CNN’s Don Lemon criticized for comments to Cosby rape accuser, apologizes

CNN anchor Don Lemon is being skewered for suggesting that a woman who has accused comedian Bill Cosby of raping her when she was a teenager might have been able to stop the alleged attack.

The exchange occurred Tuesday night on “CNN Tonight” as serious allegations of sexual assaults by Cosby continued to escalate, and Netflix said it was postponing his upcoming comedy special.

In an interview Monday, Joan Tarshis described how Cosby allegedly drugged her and forced her to have oral sex with him when she was 19.

Tarshis claims Cosby took her back to his home after they filmed an episode of “The Cosby Show,” and that she passed out shortly after he made her a drink.

“I woke up, or came to, very groggily with him removing my underwear,” she told Lemon, and went on to say that she tried to convince Cosby not to rape her, telling him that she had an infection that he might pass on to his wife. Tarshis, now 61, says he forced her to perform oral sex on him instead.


In a follow-up interview Tuesday, Lemon asked Tarshis why she never went to the police, before launching into an awkward exchange about how Tarshis might have stopped the alleged rape.

“I didn’t’ go to the police because I was 19 years old, I was scared, and I thought nobody would believe me,” Tarshis told Lemon. “I’m a 19-year-old girl and he was Mr. America, Mr. Jell-O,” she said.

“You – you know, there are ways not to perform oral sex if you didn’t want to do it,” Lemon said to Tarshis, suggesting “the using of the teeth…as a weapon.”

Stammering, Tarshis responded, “I was kind of stoned at the time, and quite honestly, that didn’t even enter my mind. Now I wish it would have.”

The reaction on Twitter was almost immediate, with users accusing Lemon of victim-blaming.

Offensive victim-blaming comments about rape by @donlemon on @CNN. Formal apology and network action needed ASAP.— Erin Matson (@erintothemax) November 19, 2014

Most rapes/sexual assaults go unreported because of victim blaming and that’s exactly what @donlemon did— Dr. X (@TheBlackGuyX) November 19, 2014

“I had to ask.” No you didn’t. Victim-blaming is actually not a requirement when interviewing a survivor. #DonLemon— Missy (@missykaybm) November 19, 2014

Many called on CNN to fire Lemon, who has said that he was sexually abused as a child.

.@donlemon should be fired for victim blaming a sexual assault victim ON AIR. There is no “sorry” big enough to undue the damage you’ve done— Sil Lai Abrams (@Sil_Lai) November 19, 2014

If Don Lemon isn’t fired in 1 week, @CNN you will have awoken millions of sleeping giants. Your ratings already suck, don’t make it worse!— James Jackson (@JamesJJacksonJr) November 19, 2014

Lemon apologized on air Wednesday. “As I am a victim myself, I would never want to suggest that any victim could have prevented a rape,” Lemon said. “If my question to her struck anyone as insensitive, I am sorry as that certainly was not my intention.”


Nov. 19, 11:49 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Lemon.

The first version of this article was published Nov. 19 at 11:29 a.m.