Don Lemon is back on ‘CNN This Morning.’ But can he last?
Don Lemon is getting another chance at CNN.
The veteran anchor returns to “CNN This Morning” on Wednesday, his first appearance since last week when he made offensive comments about when a woman is past her “prime,” while speaking about 51-year-old Republican former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. His unexpected absence from the program on Monday led to speculation that he would be suspended or fired.
In a highly unusual move, CNN Chief Executive Chris Licht told staff in a memo announcing Lemon’s return that the anchor would undergo “formal training” — most likely diversity, equity and inclusion instruction from parent company Warner Bros. Discovery’s human resources department.
Lemon’s sexist remarks created an uproar among CNN’s female employees, many of whom live with the anxiety of being told they are past their best-by date if a wrinkle or two shows up on the screen.
Lemon was trying to critique Haley’s statements that political leaders over 75 should undergo competency testing. President Biden is 80. Former President Trump is 76. But Lemon’s attempt to attack one type of ageism quickly went awry.
“All the talk about age makes me uncomfortable — I think it’s a wrong road to go down,” Lemon began. “She says politicians, or something, are not in their prime. Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime — sorry — when a woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s, maybe 40s.”
Co-anchor Poppy Harlow quickly interjected, telling Lemon to “wait,” and asked a couple of times, “Prime for what?”
It only got worse when Lemon told his female co-anchors to “Google it.”
The exchange and the aftermath became a tabloid saga in New York and a talking point for conservative critics of CNN. Haley, who made the comments when she announced her 2024 presidential campaign, quickly used the imbroglio to promote herself as a Republican candidate who can confound liberals and take on the mainstream media.
“I wasn’t sitting there saying sexist, middle-aged CNN anchors need to have mental competency tests, although [Lemon] may have just proven that point,” Haley said Tuesday on in the friendly confines of conservative-leaning Fox News.
The distraction added to the ongoing woes for CNN, which has been disrupted in recent months by layoffs, cost-cutting and a management-dictated effort to change a perception among some viewers that it has skewed too far to the political left.
Within CNN, there were conversations over the weekend about removing him from the “CNN This Morning” anchor desk he shares with Harlow and Kaitlan Collins, according to several people familiar with the situation.
Instead, Lemon was asked to commit himself to making “CNN This Morning” work. The show has struggled in the ratings since it launched in November. Firing Lemon probably would have advanced the narrative that “CNN This Morning” — the first programming initiative since Licht took over leadership at the network last April — is a debacle.
Licht is adding Bill Maher on Friday nights, and that may not be the only comic coming to CNN. But newsgathering is still the priority.
“I sat down with Don and had a frank and meaningful conversation,” Licht said in the memo, which was reviewed by The Times. “He has agreed to participate in formal training, as well as continuing to listen and learn. We take this situation very seriously.”
Licht did not want his actions to be perceived as a response to the public backlash against Lemon, who has apologized to colleagues and is likely to make a contrite statement when he goes back to work on Wednesday.
“It is important to me that CNN balances accountability with fostering a culture in which people can own, learn and grow from their mistakes,” Licht stated.
Lemon is popular with many of his co-workers at CNN, but is known for occasionally making gaffes that can set social media aflame. The internal talk among CNN staffers is that he cannot survive another one.
In September, commentator S.E. Cupp lost her train of thought during an interview with Lemon, who asked her if she had “mommy brain.” Lemon was lambasted on social media for the remark.
Lemon irritated his co-anchors on “CNN This Morning” when he opined on the inequity in pay between male and female athletes. “I know everyone’s gonna hate me, but the men’s team makes more money,” he said. “If they make more money, then they should get more money.”
Lemon also became angry at co-anchor Collins for interrupting him during the show, leading to an off-camera tirade that was leaked to the New York Post.
Some veterans inside CNN believe part of Lemon’s problem may be the nature of morning television news. For eight years, he was a solo act in CNN’s prime time line-up, where every segment and nearly every question is tightly scripted.
Morning television requires more spontaneity and interaction with multiple hosts on set. Licht believed Lemon had a strong personality suitable for morning TV, but the anchor had no experience in the genre on a national level.
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