between her and Governor Cuomo, including posts about the March 2020 court appearance, the people said. Jeff Zucker, who was CNN president at the time, was aware of numerous communications between Ms Gollust and the governor, the people said.

The episode is the latest example of how CNN’s leadership was intertwined with one of the nation’s most prominent Democratic politicians.

TV news show producers and bookers regularly chat with guests ahead of their scheduled appearances and discuss issues and topics likely to air. It is unusual, however, for a senior manager to be involved in this pre-interview process, particularly when that manager has previously worked for the interviewee.

Risa Heller, spokeswoman for Ms. Gollus, said communications with the governor were appropriate. Ms. Gollus “in no way suggested that the inclusion of these topics was a condition of the interview, nor did she suggest that the interview should be limited to these topics,” Ms. Heller said.

She added, “WarnerMedia relying on this daily practice to justify Allison’s firing demonstrates how ignorant they are of journalistic practices and further proves that her firing is nothing more than retaliation.”

CNN, whose tagline is “the most trusted name in the news,” is facing growing questions about how its top executives and top-rated anchor – Chris Cuomo, the governor’s younger brother – led the coverage of Governor Cuomo, who resigned last summer.

In a memo to employees this week, Jason Kilar, the chief executive of WarnerMedia, which is CNN’s parent company, wrote that Ms Gollust was resigning after the internal investigation uncovered “unspecified violations of company policies. , including CNN’s Information Standards and Practices”. by her, Mr. Zucker and Chris Cuomo.

His resignation was the latest blow to CNN, which was already reeling from Mr Zucker’s abrupt ousting two weeks earlier. Mr Zucker said he was leaving because he failed to disclose a romantic relationship with Ms Gollus.

The internal review, led by law firm Cravath Swaine & Moore, began last fall with a review of allegations of workplace misconduct against Chris Cuomo.

Mr. Zucker fired Mr. Cuomo in December, days after the network received a letter claiming that Mr. Cuomo had sexually assaulted a woman years earlier and then offered to run a flattering segment of CNN on his employer. The woman perceived this as an effort to buy her silence. Mr. Cuomo has denied the allegations.

Mr Cuomo was also fired for closely advising his brother on how to fend off a sexual misconduct scandal that ultimately forced the governor to resign.

After Mr. Cuomo left CNN, the Cravath magazine took on a life of its own and quickly turned the news network upside down.

Investigators learned that Mr. Zucker and Ms. Gollus, who had worked closely together for more than two decades, had a romantic affair that had not been disclosed to human resources or other WarnerMedia executives.

Cravath investigators also uncovered numerous written communications between Governor Cuomo and Ms. Gollust, who briefly worked for the governor in late 2012 and early 2013, the people said.

The purpose of all these communications was unclear.

But investigators found posts during the pandemic in which Governor Cuomo informed Ms. Gollus of three specific topics he wanted to cover during a CNN appearance on March 28, 2020, the people said.

They said those topics included her recent phone conversation with Mr. Trump and the effect of New York’s quarantine.

Ms. Gollust then sent messages to CNN staff asking that the governor be asked about these matters.

Lawyers for Cravath reviewed broadcast transcripts which showed the presenter asking questions about the topics Ms Gollust highlighted, the people said.

Ms. Heller, Ms. Gollus’ spokeswoman, said Ms. Gollus “acted as a reservations manager for Governor Cuomo during the early days of the pandemic” and that her role was “well known to the entire network.” .

It was unclear whether Mr. Zucker knew that Ms. Gollus had forwarded Governor Cuomo’s request for interview subjects.

A WarnerMedia spokesperson referred The New York Times to the memo the company sent to employees on Tuesday evening.

The back-to-back exits of Mr. Zucker and Ms. Gollus have raised questions about CNN’s future direction.

WarnerMedia, which is owned by AT&T, is expected to be spun off and merged with Discovery Inc. in the coming months.

WarnerMedia has tried to keep a lid on the internal drama, initially remaining tight-lipped about the circumstances of Mr. Zucker’s departure, then releasing a short, vaguely worded memo on Tuesday evening about Ms. Gollus’ departure and unspecified journalistic lapses. .

Even in conversations with CNN staff, executives and newsroom heads have been mostly silent, to the growing frustration of reporters and other network employees.

In a pair of Zoom meetings on Wednesday with CNN employees Michael Bass and Ken Jautz, who stepped in as two of the network’s acting executives after Mr. Zucker left, said Ms. Gollus had committed serious violations of the network’s journalistic standards, four people who attended the virtual meetings said.

WarnerMedia’s senior communications manager, Christy Haubegger, also told a staff meeting that Ms. Gollus’ transgressions had “to do with the Cuomos,” three people said.

When employees asked for more details, Ms Haubegger said she was forbidden to say more.

“Actions have been taken to defend the institution and the brand,” she said on the call.

Ms Haubegger urged CNN’s public relations team to try to draw public attention to the network’s journalism, including its foreign correspondents in Ukraine covering the simmering conflict between that country and Russia.

The findings of the internal investigation are particularly notable as CNN reporters have repeatedly attacked Fox News personalities like Sean Hannity for having too close a relationship with Republican leaders, particularly Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump, in turn, has repeatedly accused CNN of being the mouthpiece for Democrats.

James B. Stewart contributed report.

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