CNN boss Jeff Zucker’s future at scandal-plagued network unclear as WarnerMedia, Discovery merger looms

Zucker has ‘bromance’ with incoming boss, but that business imperatives tied to merger could come between the longtime buddies

WarnerMedia, the parent company of CNN, and Discovery are set to merge in 2022 and the biggest question surrounding the multibillion-dollar pact is what the future holds for embattled CNN boss Jeff Zucker. 

"Jeff isn’t the supreme ruler anymore as was made clear when they made him fire Cuomo. He’s become a liability with his embarrassing defense of liberal activists like Cuomo, Don Lemon and Jim Acosta," a longtime media industry executive told Fox News Digital.

CNN boss Jeff Zucker’s fate after the multibillion-dollar merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery becomes official remains unclear. (Getty Images)

CNN boss Jeff Zucker’s fate after the multibillion-dollar merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery becomes official remains unclear. (Getty Images)

The past 12 months have been quite the journey for Zucker, as insiders feel the CNN honcho was unhappy reporting to WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who is six years younger than him and more of an expert on streaming than journalism. 

In February, Zucker reportedly told CNN staffers he would continue to oversee the liberal network for the remainder of the year but expected to "move on" when his contract expires at the end of 2021. 

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"I’m going to stay and finish my current contract, which, as I said, will keep me here until the end of this year. At that point, I do expect to move on," he said on a call with CNN employees, according to The New York Times, which cited a CNN staffer who was on the call.

Many insiders quickly dismissed the news that Zucker would actually walk away from CNN, where he is known to be hands-on and personally allowed it to drift from a just-the-facts news operation to a hyperpartisan opinion platform. "He ain’t leaving," a CNN employee casually told Fox News Digital at the time. 

Months later, WarnerMedia’s looming merger with Discovery was announced and Zucker’s longtime pal, Discovery CEO David Zaslav, was chosen to run the combined venture while Kilar would be shown the door.

Zucker and Zaslav run in the same prestigious social circle and reportedly have "sprawling estates" in the posh Hamptons area of New York that are only 10 minutes apart from each other. 

"Zucker may now have the chance to work for one of his closest pals in business and in life, a golf buddy and confidant who the CNN president once said was ‘the best friend that anyone could ever want, and I’m lucky that he’s mine,’" the New York Times reported in May, noting that Zucker could stick around with Kilar out of the picture. 

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CNN boss Jeff Zucker and Discovery CEO David Zaslav run in the same prestigious social circle and reportedly have "sprawling estates" in the posh Hamptons area of New York that are only 10 minutes apart from each other.

CNN boss Jeff Zucker and Discovery CEO David Zaslav run in the same prestigious social circle and reportedly have "sprawling estates" in the posh Hamptons area of New York that are only 10 minutes apart from each other. (Mike Coppola/Getty Image)

The Times even referred to Zucker and Zaslav’s relationship as a "bromance," and it appeared the CNN boss could remain in power despite the network’s well-documented struggles.  

By September, former CNN reporter Dylan Byers quoted three network sources who said Zucker would stay on the job at least through the completion of the merger with Discovery. 

"Whether Zucker stays beyond then – in his current role as chairman of news and sports, or in an elevated role – is yet to be determined," Byers wrote. 

However, 2021 turned out to be disastrous for Zucker’s scandal-plagued, ratings-challenged network. 

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The network allowed legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin to return after a hiatus to recover from the humiliation of being caught masturbating on a workplace Zoom call last year; the embarrassing incident resulted in his termination from the New Yorker but not CNN. "Cuomo Prime Time" namesake Chris Cuomo was fired by Zucker on Saturday after using industry connections to help his brother Andrew Cuomo battle sexual misconduct allegations while governor of New York, in addition to another accusation of sexual harassment against the CNN host after he apologized for harassing a colleague during his ABC News days in 2005.

Zucker shook up long-struggling morning show "New Day" once again, but it has failed to resonate with viewers. Brooke Baldwin left the company and has called on CNN to put more women in positions of power, and Don Lemon is set to face the man who has accused him of a sexually charged assault in court early next year. All the public relations debacles have occurred as CNN struggles to remain relevant during the Biden era as viewers ditch the network in droves. 

Former anchor Brooke Baldwin has called on CNN boss Jeff Zucker to put a female in the vacant slot that is directly before Don Lemon’s opinion program. 

Former anchor Brooke Baldwin has called on CNN boss Jeff Zucker to put a female in the vacant slot that is directly before Don Lemon’s opinion program.  (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for CNN)

Zucker largely stood by Cuomo before suspending him last week when the documents revealed Cuomo’s involvement in his brother’s scandal was much larger than previously known. Cuomo was swiftly fired over the weekend following an external review, along with prominent attorney informing CNN that she represented a woman who accused him of sexual misconduct, unrelated to the allegations against his brother. 

A spokesperson for Cuomo sent a text message to Wall Street Journal reporters declaring there were "no secrets" between Zucker and the former "Cuomo Prime Time" host – a claim CNN has denied. 

"This reinforces why he was terminated for violating our standards and practices, as well as his lack of candor," CNN told Fox News Digital.  

Jeff Zucker allowed Chris Cuomo to interview his brother multiple times during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Jeff Zucker allowed Chris Cuomo to interview his brother multiple times during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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Radio host Vince Coglianese feels Zucker is not in the clear just yet, noting that Cuomo could be aware of his now-former boss’s skeletons. In fact, he suggested Zucker isn’t even calling the shots and his best friend, Zaslav, could already be pulling the strings. 

"One element of the story that I think is super interesting, David Zaslav, who is the CEO of Discovery, was in the meetings last week when they decided to suspend Chris Cuomo. And then, subsequently, you have TimeWarner and Discovery in this big merger right now … We saw Brian Stelter … go on air and claim that Cuomo might be back within a few weeks. I’m starting to think that Jeff Zucker is being cut out of the conversation," Coglianese said Monday on "Tucker Carlson Tonight." 

"[Cuomo] got fired on Saturday and Discovery is really concerned about how the government is going to let them handle this merger and Zucker may be shown the exit pretty soon here," Coglianese said. 

Indeed, Stelter – who is typically in lockstep with Zucker – suggested Cuomo could return to CNN after a weeks-long suspension, but a CNN spokesperson later dismissed the report as pure speculation.  

Hard-charging Liberty Media chairman John Malone, who sits on the Discovery Communications Inc. board of directors and is considered extremely powerful in the industry, recently said he wants CNN to return to its pre-Zucker days of nonpartisan journalism. Insiders have now realized that business imperatives tied to the merger, along with Malone’s feedback, may come between longtime buddies Zucker and Zaslav.

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"Malone wants CNN to return to its hard news roots and the Jeff Zucker show may be ending after all," the longtime media industry executive said. 

Fox News Digital asked both WarnerMedia and Discovery a series of questions, including if there is a timeline for a decision on Zucker’s fate once the merger is final and whether Zaslav is already calling the shots. Neither company immediately responded.