For years, Don Lemon has served as an infamous player in cable news — one whose TV moments actively land him in headlines everywhere.
Millions of viewers tune in daily to his cable news show “CNN Tonight with Don Lemon,” making him one of the most recognizable and most talked about journalists in the country.
As an openly gay, African-American man, Lemon’s spot in primetime matters. His thoughts on issues and policies impacting communities of color matters.
At times, Lemon’s takes on these topics have been excruciating to watch.
The CNN anchor, 51, has often been denigrated for on-air gaffes, earning him a spot on Columbia Journalism Review’s “worst journalists” list in 2014. He’s also been accused of talking down to the Black community in othering fashion, marked by dangerous stereotypes and respectability politics.
His tone-deaf comments on race and social issues could make a not-so-greatest hits list.
In 2013, during his “No Talking Points” segment, Lemon advised Black people to pull up their pants and stop using the N-word as remedies for fixing their communities. It was Sunken Place commentary in real time. Lemon was litearlly helping legitimize long-regarded views espoused by the far political right that Blacks were dangerous, lazy and responsible for their own ‘condition.’
At the time, Lemon was echoing statements made by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly about (insert eye-roll) Black-on-Black crime.
Then the TV gaffes just kept on rolling.
In 2014, Lemon sparked outrage while reporting on the unrest in Ferguson over the police shooting of Michael Brown, to which he described the smell of marijuana in a crowd of demonstrators–knowingly or unknowingly evoking a perception of Black thuggery–in the middle of what even his CNN colleagues described as “peaceful protests.”
Then there were the more meme-worthy blunders like asking a Bill Cosby accuser why she didn’t bite the now-disgraced comedian’s penis while allegedly being forced to perform oral sex; or the time he wondered whether Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 could have been swallowed by a black hole. For obvious reasons, Lemon became a public punching bag.
Lately, however, a new and perhaps evolved Don Lemon has emerged.
In today’s political climate of “fake news,” Lemon has become a crusader for the truth, using his anchor desk to call out racism and countless falsehoods, even sparring with the nation’s president, Donald J. Trump, and Bill O’Reilly, a man he had previously co-signed.
After O’Reilly accused Lemon of not covering Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that former president Barack Obama had wiretapped him during the 2016 presidential campaign, Lemon fired back, “I did not refuse to cover the story. But I did cover your sexual harassment allegations. Did you?” The Twitter spat, while petty at best, was met with public applause for sticking it to O’Reilly, who had for years spewed racist and sexist assails with almost no repercussions. Lemon later got the last laugh as weeks later O’Reilly was fired from his long-running Fox News show over his sexual improprieties and misconduct.
But it’s Lemon’s warring of words with President Trump that has seemingly dug him out of the sunken hole the public, particularly Black America, had buried him in.
Calling out lies propagated by the commander-in-chief, as well as his TV surrogates and supporters, have proven to demonstrate Lemon’s ability and willingness to go in the political trenches. Trump, who slammed Lemon as the “dumbest person in broadcast,” has maybe unknowingly become a media foil to Lemon, giving the once reviled anchor somewhat of a second chance at redemption.
Things seemed to take a turn during the 2016 presidential campaign when Lemon boldly held on-air Trumpsters’ feet to the fire—not allowing Spin Queen Omarosa Manigault to deflect his questions; and pushing back against Sheriff David Clarke when he tried to blame Black Lives Matter for the deadly shootings of police officers in Baton Rouge.
Lemon’s crusade on behalf of the media and the movement for Black lives has continued to endure throughout Trump’s presidency, and his fierce grip is only getting tighter. At the height of Trump’s attack on athletes protesting during the National Anthem, Lemon took to the airwaves to remind the country that the #TakeAKnee movement wasn’t about a flag, but about Black lives.
“Taking a knee at an NFL game was never about the flag or the military,” Lemon told his viewers. “That’s what the president wants you to believe. It gives his insulting ‘sons of bitches’ comment cover. A comment that not only insults hardworking professional men, but tries to drag their mothers down to his level, as well. Taking a knee is a constitutionally protected expression. It falls within league rules. Period. If anyone actually believes this is about the flag, then you must believe Rosa Parks‘ protest was about a bus.”
After the president chose to spar with Congresswoman Frederica Wilson over comments he made during a call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of fallen soldier Sgt. La David Johnson, Lemon delivered an impassioned speech condemning 45 for essentially calling her a liar. “Please, stop,” he implored to Trump directly.
Whether he intended to or not, Lemon has found a reset button in the public domain.
And Lemon knows it too.
Last November, at the inaugural Native Son Awards, honoring Black gay men, Lemon addressed the long-standing perception about him and his on-air persona.
“Sometimes people don’t understand what I do,” he explained. “My job is to facilitate conversations and to play devil’s advocate–and not everybody gets that. I’m not an advocate, I’m a journalist, and I don’t always get to [advocate] because that’s not my job in every single instance.”
“I have to pick my moments or I won’t be there [on TV] with ‘Don Lemon’ in the title. But I’m always on your side.”