Michael Wolff: Jeff Zucker and the Insatiable 'Will to Power'
The myriad complications of an always triangulating man
Michael Wolff is the best-selling author of 10 books including international bestsellers Fire & Fury, Siege, and Landslide and A Biography of Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News. His latest book is Too Famous: The Rich. The Powerful. The Wishful. The Notorious. The Damned. He last wrote here about Norman Mailer.
The first Jewish president, as he has often joked to friends (a Harvard joke — that is, not quite a joke at all) is on the ropes. But is this the end?
Let’s clarify that Jeffrey Adam Zucker’s interest has always been power and politics rather than simply media and television. His Harvard classmate, Michael Hirschorn, himself a would-be world beater who lost out to Zucker in a primal Harvard competition to run the Harvard Crimson, described Zucker in an article in Esquire little more than 10 years after their graduation as, already — by his early thirties Zucker was one of the leading television executives as the producer of the Today Show — “a living infomercial for what pure will to power will score you in the modern world.”
He made one President, launching Donald Trump as a television star — something which began as near meta-media joke but which became programming genius — and believed he contributed mightily to unmaking him by turning CNN into an adversary network (a rating plus). His involvement with the Cuomo brothers, a straight line between politics and television — undoubtedly more germane to his downfall than the hoary office romance which has so far gotten top billing — was part and parcel of the television news man’s belief that he is as politically savvy and attuned to the nuances of power as any politician.
And this may be true. Zucker’s entire career has been a study in accumulating, expanding, and consolidating power in an industry certainly as toxic, Machiavellian, unforgiving and childish as politics. He not only has risen as all others in TV have fallen, but — in the face of failure, ridicule, and a loss of his all-important power base when Comcast acquired NBC from GE — risen again. Zucker may be the only true television executive of his generation to have succeeded (at least up until now) in absolute terms.
The underlying suspicion of the current CNN-AT&T-Zucker fracas, putting aside the office romance for a moment, is that at the same time the CNN primetime anchor Chris Cuomo in undisclosed behind-the-scenes maneuvers was conspiring to help his brother survive a sexual harassment mess, for which Cuomo was summarily fired, Zucker, who fired him, was also contributing advice. Indeed, it quite seems that Zucker was a uniquely important operator in the recent rise of Andrew Cuomo as COVID political star, future unlimited, as well as back-room consultant during the Governor’s abrupt and unexpected downfall.
This is as shocked-shocked shocking for journalism piety as Zucker’s 10-or-20-year office romance, widely known to…well, everybody, is to HR sanctitude. It would be impossible to divorce journalism from its interest in power. It would be impossible to divorce that interest from a close, confiding, enabling relationship between journalists and politicians. It would be impossible to divorce some of the great successes in journalism from those relationships. (As, it is impossible to divorce men and women in workplace proximity from each other.)
Note: journalists of a certain type of ambition and status are only interested in politics, only talk about politics, live as hotly for it as any real politician. Politics for them is the real news, the real human condition, the effective substitute for both an actually intellectual and personal life — arguably one reason cable news has reduced its audience to only those with an obsessive, if not pathological, interest in politics.
Now, Fox News has taken the politics-and-network news division symbiosis to a new and shameless level. Roger Ailes was a political operative who created Fox News as a public outlet for his political advice and direction, an unfathomably successful programing as well as political strategy. The Fox News primetime line-up essentially became Trump’s kitchen cabinet advisors. This was deeply decried by liberal journalists, not least of all for its shamelessness. The liberal approach was of a more artful kind if to the same effect — influence, of course, but also to satisfy the power aphrodisiac itch. Jeff Zucker spent the most formative part of his career as a devotee of Jack Welch the world-beating CEO of General Electric, which owned NBC. GE was a conglomerate always highly advanced in its courtship of Washington, for which it, deftly, often, used its news division. Tim Russert, NBC’s most venerated political correspondent, was the corporation’s designated Washington ambassador.
Zucker, by many reports, has been viewing this paradigm differently. His overt interest in politics is hardly on behalf of AT&T — CNN’s corporate parent detested by him along with everyone else at CNN and its division parent, Warner Media. Nor is it merely part of mainstream media’s all-consuming access-insider game. Rather, it is the next, why-not-me? step. As management life became increasingly strained under AT&T, his exit was written — he would step down, he announced in February 2021, at the end of year. With a net worth north of $50 million and possibly as high as $100 million, he was positioned, he told one friend, “for the big leap.” The rise of Donald Trump had convinced him that a powerful political credential was to be both a non-pol politician and, as well, one with a nuanced grasp of media. What’s more, after a decade or more (more) of conducting his hardly-secret office romance with his chief PR aide, Allison Gollust, who moved with him from NBC to CNN, he had finally, left his marriage in 2018. The way was clear.
But his plan for a big leap was put on sudden hold by the possibility of another big leap (hard for a careerist to break the habit of being a careerist). AT&T announced it was selling WarnerMedia together with CNN to Discovery, run by Zucker pal, David Zaslav — hence the possibility that Zucker might run the entire WarnerMedia portfolio (Turner Sports, TNT, TBS, CNN, Warner Bros., HBO), and, in a few years, put away an additional $100 million or so.
But then, this most tenacious and brilliant bureaucratic player of the age, a genius at corporate survival, a man ever preparing himself for more and greater position and power, get caught in an HR to-do. He failed to file the requisite disclosures that he was in a romantic relationship with a subordinate. Now, if the AT&T overloads did not know about this relationship, which they claim they did not, it would be only more evidence of the hopeless incompetence which has characterized their five-year ownership.
Pshaw. This might be the stated reason for his dismissal, but common sense says it is only to hide the real reason. The casus belli relationship emerged, theoretically, in the ongoing dispute with Chris Cuomo who is trying to recover millions of withheld dollars in promised severance. But, as likely, there was an imbroglio of sins and accusations the bitter Cuomo brothers were dredging up against their former bro-in-arms Zucker — imagine the damaging emails (since all emails are damaging) — and he strategically chose to go down over the milder sin, his all-but respectable office romance.
One can only approximate the considerations and calculations of an always triangulating man like Zucker.
Might going now, even in this way, be better than not getting the top job from his theoretical pal Zaslov (moguls are only pals until they are not) and for never-fail Zucker to have to shoulder a public rejection (resigning in mild disgrace, better than quitting in embarrassing failure)? Or, not impossibly at all, he found himself in a corporate corner with his nemesis, Jason Kilar, the AT&T-appointed head of Warner Media, and Zucker’s titular boss — facing his own removal and humiliation after the Discovery acquisition — who had revenge in his hands with the Cuomo emails. And, in this corporate corner, might Zucker’s friend Zaslov accept the minor indiscretion and the future will still be possible?
It is worth describing the nature of Zucker’s office romance and its day-to-day reality. The 56-year-old Zucker and 49-year-old Gollust, who have worked together for 25 years, were in a nearly daily minute-by-minute consultation with each other; they were almost co-executives. And hardly just, they tended to each other. They finished each other’s sentences. In meetings and discussions, he reflexively turned to her for approval. She picked the lint off his jacket and, openly, and helpfully, critiqued his appearance. They arrived together (often) and left together. They traveled together. They were the same person. In the interim after he was forced out at NBC and before arriving at CNN, she went to work for Andrew Cuomo in 2012. Gollust was as politically attuned and wired as Zucker (the soulmate contrast gainer to the wife at home with the children). Indeed, she was a PR executive, which, in a media company, as in politics, is a top-most skill, and puts you as the key advisor — public perception is the job. There was no way of spending a minute in their company, and virtually everyone had, without recognizing the level not just of mild-meld but of unselfconscious companionship and intimacy. Everyone recognized it and everyone acknowledged it and everyone accepted it. Zucker’s former wife, Caryn, a social figure in Manhattan and the Hamptons, was open and voluble in her (unhappy) description of this relationship. Knowledge, nearly universal knowledge, of this relationship was baked into CNN and WarnerMedia. Again, the idea that this would now be a de facto cause for dismissal of one of the company’s highest-ranking executives on the eve of a $43 billion deal is not in the realm of reality.
CNN’s own coverage of the matter, reliant on the always stunned-looking Brian Stelter, Zucker’s hand-picked mouthpiece for media sanctimony— rather like an in-house media clergyman — seemed even more bewildered looking than usual. Nothing here made sense. This was, at best, suspected by all, television-business truth, quite as often 180 degrees off as Trump truth.
Yes, we have all seen with marvelous regularity the powerful fall. But those powerful men were guilty of secret lusts other than power itself. And this is Jeff Zucker — for him there is only power.
The game moves forward.
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