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April 04, 2019

Telling It Like He Sees It

A CNN anchor thrives on unearthing — and dispersing — truths.

Ann Farmer
  • Mark Hill

Don Lemon knew something was amiss.

He was heading to a CVS drug store one day last August when his phone suddenly blew up. Cryptic messages from friends said things like, "Stay strong." His mother texted: "Do not respond. Don't punch down."

Soon enough, he learned that President Trump had tweeted about him and LeBron James, a recent guest on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon. And it wasn't nice. Trump had called Lemon "the dumbest man on television." He'd added, "He made LeBron look smart, which isn't easy to do."

Lemon first assumed it was a joke. "That's got to be a parody," he thought. He'd invited the NBA star on to talk about his achievement in funding an Ohio school for at-risk kids. During the interview they'd veered into racism, a common theme on CNN Tonight, and James had called Trump divisive. Not the first time that's been said.

Trump's tweet did indicate one thing: he pays attention to CNN Tonight. "I know he watches," Lemon says. "Because often during a show he'll tweet about subjects we are talking about."

Now in his sixth year of hosting this news-opinion program, Lemon routinely invites guests on to dissect the news. "My show is like the truth serum every night," says Lemon, who aims for the "biggest talkers" — i.e., the subjects that have tongues furiously wagging.

Lemon has always been curious. Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he says, he would talk with anyone. "I asked a lot of questions."

And because he lived in a community steeped in tradition and myth, he recalls, "I wanted to get [to] the truth in things." Watching television, however, he didn't see many people who looked like him. One day a teenage Lemon stumbled across veteran black newscaster Jean West on WAFB in Baton Rouge. He told himself, "That is what I want to do."

Before joining CNN in 2006 as an anchor and correspondent, he worked as a correspondent for NBC News.

He's covered many breaking top stories: the Orlando nightclub massacre, Hurricane Katrina, the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore and the Boston Marathon bombing. He's won Emmys for his Africa reporting and business stories. He's proud of winning an Edward R. Murrow Award for his coverage of the snipers in Washington, D.C. — street reporting that put him in the danger zone.

"I remember being afraid," he says.

For now, though, he's probably best known as an anchor who refuses to tiptoe around the president. In January 2018, when Trump called Haiti, El Salvador and African nations "shithole countries," Lemon began his newscast this way: "This is CNN Tonight. I'm Don Lemon. The president of the United States is racist."

"Finally, enough," Lemon says. "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2019

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