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As a nation looks for answers on George Floyd, CNN’s Don Lemon steps up

Don Lemon at his home in East Hampton, N.Y., on June 8.
Don Lemon at his home in East Hampton, N.Y., on June 8.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Don Lemon was talking about his mother during a recent Zoom video call with a reporter.

“As a man of color my mom worries about me constantly,” he said. Then his cellphone started buzzing. She was on the line.

The CNN anchor picks up and puts Katherine Lemon-Clark on speaker so the reporter can say hello and ask how she thinks her son has fared in guiding the cable news network’s nighttime coverage of the social protests that have swept the nation since George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

“I am very proud of him,” Lemon-Clark said of her son. “The only thing I don’t like is how people attack him. I’m concerned about his safety. I don’t care how old he gets. That’s my child. I’m always concerned about him.”

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Lemon had noted how throughout his college years and every job he’s had in Chicago, Atlanta and then New York, he called his mother nightly to let her know he was OK. Lately, those calls have become mandatory. Lemon-Clark has seen the vicious comments written about her son online since he became more outspoken on his nightly program “CNN Tonight.” The vitriol intensified after Lemon called President Trump a racist in response to comments he made regarding immigration in January 2018.

“It’s garnered me a lot of enemies,” said Lemon, 54. “A lot of them in person as well. I have to watch my back over it.”

After finishing the call from his mother, Lemon leaned back on the couch in his home in East Hampton, N.Y., and had to wipe tears from his eyes before he could continue the interview. His emotional response would come as no surprise to his regular viewers who often hear him refer to her on his program. But the anxiety that many mothers of Black men have long experienced likely informed Lemon’s coverage of Floyd’s death and the nightly demonstrations that followed.

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Officer Derek Chauvin, who was recorded on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he begged for air before he died, has been charged with second-degree murder. Three other Minneapolis police officers at the scene also face criminal charges.

The recent weeks have been exhausting for Lemon, who has handled his two-hour program on weeknights downloading information from the CNN correspondents on the ground amid the demonstrations throughout the country. He has also been tapped for breaking coverage throughout the day, including Floyd’s first memorial service.

“I think about how much longer I can continue to do this at this pace and the amount of negativity that comes my way,” he said.

But the Louisiana native, who joined CNN in 2006 and is the only African American cable news anchor in prime time, is clearly energized by having a role in shaping the current national discourse on race relations.

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“I love what I do right now,” he said. “I feel like I found my voice and found my groove. This is my time to be me on TV.”

Nielsen data backs him up. While Fox News has the most cable news viewers overall, CNN has attracted the largest prime-time audience in the advertiser-favored 25 to 54 age group since May 26, when the Floyd killing in Minneapolis became the country’s leading story. The 2.4 million people watching Lemon’s program in May was up 75% from the previous year, the most growth of any cable news show that month.

He’s a truth teller. He doesn’t waver.

Producer-director Lee Daniels

While Lemon has talked frankly about race on his program for years, he believes the shocking video of Floyd’s death has made the audience more receptive to those discussions.

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“I think seeing that eight minutes and 46 seconds, that George Floyd — the way he was treated on the ground — just broke so many people,” he said. “Like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this.’ And it is opening people up in ways that they haven’t been opened before.”

Lemon said he tries to challenge his audience to think about the causes of racism. He created a viral-video moment when he said it was not up to Black people to solve the problem.

As the protests heightened on the night of May 31, he asked for Hollywood celebrities of all races to publicly offer their support. (“Where are you? Why aren’t you fighting for these young people? If you don’t do it now, when are you going to do it?”) He raised the point after remembering how performers such as Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were out front and center during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

(A few days later Lemon would thank Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who issued a video online expressing support for the Black Lives Matters movement and asked President Trump, “Where is our compassionate leader?”)

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NBC’s “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon recently sought Lemon’s advice after photos of him wearing blackface in a 20 year-old “Saturday Night Live” sketch surfaced online. Lemon then appeared as a guest on “Tonight” after Fallon gave a lengthy, somber opening monologue to express his regret.

“I didn’t really know Jimmy,” Lemon said. “But I was indeed honored that he chose me to come on at the time that he did.”

Lemon said Fallon’s response to the controversy elicited the kind of discussion more citizens should be having. “He looked at himself in the mirror and said, ‘What do I need to do? What do I need to realize as a person in this culture as a white man in this society? What do I need to learn?’ And I think that’s work everybody needs to do right now, all of us. Even as a Black man, I need to do the same thing.”

Lemon did not always enjoy the stature he’s been given lately. He moved into CNN’s prime-time lineup in 2014 when the network was immersed in saturation coverage of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which drew strong ratings but was widely ridiculed by media critics.

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He also became a lightning rod for the network’s coverage of the protests in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, after a police officer was not indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager. When describing the scene outside of the city’s police headquarters, Lemon said, “Obviously, there is a smell of marijuana in the air,” which drew some harsh responses on social media.

“I feel like I did my best back then,” he said. “Some of the hits I took were warranted, some were not. I just lived and worked these past five or six years and you learn and grow. That’s it.”

CNN President Jeff Zucker believes Lemon’s maturation as a broadcaster has neatly coincided with the crisis facing the country right now.

“I think he knows how important this moment is — he’s been preparing for it his entire career,” Zucker said. “Don has always brought a little of himself and his emotion to his reporting and that’s why he’s stood out. On this story, he’s done it in an insightful and measured way that I don’t know the Don Lemon of six years ago would have done.”

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Lemon has long had a strong following among African American viewers. Producer-director Lee Daniels once had Lemon appear as himself in “Empire,” his hit Fox TV series about a Black musical family dynasty.

“I put him in a party scene because I really thought he was the voice of our people then,” Daniels said. “I think he still is. He’s a truth teller. He doesn’t waver.”

Daniels texts Lemon while he is on the air, offering opinions on his tie or suit and watches for a reaction. “I enjoy watching him smile as he delivers the news,” he said.

While growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, Lemon watched “ABC World News Tonight” when it featured Max Robinson, the first Black evening news anchor. He won journalism awards on the NBC station in Chicago before joining the network as a correspondent.

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On CNN, he has defined himself with an opening segment labeled “Don’s Take,” which he writes with the help of his staff. “It’s what I think America needs to hear at the moment,” he said. He presents it in a conversational style with dramatic pauses. He often adds riffs that are not in the script. He also ends most of them with the phrase “and those are the facts.”

Other clip-worthy moments have been generated by the nightly exchanges he has with Chris Cuomo, whose program precedes “CNN Tonight.” The CNN audience grows during the segment where Cuomo hands off the anchor role to Lemon, which shows that people are tuning in for it along with “Don’s Take.”

Lemon has known Cuomo for years, but their bromance has intensified since they have become neighbors in CNN’s prime-time block. He hopes their on-air exchanges can inspire similar dialogues among viewers.

“He’s from a very famous, powerful New York family, white guy, Italian,” Lemon said. “I am a Black Southern guy whose family — you know, no one ever heard of my family. And so it works because these are the kind of conversations that every single American should be having with someone who does not look like them.”

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Lemon, who is engaged to real estate broker Tim Malone, said even with the tense situation playing out every night on his program, he is hopeful about the country’s future.

“All of the chaos makes me sad,” he said. “But seeing those young people out there [who] are doing things the right way. They got it right. And they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. And good for them. So I am optimistic.”


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