On the menu today: The sudden departure of Jeff Zucker from CNN helps illuminate the deep-rooted and symbiotic relationship between the network and former New York governor Andrew Cuomo; two European experts offer differing perspective on Putin’s real goal in the conflict over Ukraine; and Covid-19 finally catches up with your friendly neighborhood newsletter writer.
More Trouble for CNN
Earlier this week, after CNN’s Brian Stelter offered speculation and called it news, I told some friends that one could plausibly argue that CNN president Jeff Zucker was the single most toxic figure in the entire mainstream media, the person who had made the most consequential decisions that undermined the public’s faith in what they were hearing from the news source.
Even if conservatives would always dispute CNN calling itself “the most trusted name in news,” CNN wasn’t always the kind of network where Jim Acosta would call the Commonwealth of Virginia “a Soviet-style police state” and no one would blink. That sort of over-the-top furious denunciation was Keith Olbermann’s schtick over at MSNBC, not the sort of thing you expected in between promos of James Earl Jones’s bass voice informing you, “This . . . is CNN.”
But let’s put aside the complaints about ideological bias for a moment. Zucker ensured that the network spotlighted Andrew Cuomo and his brother during the pandemic and ignored an ever-worsening conflict of interest; he ignored similar allegations of a conflict of interest around Don Lemon informing Jussie Smollett that he was under police investigation; he brought back legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin after the slam-dunk firing offense of masturbating during a Zoom call; he enabled Brian Stelter to turn a show called Reliable Sources into a showcase of spectacularly unreliable reporting and groveling for administration approval; and he allowed prima-donna Jim Acosta to try to turn himself into the story, time and time again. And this is all separate from Zucker’s longtime symbiotic relationship with Donald Trump, which curiously never seemed to stir the ire of anti-Trump voices who wanted to appear on CNN.
These spectacularly counterintuitive choices regarding on-air talent could theoretically be defended if CNN had enjoyed high ratings — and when there’s a big event like the Capitol Hill riot, the cable network’s ratings do jump. But generally, the post-Trump era has not been kind to CNN’s viewership numbers.
So, what the heck was going on over at CNN?
Zucker’s sudden departure Wednesday appears to be quite a familiar story in the world of high-profile television news: Bosses and subordinates canoodling behind the scenes and having their judgment skewed by it.
The official explanation is that Zucker is voluntarily resigning because he is in a relationship with Allison Gollust, CNN’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, and he had failed to disclose that. But a consensual relationship with a subordinate usually results in a trip to human resources and an attempt to avoid the boss’s direct authority over a partner, not an instant firing of the man at the top. No, the real problem for the network can be found a few paragraphs down in Gollust’s biography on the CNN website: “Prior to joining CNN, Gollust served as communications director for New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.” Oh.
Suddenly, the pieces start falling into place. Andrew Cuomo wasn’t just connected to the network through his brother; his former communications director was Zucker’s “special friend” on the side. (For what it is worth, Olbermann said that, “Anybody who knew Zucker knew about Allison Gollust. I first figured it out in 2006 or 2007.” And Katie Couric’s autobiography, published last year, described Zucker and Gollust as being “attached at the hip” in a “super strange” way and described Zucker pressuring Couric to hire Gollust. These anecdotes date back to the early 2000s.)
Why did Andrew Cuomo get such gushing coverage from CNN? It certainly didn’t hurt that his former communications director was literally in bed with the network president. And it seems likely that this relationship played a role in Zucker giving Chris Cuomo such a long leash in the face of allegations of a conflict of interest. Radar Online cited a claim from a “CNN insider” that “Chris had initially escaped punishment for his role in advising his brother over his scandal because of Gollust’s influence on Zucker — and her own connections to the Cuomo machine.”
Finally, Matthew Belloni of PuckNews reported that, “CNN received a litigation hold letter recently from Chris Cuomo lawyers, demanding, among other things, preservation of all communications between Zucker, comms chief Allison Gollust, and Andrew Cuomo.”
Chris Cuomo knew that exposing Zucker’s relationship with Gollust could cause Zucker considerable grief. And if this was as poorly hidden a secret as Olbermann and Couric contend, perhaps more than one CNN employee felt they had considerable leverage in any conflict with Zucker.
If you know your boss’s dirty little secret, you can probably get away with a lot. This isn’t the only reason behind the steady deterioration of CNN’s programming. But some of Zucker’s once inexplicable personnel choices suddenly seem a lot easier to understand.
Does Putin Even Need to Invade Ukraine?
In today’s New York Times op-ed page, Viennese foreign-policy analyst Ivan Krestev suggests that Vladimir Putin may not want or need a full-scale invasion of Ukraine to achieve his objectives:
. . . while Americans tend to believe that Mr. Putin needs a hot war in Ukraine to realize his grand ambitions, Europeans and presumably Ukrainians believe that a hybrid strategy — involving military presence on the border, weaponization of energy flows and cyberattacks — will serve him better.
That’s based on some sound reasoning. A Russian incursion into Ukraine could, in a perverse way, save the current European order. NATO would have no choice but to respond assertively, bringing in stiff sanctions and acting in decisive unity. By hardening the conflict, Mr. Putin could cohere his opponents. Holding back, by contrast, could have the opposite effect: The policy of maximum pressure, short of an invasion, may end up dividing and paralyzing NATO.
This is another version of the “salami tactics” — one slice at a time — discussed in this newsletter several times in recent months. A full-scale invasion would force everyone who is reluctant to confront Russia to pick a side. There would no longer be a way to contend that the Russian troop buildup was just a bluff, that European dependence on Russian oil and natural gas was not a long-term threat, or that building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a good idea. The entire attitude of “Calm down. Putin is rough but rational. He’s a man we can do business with,” would be exposed as catastrophically naïve.
But if Putin just gradually escalates his provocations, week by week, month by month — cyberattacks, propaganda, more “little green men” in the Donbas region and other eastern territories of Ukraine — the West never knows when the situation has crossed from tolerable to intolerable.
Then again, perhaps an invasion is a longer-term objective. Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former special adviser to the head of Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service, contended in Politico yesterday that what Putin really wants is widespread chaos in eastern Ukraine, which would give him an excuse to send in troops to “restore order”:
According to my understanding of Russian strategy, which I developed in the national security sector of Ukraine including working with NATO to monitor and detect Russian threats, Russia’s real goal is to use such protests to internally destabilize Ukraine — to organize attacks on the government and military command-and-control system using attackers disguised as protesters and to assassinate top officials. Such chaos would disorganize the Ukrainian armed forces and justify its military invasion of Ukraine in the guise of restoring order. That would set off a string of events that would likely end in a partition of Ukraine.
NATO members all agree that they don’t want to see Russia invade Ukraine, but there’s still considerable disagreement about what they’re willing to do about it. How unified would NATO be if Ukraine appeared to be disintegrating into factionalism, riots, and chaos? Would some Europeans be secretly relieved that Putin and the Russians were moving in to take the problem of Ukraine off their hands?
Way back in 1997, a group of arms-control wonks critiqued the Clinton administration’s support for the expansion of NATO, warning that, “If NATO expansion is not a one-time event, but an open door, then the United States and its allies will eventually be obligated . . . to protect Ukraine, whose population is one third Russian, from Russia.”
If Ukraine were in NATO, we would be treaty-bound to defend it as a member of the alliance — and Vladimir Putin would be much less likely to be threatening an invasion of a NATO ally. But as an applicant whose status has been in limbo since the 1990s, Ukraine is in this nebulous not-a-member-but-a-longtime-partner state.
NATO expansion would have been a good idea, if the U.S. had thought through the consequences and intended to keep its promises.
Covid-19 Catches Up with Me
After more than two years of writing about Covid-19, I finally got my ticket punched — weeks after almost everyone I know, including people in my own household, got it and recovered. For those who listened to Tuesday’s Three Martini Lunch podcast and remember me insisting I didn’t have Covid-19 because the instant test I took Tuesday morning came back negative, when I woke up feeling worse Wednesday morning, I tested again. This time, the test showed a pink stripe, which either means I have Covid or I’m pregnant. (Remember when that was a safe and funny joke, and not the sort of statement that would spur outraged cries of, “Men can get pregnant, too!” Hey, I’m hopped up on cold medicine, it’s a small miracle I’m writing in complete sentences.)
ADDENDUM: Join Kevin Hassett, Rich Lowry, Jack Brewer, Karol Markowicz, and Andrew Stuttaford in Palm Beach on February 16th! This great lineup of speakers will be at National Review Institute’s Regional Seminar at the Sailfish Club. This year’s regional seminar event series, titled “Creating Opportunity,” will feature panel discussions and one-on-one conversations that make the moral and practical case for free enterprise.
NRI will also visit Newport Beach, Silicon Valley, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, and New York City. Speaker lineup will vary by city and will feature: David L. Bahnsen, Jack Brewer, Dale R. Brott, John Buser, Veronique De Rugy, Kevin Hassett, Pano Kanelos, Rich Lowry, Karol Markowicz, Andrew C. McCarthy, Andrew Puzder, Amity Shlaes, Andrew Stuttaford, and Kevin D. Williamson.