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AT&T CEO John Stankey, who currently oversees WarnerMedia and CNN, and Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who will assume oversight of WarnerMedia and CNN in just a few months, on Friday were grilled about former CNN chief Jeff Zucker’s exit.
The two men were interviewed separately by CNBC from Pebble Beach, California, where the telecom giant is hosting its annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am golf tournament.
“Jeff resigned, and the decision to resign was Jeff’s decision. It was an unfortunate set of circumstances,” Stankey said. “I know that Jeff had a tremendous following within CNN, and there is a lot of people who are incredibly loyal and supportive of him, and that makes it hard for those individuals. However, when I step back and think about what Jeff has been able to accomplish over nine years, you can’t take that away from him. He has been a very strong leader at CNN, but there is a lot of people at CNN who make that success possible.”
Zaslav noted that because his company did not yet control WarnerMedia, there was little he could say about the matter.
“Jeff is a good friend of mine, but I can’t speak to this issue,” he said. Zaslav reportedly learned of Zucker’s resignation just a few hours before it was announced publicly.
However, both Stankey and Zaslav were pressed on reporting from multiple outlets that said Discovery board member John Malone — who has been critical of Zucker’s programming strategy at CNN — pressed the company to take action.
“None of us had anything to do with it,” Zaslav said when asked about Malone.
“I am not going to speculate on your theory,” Stankey said. “I have always had a practice of not commenting on personnel decisions, and I’m not going to do that here.”
Jason Kilar had a tense meeting with CNN’s Washington, D.C., bureau Wednesday night, where he seemed to suggest that Zucker had no choice but to resign. “Jason certainly has his point of view,” Stankey said.
However, when asked why Allison Gollust, CNN’s marketing chief, with whom Zucker had a relationship, was staying with the company, Stankey said: “Allison, her circumstances are different, and I don’t want to get involved in discussing her situation.”
But both men heaped praise on CNN in general, and the company’s plans to launch a streaming service CNN+ in the coming months.
“They have a great product in store, I think it is going to start to drive some innovation,” Stankey said, adding: “I think the best days of CNN are still in front of it.”
Zaslav meanwhile called CNN “the greatest newsgathering organization, and really the only powerful global news force in the world.”
“In terms of CNN+, we couldn’t be more excited about the fact that they have been hiring great journalists, CNN has the greatest group of journalists in the world, it is the only global newsgathering business in the world,” he added. “We are already in the news business, we believe in it, it is a differentiator, we think it is going to be a great asset.”
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