• WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar was grilled at CNN meeting with select New York newsroom staff. 
  • Regarding the departure of network president Jeff Zucker last week, Kilar declined to provide any further details.
  • Alisyn Camerota asked Kilar about whether he was leading with empathy. 

WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar continued his tour of CNN’s local offices Monday and subjected himself to more tough questioning over his decision to accept the resignation of CNN President Jeff Zucker. 

Kilar said he would not provide any further details or speak about the circumstances around Zucker’s departure, leaving several CNN anchors emotional about why such a huge management decision had been made that for many seemed out of proportion to the stated cause: Zucker’s failure to disclose a consensual relationship with CNN Executive VP and Chief Marketing Officer Allison Gollust. 

“Change absolutely is here. It’s around us. And it is coming,” said Kilar at the top of the meeting. “The mission of CNN remains, which is strong, independent journalism.”

He added, “I do consider the matter of Jeff’s resignation closed and I’m not going to be speaking about the details of it as a matter of policy.” 

Insider exclusively obtained audio of the meeting, conducted by video call with select New York anchors and staff, which followed a tense call with CNN talent including Jake Tapper on Wednesday. The Wall Street Journal first reported comments from the Monday meeting, where interim CNN leaders Michael Bass, Amy Entelis, and Ken Jautz also participated in the Q&A and largely supported Kilar’s messaging.

About halfway through the interrogation, CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota raised her and her colleagues’ psychological stress as an issue. “We have experienced a huge shock wave to our mental health, this has been incredibly destabilizing and unsettling,” she said.

Camerota wanted to know why there was a “death penalty” for Zucker, citing emails from friends and viewers including one that called the punishment “excessive.”

“These are all of our questions,” she said. “How are we supposed to answer some of these things, if you can’t answer us?” 

Camerota then read to Kilar from his own Twitter and Instagram feeds, which described him as a “big believer in the power of innovation and empathy.” 

 

Kilar struggled to respond to the question but referenced his previous town hall with the company Wednesday and added that “anyone who knows me … I do believe they would say that I do endeavor to lead with empathy,” citing as examples his family and “the history of my professional endeavors.”

He went on to say, “I don’t think there’s enough empathy in this world.” He later acknowledged his answer would not be satisfying. 

Kilar, who is widely believed to be stepping down himself once the Discovery merger with CNN’s parent WarnerMedia closes as expected this spring, was forced to keep dodging questions about Zucker’s exit.

British CNN anchor Richard Quest said, “The problem is, you have an entire company of Rottweilers that you send out every day to do battle against governments and CEOs, so when it comes to our own company, and something happens within our own company, we’re going to exercise the same critical questioning.”

“Was it not possible,” Quest continued, “to find a different solution that would have accomplish the values that you wish to maintain, but didn’t leave us open to the intense, critical pressures that we’ve now received in … the last week?” 

Kilar responded, “Our values come first,” adding, “I’ll leave it at that.” 

Jim Murphy, senior vice president, programming at CNN, also probed Kilar about the speed and severity of consequences for Zucker. “Are we at a point where this kind of standard where this is going to applied across the board?” Murphy asked. “It doesn’t feel like the punishment fits the crime and that’s why so many of us are stunned by how quickly and suddenly it happened and how ungraceful to Jeff.”

People at the meeting, including network star anchor Don Lemon, also queried Kilar about the possibility of a severance payment to Chris Cuomo, who was fired from CNN in December after it emerged that he had helped his brother, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, fight through accusations of sexual harassment.

“I’m not going to comment on anything with regards to personnel,” Kilar said in response to repeated questioning on the topic from Senior Media Reporter Oliver Darcy. “Full stop.”

 

Lemon followed up. “Did you think about what message it sends to the journalists in this company and to the larger public, that someone can be found to break with those journalistic standards and then get paid handsomely for it?” Lemon asked. He then added, in reference to reports that Cuomo had a hand in the chain of events that led to Zucker’s exit, “And what is to stop the next person from possibly getting compensated for it, to spread rumors or what have you to the press?”

“There’s a lot of theoreticals that people are going to bring up,” Kilar responded. “The role that I have and a number of us have at WarnerMedia and folks at AT&T as well is to absolutely manage matters with personnel and do it in a manner that is as high road, and as forthright — and with empathy, to Alisyn’s earlier question — as possible.” 

Asked why he was calling in from LA, rather than meeting with staffers in person, Kilar said he had a family commitment that had kept him in California but would be on a plane back to New York to be in CNN’s Hudson Yards offices later Monday.

 

CNN Media Correspondent Brian Stelter asked why Kilar had not spoken to the entire company to enable to company to move on. “Where is the global town hall? I’m worried about the 4,000 employees.”

Kilar said he would be continuing to conduct other sesions in London and Hong Kong to address international employees. 

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