Discovery CEO David Zaslav claims he had nothing to do with Jeff Zucker’s CNN exit as merger looms

Discovery CEO David Zaslav was confronted on Friday about the future of CNN, the liberal network he is set to oversee once a looming merger is official, but claimed the ousting of now-former CNN boss Jeff Zucker had nothing to do with rumors the network could shift to a nonpartisan approach.

In fact, Zaslav claimed Discovery didn’t have anything to do with Zucker’s stunning exit, when he was bluntly asked on CNBC about the future of CNN, as well as remarks by Liberty Media chairman John Malone last year that he wanted CNN to revert to more traditional journalism.

Discovery CEO David Zaslav said Friday on CNBC that he had nothing to do with Jeff Zucker’s CNN exit. 

Discovery CEO David Zaslav said Friday on CNBC that he had nothing to do with Jeff Zucker’s CNN exit. 
(CNBC Screenshot)

“Was there any conjecture that John Malone is behind the curtain? John Malone said it would be good if CNN had some journalists, that would be where I’d start,” CNBC anchor Joe Kernen said, paraphrasing Malone’s 2021 remarks. 

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“So you’ve got a guy who’s run it for nine years,” Kernen said, referring to Zucker. “I think of CNN in a totally different way than I thought about it years ago. I do. And John Malone, when you hear him, he’s still a big part of your life, a big part of Discovery, if he said we need CNN to go back to reporting news…”

Zaslav interrupted, “John is going to be a board member of this company, and I am the operating–,” before Kernen spoke over him asking if he had anything to do with Zucker’s exit. 

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“None of us had anything to do with it. We’re running our business,” Zaslav said. “I, and we as a company, we are a fighter for news.”

Zaslav’s comments contradict a Deadline report that Malone “made it known that corporate procedures had to be followed to the letter in regards to Zucker,” therefore, “being that WarnerMedia’s standards of business conduct require disclosure of relationships that develop with a boss and subordinate, Zucker’s goose was officially cooked.”

Zaslav then declared his company is “the leader of news in Poland” and noted that Trump and Biden administrations have both helped Polish news channel TVN24 stay afloat despite the Polish government trying to shut them down. 

“From my perspective, news is going to be a critical element,” Zaslav said. “We’ll have to see, really.”

CNBC then cut away from Zaslav for breaking news on the January jobs report but came back to the Discovery honcho afterwards. “Squawk Box” co-anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin told Zaslav his phone was “blowing up” from CNN staffers who are “desperate to know” his personal views about the Zucker situation. 

“Jeff is a good friend of mine, I can’t speak to this issue, we don’t own the company yet,” Zaslav said. “CNN is a fantastic asset, I can’t wait to get in there.”

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Malone, who sits on the Discovery Communications Inc., board of directors, said in November he wanted to see CNN revert to nonpartisan journalism following the completion of a merger that would put it under the Discovery umbrella. 

Jeff Zucker is considered to be the person responsible for the CNN’s shift away from the nonpartisan outlet it was before his tenure.  (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for WarnerMedia)

Jeff Zucker is considered to be the person responsible for the CNN’s shift away from the nonpartisan outlet it was before his tenure.  (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for WarnerMedia)
(Getty Images)

“I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing,” Malone said in an interview that aired on CNBC.

AT&T Inc., agreed to merge its WarnerMedia division with Discovery Communications Inc., creating a streaming giant to compete with Walt Disney Co.’s Disney+ and Netflix. Zaslav will lead the combined company called Warner Bros. Discovery and has publicly committed to keeping CNN after the merger. 

The deal is expected to close in the first half of 2022 and Malone’s comment left many CNN staffers with a sense of uneasiness about the network’s future. 

CNN, which has struggled to attract viewers during the Biden era, is part of the deal and many industry observers felt the decision to revert to more straight news began this week when Zucker was forced out. The public reason given was that Zucker didn’t disclose a sexual relationship with CNN executive Allison Gollust, which immediately raised eyebrows as their relationship was widely known.  

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Zucker’s leadership of CNN since 2013 saw the network lurch farther to the left, particularly after the political rise of former President Donald Trump. Zucker and Trump were friends in the 2000s as they teamed up on the wildly popular NBC reality show “The Apprentice,” but they became bitter political enemies as Trump took over the Republican Party beginning in 2015 and romped to the White House. 

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