Will AT&T bail CNN out of Chris Cuomo’s lawsuit?

It certainly looks like they’ll try, but that may be more for their own benefit. The Daily Mail reported early this morning that CNN parent AT&T will offer fired anchor Chris Cuomo a settlement of $9 million to essentially keep his mouth shut about what happened between Jeff Zucker, Allison Gollust, and his brother Andrew — and anything else, for that matter. The lawsuit over his sacking has already kicked off a massive crisis at CNN, and the liabilities of whatever else Cuomo might say could potentially impede AT&T’s strategic plans for the outlet:

Fired CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, who was hoping to secure an $18million lump sum payout following his departure last year, has been told to set his sights lower, with him unlikely to receive anything more than around $9million from the cable news network.

AT&T, CNN’s parent company, is said to be in negotiations to reach a deal that would see the fired anchor receive half of the $18million he had been vying for before Jeff Zucker’s unexpected resignation Wednesday.

The news of a possible settlement emerged as the CNN employee and lover who led to Zucker’s downfall, Allison Gollust, was seen arriving at her luxury Manhattan apartment late Thursday night looking distinctly sullen.

The New York Post reports that the settlement was part of an overarching strategy to plug the leaks ahead of the Discovery merger:

Zucker’s resignation came as part of an agreement hammered out with AT&T chief John Stankey, sources say. Under the agreement, Zucker would leave CNN without a fight and Stankey would settle with Cuomo, the sources said.

That way, Cuomo’s potentially damaging additional accusations about Zucker would be kept from the public, these sources say. …

While Zucker paid the price stepping down as top dog of a global television network, he did so with the agreement that he would keep a piece of his privacy for leaving quickly and without a fight, sources said.

“Jeff cut a deal to say ‘I’ll leave, and you settle with Cuomo,’” a source told The Post. “He thought AT&T would fight a lawsuit and it would go public otherwise.” If Cuomo filed his lawsuit and AT&T fought it, then potentially damaging information about Zucker could come out, too, the sources said.

If that’s the case, then the CNN staffers ripping Warner CEO Jason Kilar were barking up the wrong tree. Zucker might have decided to get out while the getting was still good for himself and especially for Gollust. (They were barking up the wrong tree for other reasons, the least of which is the sleeping-with-and-promoting-a-subordinate issue.)

And AT&T has bigger fish to fry, too. The Warner Media merger/acquisition with Discovery still hasn’t been completed. Even apart from the dollar value of Chris Cuomo’s ask on the wrongful termination suit, any damaging information he might have could damage the overall value of the acquisition by Discovery. It may well be worth it to give Cuomo some cash to go away, predicated on Zucker keeping his mouth shut as well. The more Chris talks about how Zucker and others at CNN cooked coverage on behalf of his brother Andrew, the less Discovery might value this part of the acquisition.

Of course, Cuomo knows this just as well as anyone. It may be why he made the affair known to the outside investigators looking at the ethical violations that took place in the Cuomo Brothers Propaganda Circus. Call it a warning shot across AT&T’s bow, or perhaps even a “terrorist” threat, as some CNN staffers called it. The Cuomos play hardball, and CNN’s remaining employees should blame Zucker and Gollust for putting them on that field, not Kilar and AT&T for trying to clean up the mess.

On that basis, I’d bet that $9 million isn’t really a cap. With a $43 billion merger hanging in the balance, it’s no time to cheap out over an additional $9 million.

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