Are staffers at CNN “shocked” over Jeff Zucker’s relationship reveal, or only because he got forced out over it? The answer to that question has massive implications not for Zucker but for CNN and its reporters, perhaps especially those focused on media outlets not named CNN.

In his exit statement, Zucker claimed that his relationship with EVP and former Andrew Cuomo comms directer Allison Gollust only came to light in an investigation into Chris Cuomo. Both he and Gollust insisted that their romantic relationship only began “recently,” with Gollust claiming it began during the COVID pandemic. That’s nonsense, reports Roland Martin, who claims that their sexual relationship was an ‘open secret’ when he worked at CNN briefly in 2013:

Oddly enough, Soledad O’Brien also left CNN in 2013 and said the same thing:

Don’t forget that Zucker started at CNN in January 2013, bringing Gollust with him almost immediately. This ‘open secret,’ if it was in fact one, would have been part of the working Zucker environment since almost Day 1.

Not only does this change the entire dynamic around Zucker and the Cuomos, but also around the newsroom, especially its media critiques. It’s not as if the Cuomo Brothers Show went unnoticed after all. When CNN donated its airwaves to promote Andrew Cuomo as the true national pandemic leader, media critics howled over the conflict of interest between the two brothers. Zucker kept defending Chris Cuomo regardless, and didn’t punish Cuomo for failing to disclose favors he got from his brother regarding medical assistance, even though that arguably violated payola regulations. Only when Cuomo got credibly accused of sexual harassment did Zucker back down.

At the same time, CNN media critic Oliver Darcy focused his laser attention on Fox News for its supposed ethical violations. Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media critic and host of media-focused Reliable Resources, defended both the Cuomos and CNN management. Remember this bizarre interview with Colbert in August?

The Daily Beast’s Matt Wilstein found himself flabbergasted at the performance:

When Colbert added, incredulously, “Really? What are the boundaries?” Stelter went on to defend his network for basically saying there is no reasonable expectation that the Cuomo brothers wouldn’t speak. The host has been similarly pilloried this week for giving CNN what Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple called a series of “wet kisses” on his Reliable Sources show this past Sunday morning.

But as Colbert pointed out, Chris Cuomo “didn’t talk about his brother once the trouble started,” something Stelter said came down straight from CNN management. “Then why didn’t they rule that way when his brother was on pretty much every night during the COVID crisis?” Colbert asked. “That seems like an odd conflict of rules.”

Stelter would only say that it’s “really complicated,” adding that there is “no page for this” situation in the “journalism ethics book” and that it is “definitely awkward” for CNN.

If Zucker’s affair with Gollust was an open secret at CNN, though, that changes this exchange significantly. If Stelter knew that Zucker was sleeping with Golulst, the former Andrew Cuomo comms director, he would have known — or at least had a pretty good suspicion — why and how the Cuomos were getting preferential treatment. It would have expanded the conflicts of interest at CNN beyond the Cuomos to the CNN chief himself. Had that happened at any other network, especially Fox, Stelter and Darcy would have ripped them to shreds over it. Instead, we have watched Stelter dance around this for two years, apparently while everyone knew about the Stelter-Gollust-Cuomos dynamic.

In other words, this reveal just made CNN’s pretense at media criticism an utter sham.

And the stain goes beyond that to the entire CNN reportorial staff, although to a much lesser degree. Most of the rest of CNN’s line-up don’t take aim at competitors, so hypocrisy really doesn’t apply here. Did they have a duty to disclose Zucker’s affair with Gollust and that connection to the Cuomos during the Cuomo Brothers Circus? Maybe arguably, but that would have been a difficult ask. Still, the omission of that conflict of interest until now isn’t going to help their credibility, however fair or unfair it might be.

In other words, this mess is just beginning, as Janice Dean remarked:

It’s an entirely self-inflicted mess. And on that point, where was CNN’s overseers at ATT and WarnerMedia? If the newsroom knew about this affair in 2013, they can’t possibly expect the rest of us to believe that the corporate execs above Zucker didn’t know about it, too. They didn’t take any action on Zucker during the Cuomos’ reign of error despite the obvious conflicts of interest and risks of damage to the network’s credibility. Were Zucker’s low ratings really that valuable?

AddendumThe plot thickens.

That might explain why Zucker finally resigned.

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