Feb 3, 2022 - Economy

CNN staffers demand answers from WarnerMedia CEO in tense meeting

Photo: Ronen Tivony/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

CNN staffers on Wednesday pummeled WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar with tough questions in the wake of the resignation of CNN boss Jeff Zucker, according to a recording of the roughly 40-minute meeting obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: The meeting showcased the frustration and confusion inside CNN over how and why their leader of nine years was forced to resign.

  • "For a lot of us, the feeling is that, for Jeff, the punishment didn't fit the crime," said CNN's chief political correspondent Dana Bash.

The big picture: Kilar said that the decision to force Zucker to resign was his, the investigation into Zucker's situation was complete, and no more about it would be revealed by WarnerMedia, CNN's parent company.

  • He denied that his personal feelings played into his decision and noted the "majority" of the investigation was handled by an outside law firm. He noted that he did consult with a small group of people in HR and legal departments.
  • When employees asked repeatedly to explain why he handled the situation the way he did, Kilar said it was about putting values over business concerns.
  • "I commit to you that this was carefully thought through in terms of every scenario, every possibility, and in the end, this is the decision that I came to, and I am comfortable with the decision," he said.
  • Asked whether Discovery, which WarnerMedia is expected to merge with later this year, was involved in the decision, Kilar said, "No, not at all."

Inside the room: The meeting began with Kilar explaining to staffers that he wouldn't be able to address their questions with much detail, in part out of respect to Zucker, who resigned Wednesday in response to a previously undisclosed relationship with a longtime senior colleague.

  • Kilar noted that the upcoming launch of CNN+ was going to be a major moment for the network and asked that staffers "in this incredibly painful moment, to not lose focus at what is literally staring us in the face."

The elephant in the room: Later in the meeting, Kilar confirmed that the investigation that he referenced earlier was the broad investigation into Chris Cuomo, the former CNN anchor who was fired for breaching media ethics rules.

  • Cuomo advised his brother, the former governor, during the sexual misconduct investigation that led to his resignation last year.

CNN anchor Jake Tapper asked how the network would get past the outside perception that Cuomo and his legal team successfully drove Zucker out.

  • "An outside observer might say, 'Well, looks like Chris Cuomo succeeded. He threatened. Jeff said we don't negotiate with terrorists. And Chris blew the place up.' How do we get past that perception that this is the bad guy winning?"
  • Kilar responded by saying, "I believe our legacy is what we do on those screens. And I don't think it's what, you know, what kind of perception of today."

Between the lines: One of the biggest concerns expressed by staffers was that the network would struggle without Zucker's steady leadership.

  • "For those of us who've been here longer than Jeff Zucker, one of the things that makes it a bitter pill is it's nice to have the captain of the ship. Because some of us have been through periods of time where this aircraft carrier has spun like a top," said CNN anchor John King.
  • "If we had not had Jeff Zucker here during the Trump administration, we probably would have been taken out," said CNN anchor Jim Acosta.
  • "I do think that a very big decision was made today that has pretty serious consequences, not just for this group of individuals here, but you know, for CNN as an entity across the world," he added.

What to watch: Kilar on Wednesday named CNN executives Michael Bass, Amy Entelis and Ken Jautz to serve as "interim co-heads for CNN," until the merger with Discovery was complete.

  • On Thursday, Bass led the network's daily 9am editorial call that was for many years led by Zucker.
  • “You can’t replace Jeff. It’s not possible," said Bass, per a source on the line. At the end of the call, he noted, “The ship is still sailing.”

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