Chiefs of AT&T and Discovery address Jeff Zucker’s resignation

The chief executives of AT&T and Discovery, in their first public comments since the abrupt resignation of Jeff Zucker as president of CNN this week, acknowledged the upheaval at the network but sought to paint a picture of a powerful news brand that could succeed without its longtime chief.

“Jeff had a tremendous following within CNN, and there’s a lot of people who were incredibly loyal and supportive of him — that makes it hard for those individuals,” John Stankey, the head of AT&T, said on CNBC on Friday. David Zaslav, the chief of Discovery, appeared on the network directly after Mr. Stankey.

Mr. Stankey added: “He’s been a very strong leader at CNN — but there’s a lot of people at CNN who make that success possible. And I think even Jeff himself talks about the fact that it’s the team that makes a difference there.”

AT&T is the parent company of WarnerMedia, which oversees CNN, but Discovery is poised to take control of WarnerMedia, pending a $43 billion merger.

Mr. Zucker resigned on Wednesday after admitting he had violated corporate policy by failing to disclose a romantic relationship with Allison Gollust, another top executive at CNN.

Newsroom tensions have spilled out into the open since Mr. Zucker announced his departure, with many of his loyal employees questioning the circumstances behind the move. Mr. Zucker acknowledged the relationship as part of an investigation by WarnerMedia into the tenure of the former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. For months, Mr. Zucker had defended Mr. Cuomo, his highest-rated anchor, even after it was revealed that he had advised his brother, the former New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo, on fending off a sexual harassment scandal. But CNN eventually fired Mr. Cuomo, and he is now fighting for severance pay.

The executives sidestepped intense speculation regarding whether Mr. Zucker was forced out.

“The decision to resign was Jeff’s decision — and it’s an unfortunate set of circumstances,” Mr. Stankey said. Ms. Gollust did not resign because her “circumstances are different,” he said.

Mr. Zaslav pushed back against any implication that John Malone, the billionaire chairman of Liberty Media, a significant shareholder in Discovery, had anything to do with the move. In November, Mr. Malone gave an interview to CNBC that was interpreted as a critique of the direction CNN had gone in the past few years under Mr. Zucker.

“None of us had anything to do with it,” Mr. Zaslav said of Mr. Zucker’s resignation.

With Mr. Zucker gone, there is new uncertainty over CNN+, the digital news service that he was building and that is seen as key to the network’s future as more viewers leave traditional cable for streaming platforms.

Mr. Stankey called CNN+ a “great product” that will “drive innovation” as it becomes available to watch this spring. “I think David Zaslav has ideas around where he wants to take the asset and what he wants to do as a result of that,” he said.

CNN has snapped up a list of talent for CNN+ that includes Chris Wallace, Audie Cornish and Eva Longoria. And WarnerMedia has been planning to add 500 employees, including producers, reporters, engineers and programmers. But as viewership for CNN declines, there has been industry debate over whether CNN+, as an entity separate from CNN, is a service that people will be willing to pay for. And it is unclear how CNN’s vision for CNN+ fits into Mr. Zaslav’s view of the company that is being formed by the merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery, which he is set to run once the deal closes midyear, providing it receives regulatory approval.

“CNN+, we couldn’t be more excited about the fact that they’ve been hiring great journalists,” Mr. Zaslav said. “I haven’t gotten a business review on what CNN+ is going to be and how it’s going to be offered. I’m looking forward to it — and I think directionally, it’s absolutely what we need to do.”

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