Politics

Did Jeff Zucker and Chris Cuomo Make Me Too a Weapon in Their Power Struggle?

The former CNN executive’s workplace romance sure doesn’t seem like the real reason he’s resigning.

Jeff Zucker with the words #MeToo illustrated behind him.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for CNN and Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Jeff Zucker, the powerful and ambitious TV executive who ran CNN since 2013, suddenly quit his job this week. On Wednesday, he sent a memo to staff explaining that he was stepping down due to his failure to disclose a consensual relationship with a high-level employee. “I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t,” he wrote. “As a result, I am resigning today.” The employee, CNN’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer Allison Gollust, would be staying at her job.

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That Zucker—arguably the person most responsible for turning TV news into entertainment and giving Donald Trump endless airtime in 2016—resigned over this feels, as one person put it to me, like getting Al Capone on tax evasion.

Sure, there are things that are suspect about Zucker’s relationship with Gollust. According to Katie Couric’s 2021 book, Zucker had long pushed for Gollust’s promotion. New York magazine’s Shawn McCreesh, in a perhaps unintentional echo of the way Harvey Weinstein’s transgressions were described, called the relationship “one of the biggest open secrets in media.” Even if Zucker wasn’t sexually harassing or pressuring Gollust, this is classic power-imbalance stuff, the kind of thing that would have inevitably had consequences for other women (and men!) who didn’t have that close relationship with Zucker but still worked with both of them. There’s not just a legal problem there, in other words; there’s a moral one. According to a separate statement from Gollust, “our relationship changed during Covid,” though Couric’s book and other blind items suggest it was rumored long before that. By Thursday afternoon, a more thoroughly reported but still anonymously sourced Rolling Stone piece suggested that not only had the relationship been happening for much longer (including starting as an affair), it had been investigated for potential impropriety before.

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And yet … Zucker’s departure doesn’t exactly have the air of finally, at last, this abuser has been named and ousted. It doesn’t exactly appear as if any employees came forward feeling wronged or targeted by Zucker’s sexual dealings. (Except, perhaps, former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.) If anything, they’re reacting to the news with frustration.

Instead, the whole scandal has the whiff of classic corporate ratfuckery, with a modern twist: All the feminist lessons of the past several years have been scooped up, melted down, and welded into a sharp, sharp shiv. The same worlds where abuse was likely to have been taken seriously and codified during the rise of Me Too—cloistered, rivalrous, impossibly competitive, liberal-leaning zones like television networks, academia, and Democratic politics—are now the worlds in which the accusations are most easily weaponized by power players seeking an advantage. Zucker may be the most recent example, but he’s certainly not alone.

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Let’s start at CNN. As Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo wrote, “everyone’s interpretation of this is that Chris Cuomo knifed Zucker.” In Zucker’s public resignation announcement, he said that the relationship had come out as a result of an internal investigation into former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo’s behavior. Cuomo, you’ll recall, got in hot water for abandoning his journalistic principles to help his brother, Andrew, New York’s former governor, as Andrew navigated a series of scandals—the most attention-grabbing of which was sexual harassment of multiple employees—that resulted in Andrew’s eventual, reluctant resignation from office.

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One tack that Chris Cuomo suggested his brother take in his official response was to link the women coming after him to “cancel culture,” a clumsy attempt to exploit the backlash against Me Too.

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Fast forward a few months. Chris then lost his job in December, while under investigation for the journalistic issues, after a woman at the network came forward and said he’d sexually harassed her. It followed a former ABC News colleague’s accusation in September that Cuomo had once greeted her with a butt grab. That was apparently the last straw, something the network obviously felt it couldn’t defend, or wasn’t worth defending on top of the rest of it. (CNN isn’t particularly zealous on Me Too related firings: For instance, it did retain, after a ceremonial suspension, the services of noted Zoom flasher and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.) After his ousting, Cuomo’s legal team, according to Politico, accused Zucker of hypocrisy for having his own conflict of interest—the romance with Gollust—while firing Cuomo for his conflict of interest. Erik Wemple also reports that Gollust and Zucker hadn’t exactly enforced bright lines in the Cuomo brothers’ own relationship and, in fact, had pushed Andrew Cuomo to do a series of extraordinarily friendly interviews with his brother during the pandemic.

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And then, maybe, someone decided to take some public revenge. In early January, not long after Cuomo had left the network, an item appeared in Radar about Zucker’s affair with Gollust. (Sources told Pompeo that Cuomo’s team had been shopping around the item.) Gollust, as it turns out, had previously worked for Andrew Cuomo as the former governor’s communications director, which perhaps provided the means for the escalation: Last week, Chris Cuomo’s legal team requested all communication among Gollust, Andrew Cuomo, and Zucker. Zucker, for his part, has retained the services of Risa Heller, the New York City superflack who is perhaps most recently famous for repping Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, but also worked on behalf of Harvey Weinstein in 2015 when, pre–Me Too, he was accused of groping a 22-year-old Italian model.

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It’s possible someone else entirely wanted Zucker out; CNN is merging with Discovery, and while Zucker appeared well-poised to thrive in that particular corporate universe (Discovery’s head is his old friend David Zaslav), you never know. My friend and former colleague Rebecca Traister floated a theory to me that perhaps Zucker had already been on his way out. Maybe because of merger drama, maybe even because of a role in presiding over the Cuomo brothers’ journalistic boundary pushing, which Cuomo’s lawyers seem to suggest he had knowledge of. (In fact, Rolling Stone reports that Zucker himself may also have been advising Andrew Cuomo, in a similar manner to the way Chris was.) Perhaps Zucker saw his failure to disclose his relationship with Gollust as a good way to get around having to publicly address that: an opportunity to exploit backlash over Me Too overreach by making his affair (consensual!) the focus of the public narrative, casting him as a victim of berserk feminist zeal.

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You can already see that overreach narrative unspooling in Zucker’s favor. On CNN, the day that Zucker resigned, CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota said, “It’s so regrettable how it happened. … These are two consenting adults who are both executives. That they can’t have a private relationship, this feels wrong.”

It is only by dint of the world taking sexual misconduct so seriously that it has become something to be cynically exploited, ironically enough. The Zucker affair is starkly similar to this month’s scandal at the University of Michigan. It was another situation where an affair—between the university’s president, Mark Schlissel, and an employee—was consensual, but the power dynamic made it against policy, and therefore the grounds for Schlissel’s dismissal. The gawking public could allow itself some amusement at the trove of emails between the two that were made public, containing gems like an exchange about knish.

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But was the affair the real reason Schlissel was pushed out, or instead the tool to do so? He had already been pressured into taking an early resignation that was set to happen in June 2023; Rebekah Modrak, a professor of art and design, had sponsored a no-confidence vote against the president in September 2020 over his COVID policies and what some faculty said was a failure to take complaints about sexual harassment at the university seriously enough.

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In other words, people wanted him to go, and maybe 2023 wasn’t soon enough. On Dec. 8, the university’s board received an anonymous complaint: The president was sleeping with a subordinate. The way Schlissel had handled Me Too fallout on campus now looked different. He had to leave. “For many of us and for me, the reaction was huge relief,” Modrak told the Times. “Because he has been such an arrogant leader and so dismissing of faculty concerns.”

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The pattern has played out in politics, too. Alex Morse, a then-31-year-old mayor and left-wing primary congressional candidate from Massachusetts, reached national prominence only because of a zeitgeist-y scandal in 2020. The student newspaper at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, where Morse had formerly been a lecturer, reported on a letter from the state’s College Democrats accusing Morse, who is gay, of making “sexual or romantic” advances to students, citing only “countless” instances of Morse adding young men as friends on Instagram and messaging them “in a way that makes these students feel pressured to respond due to his status.” He quickly lost the support of the crucial progressive organization the Sunrise Movement.

Shortly afterward, a chat leaked to the Intercept revealed that Morse’s Instagram messaging had been relatively anodyne—he’d exchanged pleasantries and discussed weekend plans with a student he taught who happened to be the president of the College Democrats, following an event both had attended. But also, the College Democrats’ leadership had effectively plotted a sting operation, one that traded off of homophobic stereotypes. They’d considered seeking out Morse’s dating profiles. In the chat, one student even discussed wanting to get an internship with Morse’s Democratic opponent as motivation for going after Morse. The state’s Democratic Party, which was supporting Morse’s opponent, had offered legal advice to the College Democrats in advance of the group publishing its accusatory letter. It was a bungled act of sanctioned political thuggery, a little as if someone had gone on Grindr with the username DickNixon. “They exploited young people, our generation’s very good inclination to listen to people who are speaking out about harm,” the head of the Sunrise Movement told the Times.

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More murkily, progressive Scott Stringer’s New York City mayoral campaign was derailed by an accusation of groping from 20 years before, when he was running for public advocate, by a woman active in local Democratic circles. I have no way of knowing what actually transpired in 2001; there has been some reporting that does cast doubt on some aspects of the account of Stringer’s accuser.

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It’s inevitable for people to wonder about the timing in instances like that one. Certainly when someone who abused you is poised to be in a position of greater power, you might feel newly motivated to speak up. We know people making accusations of sexual impropriety often have as much trauma from coming forward as from the incidents themselves. It has long been an accusation lobbied against women in these circumstances, that they’re out for personal gain.

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And yet, if you look at the evidence, the people who actually seem most likely to turn Me Too into a targeted weapon are those who already have power, or are actively seeking it.

“It’s like the ending of Reservoir Dogs,” one TV executive said of the Zucker/Cuomo situation to Vanity Fair’s Pompeo, citing a movie that was distributed by Harvey Weinstein. Everyone leaving one another splayed out, riddled with millions of dollars’ worth of lawsuit settlements and exit payments.

Zucker will be replaced at CNN by a triumvirate of executives, one of whom has been a friend of his since their Harvard days. All the difficult work that was done to slowly unlearn everything we had internalized about the way things were, all the people who’d blown up their lives to make clear what an abuse of power looks like—all of it can now be used as a tactic to win battles over which man (usually, still a man) gets to be in charge.

Until, that is, the movement becomes so diminished by this repeated misuse that all of its power disappears.

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