When a newsman becomes the story, it almost always ends in tears. Just ask Jeff Zucker, the American media boss fronting Abu Dhabi’s highly contentious bid to seize control of the Daily Telegraph.
Only last year, the 58-year-old was preparing to celebrate a decade in charge of CNN, the hallowed rolling news network where power and influence came with a reported annual salary of $6million (£4.8million), and his bonus that could be the same again.
In the salons of Manhattan, fellow New York liberals regarded Zucker as a sort of hero for helping boot Donald Trump out of office by turning his once proudly impartial TV network into a highly partisan mouthpiece for Joe Biden’s campaign in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.
While CNN’s ratings weren’t exactly stratospheric – in fact, it had slipped to third in the cable news rankings – his stock as one of the entertainment industry’s foremost schmoozers had never been higher.
Then it all went wrong. A spectacular #MeToo scandal, involving allegations of sleaze, cronyism, and journalistic malpractice (of which more later), saw Zucker forced out in February last year.
For a time, the fallen mogul disappeared from view. But in July came rumours that he was attempting an audacious return to the news business.
In the spotlight: Jeff Zucker with Donald and Melania Trump at a party
Specifically, the Hollywood newspaper Variety alleged that Zucker had been travelling the world with a virtual begging bowl seeking rich and in many cases highly dubious backers to help finance a takeover of his former employer, CNN.
Its dispatch claimed he had made approaches to everyone from Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, to Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve, plus a range of Gulf sheikhs, and the sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.
Zucker vigorously denied the report, dubbing it ‘patently and aggressively false’. But while ensuing months have produced no concrete evidence of a plot to take over CNN, we can now say with certainty that he has been breaking bread with at least one group of very wealthy Arabs.
That’s because it emerged last week that Zucker has gone into partnership with Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, whose brother is the emir of Abu Dhabi, to attempt a takeover of the Telegraph newspaper, plus its Sunday sister title and the Spectator magazine.
And Zucker is due to fly to London this week to hold meetings with ‘key stakeholders’ just days after promising to preserve the newspapers’ editorial independence.
The proposed deal is hugely contentious, since it will effectively place one of Britain’s most influential news publishers under the control of an undemocratic foreign state which gives every impression of being distinctly less than comfortable with proper journalism. As critics have pointed out, this absolute monarchy is a complete stranger to the concept of Press freedom.
Allison Gollust, with whom Zucker had an affair
(L-R) Real Estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump and NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker attend the Donald Trump Friars Club Roast Luncheon at the New York Hilton October 15, 2004
Pressure group Reporters Without Borders ranks Abu Dhabi 145th in the global league table of countries where journalists can operate without restrictions. Little wonder that six prominent MPs last week wrote an open letter demanding that the deal be scrutinised by regulators, saying that it ‘represents a threat to Press freedom in this country’.
In response, Zucker came out fighting, claiming via an interview with the Financial Times that critics of the Abu Dhabi bid were ‘slinging mud and throwing darts’.
But after the Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer last Wednesday wrote to RedBird IMI, the fund formed to mount the takeover, saying she was minded to issue a Public Interest Intervention Notice and trigger regulatory scrutiny of the bid and its potential impact on the UK’s media landscape, Zucker clearly decided it was time to come out of the shadows with his visit to London. Quite apart from harbouring doubts about Zucker’s stupendously wealthy Middle Eastern paymasters, the stakeholders he will meet may also have concerns about his track record at CNN.
His ill-fated reign there, which began in 2013, certainly saw the supposedly high-end broadcaster gain an unwelcome reputation for dumbing down.
Born in Miami and educated at Harvard, Zucker’s rise had thus far been stratospheric and there is no doubt he is immensely talented. He joined major network NBC after graduating and aged 26 was placed in charge of its breakfast news programme Today.
A workaholic who once told an interviewer he had never taken a holiday, he turned the show into a huge commercial hit before climbing the greasy pole at parent company NBC Universal, where in the mid-2000s he launched the U.S. version of The Apprentice, starring Donald Trump and served as CEO until 2011.
Executive producer of the Today Show Jeff Zucker, poses in the control room of the Today Show at NBC on January 21, 1993
Jeff Zucker is seen on October 11, 2019 in Los Angeles
Jeff Zucker during NBC All – Star Casino Night – 2003 TCA Press Tour – Reception in Hollywood
When Zucker took over at CNN, the station was struggling to attract viewers thanks to its (perhaps unfair) reputation for reliable but sometimes dull programming.
Despite its well-regarded coverage of international affairs, with which it had achieved prominence during the first Gulf War, the fiercely impartial station was losing viewers to more partisan rivals, such as the Right-wing Fox News and Left-leaning MSNBC. To stop the rot, his initial strategy involved flooding the airwaves with human-interest stories, and cutting back on CNN’s coverage of world news.
This soon attracted criticism. For the first weeks of his reign, the network provided wall-to-wall coverage of the so-called Poop Cruise, a Carnival liner which had become stranded in the Gulf of Mexico with 4,200 passengers on board and a plumbing system that had begun to expel raw sewage.
During the Arab Spring, he decided to relegate coverage of events in Egypt’s Tahrir Square to a ‘mini box’ in the bottom corner of the screen, so that viewers could follow a juicy murder trial instead. Towards the end of his time there,
the most popular show was a travel programme in which actor Stanley Tucci went on a culinary tour of Italy.
Whether similarly lowbrow news values would infect the Telegraph, should Zucker succeed in taking control, remains to be seen. But at the breakfast tables of the English shires, his track record at CNN will surely raise fears that in addition to dumbing down, the titles – for decades a bastion of liberal Conservatism – will pivot dramatically to the Left.
NBC President Jeff Zucker (L) and Harvey Weinstein attend a dinner hosted by Miramax in honor of Whoopi Goldberg in 2004
Jeff Zucker, the president of NBC Entertainment (L) and actress Ellen DeGeneres mingle during the Governor’s Ball in September 2003
To understand why, we need only consider Zucker’s stewardship of CNN During the Trump years, when it became known for mounting highly partisan attacks on his administration via a stable of anchors who were prone to what critics dubbed ‘Trump derangement syndrome’. At times, CNN’s reports were factually inaccurate too.
In June 2017, it was forced to retract a story falsely alleging that an associate of the President had met with the head of a Russian investment fund. Three reporters responsible for the blunder resigned. Later that year, it ran a report falsely alleging that Donald Trump Junior had been leaked hacked information by WikiLeaks. And in the run-up to the 2020 election, Zucker refused to cover a controversy over Joe Biden’s links to his son Hunter’s rackety business career.
Donald Trump, who dubbed the CNN network ‘fake news’, wasn’t its only critic. Other commentators lambasted its holier-than-thou reporters, while David Zaslav, who took over from Zucker after his departure, publicly confessed that there was ‘a period of time’ when it had become ‘an advocacy network’.
It was in the dying days of Zucker’s reign that controversy engulfed one of his star anchors, Chris Cuomo, the brother of New York’s former Democratic governor Andrew. His appointment by Zucker, a personal friend, had enraged critics unhappy at increasing partisanship at the TV network.
B ut that was nothing compared to the brouhaha that emerged after three women accused Cuomo, variously, of groping, sexual assault, and threatening behaviour in the workplace. An inquiry by lawyers into the claims (which Cuomo denies) saw Zucker’s mate sacked. But during the investigation, evidence also emerged that Zucker was involved in a long-running workplace affair with subordinate Allison Gollust, who he’d brought into CNN as a senior PR executive shortly after joining.
Comedian Jay Leno on stage with Jeff Zucker, NBC Universal Television group President at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s 1st Annual Roast Honoring Jeff Zucker at the Century Plaza Hotel on June 9, 2004
Jeff Zucker arrives at NATPE Miami 2020 – 17th Annual Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards at Fontainebleau Hotel on January 22, 2020
The duo went back a long way: he had originally met brunette Ms Gollust when they worked together at NBC in the 1990s. Though both were married with children, they had pursued a close personal and professional relationship ever since.
At one point in the 2010s, Gollust had even moved her family to a flat directly above Zucker’s family apartment in a block of Manhattan flats named The Verona, after the Italian city where Romeo And Juliet is set. This odd domestic state of affairs continued long after Zucker had brought Gollust to work alongside him at CNN, and reportedly required doormen in the building occasionally to intervene to prevent Gollust and Zucker’s then wife Caryn from having to share a lift. In fact, it only ended in 2018 when Zucker divorced Caryn, with whom he has three sons and a daughter.
Throughout the romantic entanglement, Zucker was not only promoting his mistress and approving her compensation, but had frequently been travelling with her to company events and overseas meetings. The whole thing drove a coach and horses through CNN’s strict rules about workplace relationships. So once it had emerged, Zucker was toast.
Upon being forced out, last February, Zucker apologised about the fling in a memo to staff. ‘I was required to disclose it [the affair] when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong,’ he said.
His old sparring partner, Donald Trump, for his part issued a very different PR statement: ‘A world-class sleazebag who has headed ratings and real-news-challenged CNN for far too long, has been terminated for numerous reasons, but predominantly because CNN has lost its way,’ it read.
The former president was, as Zucker likes to say, ‘slinging mud and throwing darts’. But whether this controversial American can convince key stakeholders that he is the person to protect the editorial independence of the Telegraph, we will have to wait and see.