Once again, Twitter is howling about Don Lemon. And that’s a bad thing?
The CNN anchor whipped social media into a frenzy — another frenzy — Monday night with a stunning stunt on his program. Attempting to twin President Obama’s use of the N-word during a podcast interview with the highly charged debate over the Confederate flag, Lemon held up the banner and a placard with the racial word spelled out in block letters. “Does this offend you?” Lemon asked.
Social media answered swiftly: Don Lemon offends them. The anti-Lemon comments were copious and occasionally amusing, particularly a meme in which the word on the placard was replaced by a series of Photoshopped quips.
Lemon, 49, has been lighting up the boards this way for the past two years, although not always because he has made people mad. Lemon has inspired as much mockery as outrage for his head-scratching questions and comments. He asked one of Bill Cosby’s alleged rape victims last year why she didn’t use her teeth to stop Cosby. In a discussion about corporal punishment, he compared spanking children to training dogs.
He inquired of a panel of experts whether a black hole might have swallowed the missing Malaysia Air jet. The latter question was actually submitted by a viewer, but Lemon took the lumps for reading it, earning a prominent place on Columbia Journalism Review’s “Worst Journalism of 2014” list.
“Don Lemon has more in common with Ricki Lake than any actual journalist,” Deadspin’s Greg Howard wrote Tuesday. “He is, nonetheless, and against everyone’s better judgment, presented as a legitimate reporter.”
Perhaps perversely, this has all been good for Don Lemon and CNN. Lemon may be a kind of anti-Cronkite, a latter-day Burgundy to some, but it hasn’t driven away viewers. On the contrary, Lemon may be watched, at least in part, for the surprising things he dares to say on the usually staid CNN.
“Let me put it this way,” CNN President Jeff Zucker told GQ in a profile of Lemon in April. “There’s certainly a lot of interest in Don Lemon, and that’s a good thing for Don and for CNN. You know, Don is a little bit of a lightning rod. Frankly, we needed a little bit of lightning.”
On Friday, for example, Lemon’s 10 p.m. program, “CNN Tonight With Don Lemon,” beat Fox News’s Sean Hannity among the younger viewers sought by advertisers (and the kind of people likely to be deriding Lemon on social media). CNN’s live prime-time coverage of the church shootings in Charleston, S.C., also scored a ratings victory over Fox among those 25-to-54-year-old viewers, but Lemon’s program enjoyed the biggest audience advantage of CNN’s shows.
Although Fox remains far ahead a daily basis, Lemon’s audience at 10 p.m. now rivals fellow CNNer Anderson Cooper at 8 p.m., an achievement given that Lemon has occupied the 10 p.m. slot for only 15 months.
CNN said Tuesday that Lemon wasn’t available for interviews, at least not to reporters outside CNN. He was, in fact, all over CNN and its multiple platforms, doubling down on his latest Internet-shocker.
On Monday, he appeared on Wolf Blitzer’s program, debating the use of the N-word with CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin. “We should not sanitize that word,” he said, and went ahead and uttered it, justifying its use as a historical and journalistic fact. To which Hostin sputtered, “I can’t believe, Don, that you as an African American man are going to use that word so flippantly.”
Naturally, CNN tweeted the clip.
During his nine years at the network, Lemon, like Piers Morgan before him, has quietly evolved into an unusual role, at least for CNN. He’s not just a reporter or news anchor or program moderator; he’s often all three. He interviews people as a regular reporter would, but then, like Fox’s Bill O’Reilly or Hannity, tells you what he thinks about the news he’s covering or the opinions he’s collected.
Sometimes he’s the interview subject, a role reversal that Erin Burnett or Cooper or Blitzer are unlikely to fulfill. There he was on Tuesday on CNN being interviewed by Ashleigh Banfield for his thoughts about the Confederate flag. “Well, the South is part of America,” he told her. “The South lost. So, the flag that lost should come down. There is no Northern flag that hangs on any capitol,” he said. “We all have one flag and that’s the American flag.”
CNN tweeted that clip, too.
After bumping around local news stations in St. Louis, Chicago and Philadelphia for years, Lemon arrived relatively late to CNN in 2006. He was 40 when he started on CNN’s weekday shift, co-anchoring from 1 to 4 p.m. It took two more years before he was promoted to prime-time anchor on weekends, a spot he occupied for six years.
Lemon’s latter career has benefited from two events. The first was the arrival of Zucker at CNN in early 2013. The former NBC wunderkind began retooling the network, starting first by mostly replacing its low-rated news and talk programs on weekend nights with taped series. That move diminished Lemon’s role.
But Lemon was perhaps the chief beneficiary of another Zucker innovation: the all-in, come-what-may coverage of breaking news. When the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing in March last year, Lemon got the call as one of a series of rotating anchors assigned to talk about the story at 10 p.m. The gig played to Lemon’s talents (and weaknesses) as an emotive, off-the-cuff speaker able to fill the vast, news-free prairies of airtime that CNN devoted to the story.
The prime-time assignment soon became Lemon’s alone. Eventually, he was CNN’s ubiquitous man, covering everything from Cosby to such racially charged stories as the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. (It wasn’t until mid-April, however, that CNN made it official, changing the name of the 10 p.m. program to reflect Lemon’s starring role.)
Few remember Lemon when he uttered a certain word repeatedly as the host of a CNN special called “The N-Word” in July 2013.
But that was then, before Lemon became a social-media punch line. It was different Monday night.