The Indefensible…

The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove makes a mealy mouthed defense of Don Lemon…

Don Lemon relentlessly courts controversy whether it’s his reporting from Ferguson, or driving around in his ‘Blizzardmobile.’ Is his natural home Fox News, rather than CNN?

This is a strawman issue. It isn’t about whether Don Lemon courts controversy or not. Most anchors will get embroiled in controversy at one point in their careers…some more than once. No, this is about whether Lemon is a loose cannon who shoots from the hip yet still manages to wing himself and whether the dubious spectacles he’s known for overshadow anything positive he does and all this reflects badly upon his network.

Last week Lemon rose above (or, many would say, dived below) the media morass by roving the barren, snow-dusted streets of Manhattan while anchoring his 10 p.m. weeknight show, CNN Tonight, in his “Blizzardmobile”—never mind that there was no blizzard in New York City, unless one counts the blizzard of ridicule heaped upon Lemon for his wacky stunt.

As far as Don’s “Lemon-isms” go, this one doesn’t even qualify. It was orchestrated by CNN’s producers, not Lemon. And Lemon wasn’t the only CNN reporter running around in a vehicle. But, even though it doesn’t apply, it got shoe-horned into an already established pattern; a pattern best characterized as “put brain into park, then act” which is what he is increasingly becoming typecast for.

Consider for a moment what has transpired for Lemon in less than a year:

– The MH 370 Black Hole gaffe
– The Ferguson “Marijuana in the air” non-sequitur
– The penis biting defense
– The rest of the interview the penis biting defense was a part of
– The tweeting of a selfie of a shot scar that had absolutely nothing to do with the Measles while calling it a Measles shot.

All of these things Grove argues make Lemon a cable news star, which I suppose is as much an indictment of cable news in Grove’s eyes as it is a selling point for Lemon (I’ll ignore Grove tossing a very backhanded compliment at FNC as a good destination for Lemon to fit in at). The cynic in me would agree on a certain rudimentary level but an overriding question lingers: is it in CNN’s best interest to let these oxygen sucking incidents continue to undermine whatever the network thinks it can get out of Lemon? My answer would be it is not and CNN needs to sit Lemon down and tell him to dial it back.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me if Lemon, as Rivera famously did, hosted something like a live program in which he opened Al Capone’s vault; of course, when Rivera attempted that trick in 1986, the vault was embarrassingly empty except for worthless flotsam and jetsam.

Like Rivera, who is proudly a member of two traditionally liberal minorities—Puerto Rican and Jewish—Lemon likes to spout counter-intuitively conservative beliefs with which even a white Mike Huckabee supporter might agree.

So I like to think of Lemon as Geraldo 2.0.

Rivera would be an “in the ballpark” analogy to Lemon in some ways but, and I’ve said this before, there is a more apt 1:1 analogy: Rick Sanchez.

Consider the Rick Sanchez M.O…

Brazen, center of the universe on air persona: check.
Injects himself into the interview: check.
Belief that whatever outrageous thing he does on TV is all good: check
Inability to fall on his sword when he screws up: check (*)
Gets into off-air disputes and then invites the combatant on air to hash it all out again: check
Uses himself as guinea pig for segments: check

* Sanchez did fall on his sword for the thing that got him bounced off CNN. But it was the exception and not the rule.

A lot these traits are shared with Rivera but Rivera has a well documented tendency to lash out viciously when he thinks he’s been victimized, whether said victimization is real or not, which is something neither Sanchez nor Lemon display. And that’s ulimately why I say Lemon is Sanchez 2.0 and not Rivera 2.0.

According to people who work with him, he has managed to avoid a diva-like reputation

I know a lot of people who have never met the guy and don’t know him personally who would say otherwise based solely on how Lemon has conducted himself on the air. You don’t have to be a diva in reality to still look like a diva on TV.

Yet he has a thick skin and, apparently, a self-deprecating sense of humor. After Jon Stewart skewered the Blizzardmobile—and suggested that if Lemon wasn’t careful, he’d end up toiling in a real Blizzardmobile, that is, a Dairy Queen truck—Lemon posted as his Facebook profile picture the Daily Show’s photo-shopped image of himself serving shakes and ice cream.

Another thing one would associate with Sanchez.

And he could comfort himself with the knowledge that his much-derided hour on the snowy streets of New York beat the competition in the all-important 25-54 demographic—including Fox News.

Not the best argument because at that hour CNN was providing the best coverage at the time, and would have whether the blizzardmobile was featured or not.

CNN needs to make up its mind. It has two Don Lemon’s to choose from…

On one hand we have Don Lemon, serious journalist. Yes, Don Lemon is indeed a serious journalist. Lemon has done some good reporting and interviewing in his time at CNN. He has brought up some important topics for discussion which one does not normally see discussed because they are such lightning rod 3rd rail issues.

On the other hand we have Don Lemon, self-caricature. This Lemon is the problem. This Lemon undermines the other one. This Lemon gives CNN a black eye and detracts from what its trying to accomplish. When your network works hard on a story and the big headline from said story is the latest gaffe your gaffe prone star made, you have a big optics problem.

However this Lemon has a co-conspirator; Jeff Zucker. After the cruise ship coverage controversy Zucker defended it, ostensibly because it got ratings and buzz. He kept sending Martin Savidge back into that damn simulator long past the point it was of much benefit in advancing the story narrative, ostensibly because it got ratings and buzz. That is Zucker’s mission; to get CNN ratings and buzz. He’s trying to right the ship out of the ratings basement and he’s succeeding at it, albeit because of an unintended and totally unexpected yet most welcome assist from Phil Griffin. Right now he’s not being very picky about how it gets those ratings and buzz. And this second Lemon has been allowed to continue on in CNN’s universe because of that when if you look at Lemon’s “greatest mishits” I outlined earlier, most network news Presidents would be dialing back his exposure level and telling him to think about the optics more.

But the second Lemon is eclipsing the first Lemon now. The cumulative effect of all these incidents piling up makes for a pretty convincing argument that Lemon is indeed a loose cannon at the network. And Zucker is going to have to do something if he wants to save the first Lemon…the one that benefits his network.


8 Responses to “The Indefensible…”

  1. I think Zucker may be quite pleased with Lemon’s new on air persona. His antics are not only garnering ratings but also media buzz and viewer discussion.

    People now tune in to see Lemon for the same reason they watch Cooper and Griffin New Years Eve show – the possibility Griffin could go off the rails and say something really stupid at any moment.

    I agree Lemon is a closer match to Sanchez than Geraldo and, in the last Free for All, I made the same comparison.

    Grove seemed to be wanting to draw FNC into the story for some reason which escapes me and Geraldo is just the best analogy at that network. He could just as easily used MSNBC examples like Scarborough or Sharpton.

    The other point I made in an earlier post, that is worth repeating here, was that the ‘Blizzardmobile’ stunt was really quite risky for CNN as if there was ever an accident and a civilian was killed or injured CNN would be in a world of trouble. Having a reporter stand on the beach in the early stages of a hurricane is one thing; they volunteered for the job. Endangering a non-employees by driving a vehicle in a in a blizzard, when doing so is prohibited, is just asking for trouble.

    If Zucker really wants to go down the ‘loose cannon’ route with Lemon I suggest he pair Lemon with Carol Costello and/or Kathy Griffin on a PT show and with a format similar to the ‘Jack*ss’ series.

  2. “Grove seemed to be wanting to draw FNC into the story for some reason……..”

    Ha, ha! Don’t people always want to draw FOX into the story? It makes whatever story they have to tell more about FOX than the real story because nut cases will say “but FOX did/said/showed, etc. in response to every point made.

  3. I agree that the the Don Lemon caricature is/has surpassed the Don Lemon journalist. And, I agree that CNN needs to do something about it. IMO, CNN is losing it’s brand as a news network. They’re the missing plane (or any other story of the day) network. Meaning, they beat these stories to death. To the point of the absurd.

  4. “Don’t people always want to draw FOX into the story?”

    fritz: I agree with just about everything you wrote. How bout that!

  5. When you look at Don on weekends compared to now, you will see that he has created a brand for himself and is drawing attention for CNN primetime. The only way he would get a promoted shot, which should’ve happened earlier was to push himself into the either and draw attention. He was a news anchor who pushed himself into a talking head hybrid to fill a piers void. If I was him I would do the same. His weekend 10PM was for a long time a great primetime show and his crew did a good job.

    Martin Savage has as well post PBS, turned to chasing sensational big stories to get air time and his due such as poop cruise etc when we all know he should’ve been an anchor in the old school right.

    I don’t like zucker, but the business model and brand model of CNN -which was started before Zucker showed up, is working and has been needed for a long time. The new shows not just pay the bills but support CNN’s brand of breaking/live news mixed in with long form stories and human culture. The opening of the 9PM hour to be adaptive to news cycles has been needed for a long time.

    News is human, and both 50/50 shows plus breaking news works together in reporting. With the internet, people know what’s going on, so the new business model for CNN is be the eyes and ears for people as a complementary to the internet.

    Now what Don Lemon does is make people think and care journalism good or bad, stunt or not. To think that that many people was watching snow coverage on a Sunday night to complain about a blizzard mobile by the millions via social media is powerful. The fact that everyone was asking for old school journalism, and no blizzard mobiles was great. How quickly they got him out of the suv to Columbus circle to quiet down the buzz shows CNN was listening to their audience. Everyone else can complain about CNN all they want, but their new brand is working. The wonder List with Bill Weir looks really promising and is going to be another brand builder. If a show is reporting on something and telling a story say better than 20/20, or lock up on msnbc, than it’s news. People need to get over it.

  6. Don Lemon can do all those things capricex mentioned without making an ass of himself on the air. Every one of the things he got beat up for was gratuitous to the story he was trying to tell. If they had never happened, it wouldn’t have altered the impact of the story.

    That’s what the Lemon-heads out there; my term for his ardent admirers, don’t get. He can be Don Lemon and do his thing and have it work without having to turn into Don Lemon embarrassing gaffe machine. He just needs to think a little more. He’s a man operating without an active internal barometer. It’s there. It just needs to be turned on.

  7. @spud, I agree but again, in 24 hours one hour, & personality is allowed to give CNN attention. Producers @cnn and execs are feeding the beast and their fine with it $. If Cooper is the constant and most viewed Lemon is the PR machine. Peirs was the PR machine until the gun direction narrative imploded on them. If I’m talking like this is a business and not about journalism, it’s because this is a business and no longer about journalism (Fox, MSNBC).

    Before Zucker joined CNN there was a couple of months where Lemon on his weekend show became kind of a voice for how cable news blows and made fun of CNN, which was picked up and amplified by Jon Stewart. It looked like he was setting a stick up for being a voice of reason or CNN’s conscious. That lasted a couple of months but had no legs. Then Zucker comes in and he gets a try weekdays and negates on the stick going 360 to build a brand and secure the slot, which he did. Again, any on air anchor would do the same given the prime slot. I mean look at Fox and MSNBC -millions of dollars will make you spew anything.

    I think that some CNN producers might be injecting certain elements into the cause of keeping him in the pr machine mode which is supported by the brass. For hours CNN had an SUV driving around, and it wasn’t called a blizzard mobile until his hour of anchoring. That’s more of a producer call and my point is that I don’t think anyone cares to reel it in if it’s bringing attention to the network. I also think that there’s a lot of people out there that clearly love the brand and bloggers who have been wanting to “fix” cnn for years. That brand equity you can’t put money on. So I agree with you on the journalism point, but this is a business and the old cable news model has been dead for years now.

    I would love to have 10 cable news channels that are like 24 hours of PBS’s newshour, but that ship has sailed.

  8. […] It has been such a long time since I had last been forced to write about Don Lemon and his self-inflicted wounds. More than a year at least. I had begun to think our boy Don had turned a corner from having the reputation of being a media joke to someone who at least learned not to make brain dead ebarrassing mistakes on a regular basis. […]

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