Magazine Pens Piece Blasting Ex-CNN Puppetmaster. His Allies Went BALLISTIC

July 27th, 2023 6:26 PM

Having published a piece in April detailing Don Lemon’s decades of insufferable behavior inside CNN, Variety’s Tatiana Siegel blew the lid Monday night off Jeff Zucker, the former CNN boss and puppetmaster whose allies engaged in a blatant smear campaign against his replacement, Chris Licht. Siegel explained how Zucker and a team of allies undermined Licht and Warner Bros. Discovery executives with hopes to buy CNN using shady foreign moguls.

Once the piece went live, the onslaught was on with Zucker’s team, Puck “partner” and former CNN media reporter Dylan Byers, The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta, and CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy all chiming in to trash Siegel.

The 4,300-word tome painted an odious picture of Zucker having “spent the past year traveling the globe to meet with potential” investors to steal CNN back and even though it’s “likely” to “fail...his battles with Zaslav and his behind-the-scenes attempts to undermine Licht” to the point he “isn’t worried about damaging CNN as he attempts to ram his way through it.”

Before, during, and after his courting of investors, Siegel confirmed what had been reported elsewhere (click “expand”):

Sources inside both WBD and CNN believe Zucker had been agitating behind the scenes to depose Licht. Those who have worked closely with Zucker in the past and are familiar with his media-savvy playbook claim that he orchestrated unflattering leaks about his successor to reporters.

“This has been a massive dick swing between David Zaslav and Jeff Zucker, and Chris got played right in the middle of it,” says one insider who has been privy to major recent decisions at CNN. “When all is said and done, we’re going to find out this whole thing was a big game, and the price of CNN is going to get driven down.”

Assisting Zucker in his scheme, Siegel claimed, included former longtime CNN executive Rani Raad, who outlasted Zucker before suddenly jetting on January 30. She claimed the relationship was serious enough that “[i]n late 2022, WBD launched an internal investigation into Raad, who was suspected of collaborating with the now-outsider Zucker, say sources familiar with the probe.”

Investors included banks from Cyprus and Turkey, CNN Portugal, Middle East Sheiks and other big wigs from Abu Dhabi and Qataris, a sanctioned Russian oligarch, Laurene Powell Jobs, and even, Alex Soros, which Zucker’s team offered vehement denials of (click “expand”):

As early as August 2022, chatter about Zucker was moving through business channels. On Aug. 7, Allied Turkish Bank IBU Northern Cyprus sent a letter of intent on company stationery to the law firm Clifford Chance’s Istanbul office. The letter discusses Clifford Chance as the firm that represents Zucker in “the acquisition of CNN Worldwide” and “is valid for the round of negotiations with potential investors and is regulated by the attached confidential contract in accordance with the commercial legislation of Turkey,” according to sources who have seen the documentation.


At year’s end, Zucker was sitting on a $1 billion war chest when Gerry Cardinale’s private-equity firm RedBird Capital Partners and Abu Dhabi-based International Media Investments tapped him to lead joint venture RedBird IMI. (Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, a United Arab Emirates government minister, had put up 75% of the funds.)


On Nov. 20, Zucker and Cardinale met at a Formula One race in Abu Dhabi, with Raad and Gollust on hand. Raad, still a CNN employee under Licht, was there to schmooze on behalf of the network, but was spotted in RedBird’s VIP area, meeting with Zucker and members of the oil-rich country’s sovereign wealth fund. (Malone’s Liberty Media owns Formula One.)

Around the same time, Zucker approached Jeff Bezos, Laurene Powell Jobs and Alex Soros about investing in his CNN bid, according to those same sources. “He has never discussed buying CNN with Jeff Bezos, Laurene Powell Jobs or Alex Soros. Jeff has never met or spoken to Alex Soros,” Zucker’s spokeswoman says. That denial at least partially contradicts published reports that Zucker had previously approached Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, about a potential spinout of the network in late 2020. This time, Powell Jobs took the overtures seriously enough that she contacted CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria to inquire about Zucker, even though she had begun offloading some of her media investments in recent years. (She did hold on to a majority stake in The Atlantic, the same publication that sealed Licht’s fate.) Powell Jobs declined comment. Zakaria did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Raad was simultaneously working under Licht and on behalf of Zucker. Sources say he met with Nasser Al-Khelaifi, chairman of Qatari state-owned beIN Media Group, and sat down twice with Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer bin Mohammed Al Thani, chairman of the board of Al Jazeera, while still collecting a paycheck from CNN. (A rep for Raad says he “has never met Al Jazeera leadership, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, and he has never discussed or engineered an approach among any party to acquire CNN.”)

After Raad decamped CNN, the pace of pitching accelerated. Sources say Zucker most recently targeted Mario Ferreira, who licenses the news network’s content as the owner of CNN Portugal, about participating in a CNN acquisition.


This spring, Turkish Bank Group signed a nondisclosure agreement with international mergers and acquisitions firm Pandion Partners about a potential deal for RedBird to acquire CNN, say sources familiar with the agreement.


But sources familiar with the Raad investigation say Zucker in recent months approached Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who owned Chelsea Football Club until 2022 but was forced to unload it after being sanctioned by the West for his close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Turning to Byers, Siegel noted “the most relentless critiques of Licht’s abbreviated reign originated with” Byers as he wrote about the CNN drama “in 64 of the 127 stories he filed during Licht’s tenure” that blasted Licht’s leadership and fawned over the “beloved,” “brash,” “generationally-talented,” and “genius” Zucker.

Siegel also pointed out conflicts of interest with Puck and Zucker sharing the same spokesperson and Zucker’s company having sought a stake in Puck.

She briefly focused on Alberta’s now-infamous profile of Licht, claiming “sources maintain it was never pitched as a profile” as it was instead billed “as a broad story about restoring trust in the media” with Licht as a test subject. Once he agreed, she said the two only met four times, quotes were used that were meant to be off the record, and embellished.

Starting with Alberta, he was furious someone would pushback on the piece seen as a tactical strike on Licht by adversaries, tweeting: “Dear [Tatiana Siegel] 1) I met w Licht on 7 different days 2) I used zero off-record details or quotes, as our [Fairness and Standards] team can attest 3) His trainer overheard portions of 1 interview 4) Licht is quoted extensively in a neutral context (sorry it wasn't positive enough for you/him)”.

For Byers’s part, he repeatedly claimed he didn’t want to opine, but that was a crock based on the insults he leveled. After mocking Zucker’s undermining of Licht and thoughts of buying CNN as “secretly plotted” and “double-barreled revenge fantasy,” Byers dismissed it as “heavy cake,” “problematic,” “sophomoric,” and “utterly implausible.”

His best excuse? “Siegel’s assertions about Zucker’s attempt to court a certain investor would be followed by an on-the-record denial.” Well, that settles it then, Dylan!

Byers was joined at the hip by Darcy, whom he noted also had concerns as Siegel’s report fetched “heightened scrutiny”.

On Zucker’s company investing in Puck, Byers insisted he “was wholly unaware of that conversation”.

Best of all, Byers relayed an afternoon coffee meeting “with an entertainment industry C.E.O. here in Los Angeles” in which this person bemoaned negative media coverage, to which we should all point and laugh at as irony and/or a taste of their own medicine (click “expand”):

On Tuesday afternoon, as my phone was buzzing with texts and calls about the Variety story, I set everything aside for nearly two hours to have coffee with an entertainment industry C.E.O. here in Los Angeles. After mentioning the Variety piece to him, he relayed his own litany of frustrations with media organizations that had published wildly inaccurate claims about him and his company, and that misconstrued the narrative around his industry. 

He didn’t mind criticism, he said. He didn’t even mind it when reporters made mistakes. What did bother him, he said, was the way in which certain reporters and editors had started simply belittling facts that ran counter to their narrative—even when these facts were pointed out to them on the record, and before publication. And because these reporters and editors worked for reputable brands with long histories, their reporting was taken as fact.

This is a complaint I have heard myriad times from C.E.O.s and other industry leaders in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and New York. Needless to say, it can sometimes be hard to sympathize with the man or woman raking in tens of millions of dollars who is nevertheless perturbed by what they view as unfair treatment in the press. Then again, my own role as a media reporter has made me keenly aware that there are occasions in which their complaints are valid—and, having been on the receiving end of it from time to time, including now, I must say it doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence.

Variety’s leadership, which offered a statement of support for the story shortly after publication, may not cop to the errors, but I’m guessing they can’t wait for the weekend to close in. The story is virtually impossible to find on its homepage, which has mysteriously led with a Sinead O’Connor obituary for most of the day.