Shortly after the shock announcement that CNN boss Jeff Zucker had resigned over a failure to disclose a romantic relationship with his “closest colleague,” WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar sat down for a meeting with network staffers in Washington, D.C.
Over the hour-long session, Kilar faced a series of tough questions from some of the network’s most powerful reporters, several of whom openly expressed frustration with his explanations (or lack thereof) for Zucker’s ouster as well as his refusal to answer many of their queries.
Several employees directly questioned Kilar’s own role in the decision, and wondered whether “past conflict” between him and Zucker factored into the shock exit.
Kilar conceded the news of Zucker’s resignation was “awful” and “devastating,” but implored staffers to take “great pride” in future endeavors like the upcoming launch of the CNN+ streaming service. “We have a job to do,” he exhorted the staffers.
When the room was opened up for questions, D.C. staffers pushed Kilar on several key themes, multiple sources told The Daily Beast, including the timing of Zucker’s ouster and whether it was a fitting punishment for the “mistake” of not disclosing “a consensual relationship” at the appropriate time.
At one point, an attendee directly accused Kilar of “corporate double talk,” telling him, “I do not think you appreciate what you’ve done to this organization” by removing Zucker, who’d led the network since 2013 and was a famously hands-on editorial leader. Kilar repeatedly declared he was “comfortable” with the process and decision-making that led to Zucker’s shock exit.
Kilar did not answer many questions, citing a “respect” for Zucker and the inability to divulge some information. “It was almost like he was not the head of WarnerMedia, but like the head of PR or head of HR,” one attendee told The Daily Beast. “You got the sense that he really could not give a shit.”
Several staffers also prodded Kilar directly on whether his reportedly fraught relationship with Zucker played a role in the network president’s resignation.
More than a decade ago, Kilar reported to Zucker at NBCUniversal when the pair launched streaming giant Hulu in conjunction with Fox. Years later, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2020 that after Kilar was installed as CEO atop WarnerMedia, Zucker was particularly incensed when he began “slimming down” the CNN chief’s role.
“Did your personal feelings at all with any past conflict you’ve had with Jeff play into this at all?” one staffer asked, as Politico reported last night. Kilar did not directly answer the question, instead touting “amazing moments” he’d shared with Zucker throughout their careers, and emphasizing how an outside, independent investigation handled the majority of the situation.
Nevertheless, employees continued to express suspicions about Kilar’s role in the ouster—specifically what he knew, when he knew it, and whether his own career motivations factored into the decision.
One attendee pointedly asked Kilar whether he, as an executive reportedly negotiating his exit for when WarnerMedia’s merger with Discovery completes, consulted any other CNN executives before deciding to remove the long-time network chief.
“I’m not going to answer that question,” Kilar replied. Pressed again on the subject, the WarnerMedia boss remarked that he would not typically “canvas” anyone outside human resources and legal departments when making personnel decisions.
The D.C. bureau’s staff also raised questions about the role that ousted anchor Chris Cuomo—whom one attendee characterized as “the elephant in the room here”—played in the decision to remove Zucker.
Cuomo was fired late last year after it was revealed that he leaned on media sources to dig up dirt on his ex-governor brother Andrew Cuomo’s sexual-harassment accusers. While reportedly demanding the full payout of his CNN contract, Cuomo reportedly retained the services of powerful lawyer Bryan Freedman, known for his combative measures. “Notice Zucker mentioned how this came from the Cuomo investigation,” one senior CNN source told The Daily Beast on Wednesday, immediately after Zucker’s exit. “People think this is clearly Cuomo dragging down Zucker on his way out.”
During the Q&A session, CNN staffers including star anchor Jake Tapper seemed to echo concerns that Cuomo played a role in Zucker’s resignation.
“An outside observer might say, ‘Well, it looks like Chris Cuomo succeeded,’” Tapper told Kilar, as the Wall Street Journal first reported. “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?”
“Chris Cuomo was a man scorned, because he was fired for being held accountable for his actions. And Jeff is part of the result of this,” another staffer later added. “And it sounds like you didn’t consult any other executives on removing a critical part of the company,” this staffer added, once again bringing the tense meeting back to Kilar’s own role in the ouster.