Vanity Fair’s Taffy Brodesser-Akner profiles Don Lemon…
Here was his chance. Each night, he hosted a panel of aviation experts and theorists and gave updates on searches, but soon the searches were over, and so the updates gave way to just talking, and the hour became the sort of hour at which CNN specializes: long conversations that took the place of actual news, of which there was usually none. From a pure ratings perspective, it was a smart bet. Lemon immediately began crushing poor Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC (still does) and even regularly held his own against Sean Hannity (ditto).
I wonder if anyone from FNC raised an eyebrow reading that last sentence?
Lemon has spent a lifetime so far out of sync with people’s expectations of him that he seems unconcerned with them, sometimes even oblivious to them: of how a black man should act, how a gay man should act, how a survivor of sex abuse should act. All this—high school, the black box—made him into the man he is today. Someone who has learned that there are no guidebooks for a man as ambitious as he is, and who has no fucks left to give about what anyone thinks of him.
“Let me put it this way,” says Jeff Zucker. “There’s certainly a lot of interest in Don Lemon, and that’s a good thing for Don and for CNN. You know, Don is a little bit of a lightning rod. Frankly, we needed a little bit of lightning.”
This is what has bugged me about CNN under Zucker…the notion that any publicity, even if it’s self-destructive, is a good thing. Moreover, it raises a question:
At what point does that lightning rod stop being a “free publicity benefit” and starts being an albatross that needlessly detracts from the news brand CNN wants to ultimately keep fruitfully cultivating?
Lemon’s executive producer, Jonathan Wald, told me that “none of the alleged dings at Don’s performance have hurt his credibility or his appeal.” Lemon’s gift, Wald says, is “having a conversation, and that’s really the guts of this show.” It’s the mantra of all of CNN: Keep going, keep talking. People don’t walk out on conversations.
Spoken like an insider who dines on their own dogfood. You dine on it long enough, you eventually lose sight that it’s dogfood you’re eating. I will stipulate that not all of the knocks on Lemon were justified. But the operative words there are “not all”. Some did connect. And for some, and I readily admit to being one, it did hurt his credibility.
I went and watched those clips again, and it turns out none of them are quite as dumb as advertised. The black-hole question wasn’t actually Lemon’s question; it was submitted by a viewer over Twitter, and he passed it along to an expert, calling it “preposterous.”
This ignores the elephant in the room. That Lemon labeled it as preposterous isn’t the out the article’s author makes it out to be. The central issue always was that the question was even asked in the first place. It made it all the way through, past the production staff, past Lemon, and out over the air. It was a network wide failure of gallingly huge proportions.
Anchors are the last gatekeepers between the network machine and the broadcast air. It is up to them to ensure the preposterous questions that, through some inexcusable decision making behind the scenes, make it to the anchor’s desk get stopped cold. Lemon didn’t do that. He should have. So his judgement deservedly gets called into question for that failure.
When I ask Lemon about his interview with the alleged Cosby victim and why he asked about the “usage of the teeth,” he gives me a long answer about how the incident started a conversation about sex abuse. But it didn’t do that, I tell him—it started a conversation about people who say the wrong thing to victims of sexual abuse. And shouldn’t he have known better? After all, he was a victim, too. He smiles and shrugs and eats his food. Later, after dessert, I ask him again, and finally I get the real answer: Lemon tells me that when he was a child and was being forced to perform oral sex on his abuser, he told that fucker that the next time, he’d bite his dick off, and that’s when Don Lemon stopped getting molested.
I’m not going to second guess Lemon’s decision making here. It would be wrong. I didn’t like the question and I didn’t like the subject matter and I didn’t like the timing. But I do appreciate Lemon’s reasoning at arriving at the decision he arrived at even though I disagree with the outcome.
There’s a thing we do now in the digital age where once we turn on someone, we find fault in everything they do, and in Don Lemon’s case it seems to come from a less noble place than his not insignificant imperfections. Sure, he’s said some dopey things, but lots of cable-news anchors say lots of dopey things. Why him?
The answer is a two parter. First, not all dopey things are created equal. Some are more toxic to a network than others which happen, get talked about for a day or two, and then fade into the recesses of history to be forgotten. Lemon has unfortunately been the victim of too many of the former and not enough of the latter. Not all of them were his fault and those that weren’t shouldn’t be held against him in my opinion.
Second, while all anchors may say dopey things…it is the repetition of dopey incidents that ultimately decides whether an anchor gets more attention or not. Sure, for some people, particularly those who have their own agendas to grind on…and I’m speaking of the ideologically inclined here, one or two dopey incidents are enough. But for the disinterested news junkies and the media writing corps in general it takes a continuing series of dopey incidents…a series such as has befallen Lemon. Or Rick Sanchez before him.
We turn on who we turn on, I guess, and we delight in other people’s mistakes, all the more so when there doesn’t appear to be much contrition or self-awareness about their impact. And anyway, no one is perfect.
Well I can’t speak for anyone other than myself but I don’t “delight” in Lemon’s mistakes. I want CNN to be known for the news it delivers not for the antics or mishaps of its talent. I do think that the author makes a very key point here though. It’s the lack of contrition or self awareness about their impact that is the key issue, at least for me.
Nobody’s perfect but we want our anchors self-aware of the mistakes they do make and to give an indication that a better course of action may have existed and that they’ll strive to do better. When that isn’t communicated to the viewer, some will naturally dismiss whatever the anchor tries to do because the viewer loses faith. That’s where I am.