Photos: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
Don Lemon loves the moment — in all its complexity. The CNN anchor has been hate-tweeted from both sides of the color line, mocked by Dave Chappelle and slammed by Donald Trump. He’s admonished Black boys for sagging their pants, and issued an on-air smackdown to actor Terry Crews in defense of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The rare Black journalist to anchor a prime-time news show, Lemon backs up his chippiness with chops, refusing to suffer fools or sycophants. When former Ohio Gov. John Kasich praised the tone of a recent Trump speech about coronavirus, Lemon pressed him in a heated exchange: “You think inaccurate information — where you have to clarify three or four times — you think that’s fine?” Kasich was visibly flustered; Lemon kept his foot on the gas, running laps around the former governor until the commercial break.
After a childhood spent in Baton Rouge, Lemon cut his teeth on air in Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago before signing with CNN in 2006 as a correspondent. Now, at 54, the veteran enjoys the namesake status of his own show. The long road to CNN Tonight with Don Lemon didn’t run level or smooth, though; he’s no stranger to moments like asking a guest if a missing Malaysian Airlines flight might have been swallowed by a black hole (though that question was prompted by a tweet), and CNN’s annual New Year’s Eve broadcast sees him regularly lay waste to professional decorum. (On the eve of 2016, the year Donald Trump became president, he took tequila shots, declared he was “lit,” and had to be talked out of getting his nipple pierced live on air. This past December 31, he was at it again.)
“I try not to think about something that happened that was seven years ago. So something that I said, I think, is a little bit beyond discussing; I can’t even remember what I had for dinner last night.”
Yet, while his NYE shenanigans have endeared him to revelers who appreciate his one night of devil-may-care antics, that’s just one night in Lemon’s otherwise straitlaced world. When Lemon, who splits his time between Harlem and Long Island, checks in with LEVEL on Zoom, he looks exactly the way he does on television: unbothered, unflappable, and ready for debate. In a moment when Black lives are the focal point of a long-overdue reckoning in this country, he speaks on his fear for his safety, why it’s so hard to knock him off his pivot, and how it’s been a minute since he’s had to throw his hands — but he can and he will.
Level: Let’s just get right to it. Donald Trump, the President of the United States, once called you the dumbest man on TV. How do you even react to that?
Don Lemon: He is projecting. I don’t really care.
But he is the president of the United States.
I don’t even follow him on Twitter.
Don’t you have to follow him to stay informed?
No one cares. They don’t even ask me about it. And that shows you his limited reach and effect when it comes to criticizing people. The president of the United States can say something about you and no one reacts.
What about fear for your own safety? He has followers and his words do matter to many.
I don’t really like to talk about that, but that is a real fear and a real issue. Journalists are under attack — not necessarily on the traditional battlefield in a war, but on this battlefield in the United States with the president calling us the enemy of the people and inciting his supporters to say bad things about us and feel a certain way about us. And in many ways, he may be igniting some action with them. So we do have to be concerned about that. I am concerned and I take precautions. That’s all I’ll say about that.
The Trump presidency clearly has every newsperson working overtime. But when you look back over your career, outside of that, what’s the most important story you’ve covered personally?
All stories are important to me. George Floyd was important to me personally. The Charleston [church] shooting was important to me personally. The inauguration of Barack Obama was important to me personally. Those things really resonated with me because they hit me where I come from. And also important to me personally was covering the passage of same-sex marriage. That was important because I finally felt like, Okay, we’re getting to equality. We’re working towards this in a meaningful way.
You came out in 2011. What was the most surprising thing about coming out as a gay man in the public eye?
I got more support than I thought. And there were people who didn’t say anything publicly, but privately [showed support]. I do think it exposed me to a different level of criticism. If you look at social media comments and listen to what people say about me, a lot of that is rooted in homophobia and racism.
How does homophobia and racism appear in your timeline?
People make snarky comments about sexuality, snarky comments about being Black and all sorts of things. I don’t like it but it is what it is. And even from Black folk, even from Black folk!
Black people, particularly church-going Black people, have been known to attempt to pray the gay away. How has the church treated you?
For the most part, I cannot complain about the support that I’ve gotten from Black folks, from gay people, from all people. The more you get from your critics who are actually harsh on you is a sign of how big your voice is. So I take all comers. Seriously.
So what does it take to offend you?
It is so hard to offend me. Sometimes I wonder if there’s something wrong with me because I’m not moved. And I don’t read the criticism about me.
You really don’t sneak a peek at what people are saying about you?
My people are more concerned about it than me.
But do you care?
I have a show that’s on CNN every night. If I have an issue with something, I am free to respond to it there or not. And most of the time I choose not to.
Lester Holt is the first African-American to anchor a nightly network newscast. And he’s respected in the field. Are there similarities between the two of you?
I am a news anchor, but I don’t do what Lester Holt does. This isn’t a criticism, just trying to show you the difference. I love and respect Lester. We’re both news anchors, but our jobs are different. Lester does a straight newscast every night. I do two hours of mostly just talking to people about the news. Some people are not going to like what I have to say. If I was just sitting there every night, tossing to reporters and packaged stories and then saying good night at the end, there would not be this criticism of me. There would not be so much fodder and people talking about me all the time.
But you appreciate it.
I wouldn’t have an opportunity to have these passionate moments with people. I welcome those passionate moments.
Throughout your career, you’ve covered police brutality and the Black community. What have been your own interactions with police?
Well, I’ve never been brutalized by police. I have had some interesting interactions including a time when an officer threw me up against the car when I first moved to Chicago.
Let me guess: You fit a description?
It was a parking spot [situation]. I was in my car waiting on a parking spot and he wanted to get by. He ended up pulling me out of the car. I said, “I’ve never been treated like this by a police officer.” And he said, “Welcome to Chicago.”
Considering how wrong these things can go, seems like you’ve managed to avoid the worst of it.
Police officers don’t like it when you ask them why they’re pulling you over. Whenever I’ve said, “Hello, officer, can you please tell me why you’re pulling me over?” they look at me like, “whoa, why are you asking me that?” And I say, “Because I can. And because you should tell me why you’re pulling me over.” But my interactions with police, especially lately, have been fairly positive. I figure it’s because they go, “Oh, that’s the guy on CNN.”
During the looting and protests that followed George Floyd’s death, you name-checked folks like Oprah, Jay-Z, Drake, and Ellen Degeneres as the kind of celebrities you wanted to see speaking up. Were you speaking directly to those people or just using their names as an example? What did you want them to do?
I just said it was strangely quiet because we hadn’t heard much from people. And people were telling me that they couldn’t [speak up] because they were worried about backlash [and other excuses]. I wasn’t calling out people to embarrass them. I was calling the names of people I know because I respected them. And I think that the kids on the front lines who were out there fighting needed everyone to know that they had support. It wasn’t a negative thing.
As you know by now, Dave Chappelle responded to your call to action in his recent comedy special 8:46. He sarcastically called you a “hotbed of reality” and said he was “screaming at the TV,” daring you to say his name. Have you spoken to him about any of that?
No, but I talked about that on CNN. I have nothing against Dave Chappelle. He’s free to criticize me. I think he’s a great comedian. He’s actually my favorite comedian. And in most ways, we agree with each other. I’ve spoken to his people; we’re going to get together and try to figure something out. There’s no animosity, no negativity between Dave Chappelle and me. I think he is very bright, very smart, and very socially aware and active. And I commend him for that.
In 2013, you took all kinds of flack for your five-point prescription for the black community. You said Black men must stop sagging their pants. Black people need to finish school and stop having babies out of wedlock. When you look back at those comments, do you regret them?
I try not to think about something that happened that was seven years ago. So something that I said, I think, is a little bit beyond discussing; I can’t even remember what I had for dinner last night.
This is the type of thing that sticks around seven years later.
But just because I said that seven years ago, I don’t think it’s inconsistent with how I feel now. And also, I think in seven years, people grow and evolve. I’m sure you have, What were you doing seven years ago?
Me? I really don’t know. But I’m asking if you still agree with your previous comments, because I think people have formed an opinion of you based off that outlook.
It’s not that I’ve changed how I feel about that. And it’s not that I think what I said was bad and it’s not that I was talking to everyone in the community. If you actually go back and look at what I said and think about it, it’s not so bad. People don’t want to hear things all the time. As a journalist, that’s what I do. And you take the good and you take the bad and you take them both, whatever-whatever, the facts of life. [Laughs]
“People talk about being a Christian and that sort of thing, but they don’t always live it. I don’t feel the need to get revenge on anyone or to get something out of someone who did something bad or made a mistake. That’s fine if you want to do it, I just figured out for me, the best thing to get out of that experience was how I elevate myself.”
Does anyone at home or in your personal life disagree with you or even attempt to check you when you make statements that become controversial?
Yeah. Everybody! People like you. [Laughs]
I mean somebody like your mom, for example. You have a really close relationship with her. Does she ever come at you and say, “What were you thinking here, baby?”
Yes. But those people know me personally, they know my heart. They know where I’m coming from and they know where I’ve come from. I’ve been doing this since the early ’90s. I think about the world and about the way things work. Most of the things that I say on television, people who are close to me and the people who are not so close to me in my life will say, “Good. People don’t want to hear it, but you ain’t wrong.”
What about the other people?
They think it’s only something that you should be able to share at the kitchen table. And I understand, trust me. The Right will take it and use it as some sort of talking point. So I have to be aware of that. And I’m more aware of that maybe now than I was then. But for the most part, people on the street, when they see me, they’ll be like, “Hey go on Don Lemon, keep saying it.” But in the internet echo chamber of people who only agree with each other — and if you don’t, they get mad at you — then you have what you have: You have people asking me questions about something that happened seven years ago. [Laughs]
Even further back, when you covered the story of Bishop Eddie Long, who was accused of molesting several boys from his church, you revealed that you had been molested as a young boy. Why did you choose that time to share that personal information?
I had some of his church members on [the show]. They said they knew that he was not an abuser because they knew him and he didn’t look like an abuser. And I just said, well, people weren’t always who they present themselves to be in public. I’m not saying that he is, or he isn’t, but people don’t walk around with a scarlet letter on their forehead telling you.
And then you talked about your own experiences, creating a memorable TV moment in the process.
Yes. And my mom said she nearly fell off the couch. My mom said she had to go outside and smoke a cigarette. [Laughs] I didn’t even think about it. I said, “I’ve been in this situation before.” If you see the clip, you can hear them gasp. And I just started talking. I’m like, Oh, did I just say that? And, um, I did. And then I thought like, Oh my gosh, this is it. My career is over. But again, people ended up being very supportive and telling me their stories as well.
Have you ever confronted your abuser?
No. No, no. Why am I going to do that? I don’t want to go back there. I don’t want revenge. I think people have to do what they have to do. I don’t live my life that kind of way. People talk about being a Christian and that sort of thing, but they don’t always live it. I don’t feel the need to get revenge on anyone or to get something out of someone who did something bad or made a mistake. That’s fine if you want to do it, I just figured out for me, the best thing to get out of that experience was how I elevate myself. And to take care of me.
How have you found taking care of yourself and work during Covid-19 isolation?
I am the only one on my team who’s in the building. I don’t see anybody. I don’t see my producers. They’re all remote in my ear or I talk to them via email or text. I haven’t seen my family since the beginning of the year. And haven’t seen my mom since January; I try to FaceTime her every week. It’s just been tough — and I’m actually working harder now than I did before corona.
On top of your regular on-air duties, you started a new podcast, Silence Is Not An Option. Has the pandemic given you more time to fill with more work?
It is because of Covid, but it’s also because of race and it’s because of George Floyd. I’ve been wanting to do a podcast for a long time. I’d present it to CNN and to other folks and they would say, “Nah, I’m not sure what you’d get out of a podcast. You have a much bigger platform.” After George Floyd happened I wanted to have the conversations about race we were having in this country, on a deeper level. So I was in the process of writing [CNN’s] head of digital an email saying, “Hey, I think we should try this podcast thing now” — and when I opened my email up, there was an email from him saying, “Why don’t we try this podcast thing?” So it was kind of serendipity, and the timing worked out. I get to spend a longer period of time fleshing out the issues that I want to discuss, especially when it comes to race and being Black in America.
You and your fellow CNN anchors Anderson Cooper and Chris Cuomo seem like old friends…
I don’t like either of them. [Laughs]
Is there any secret competition between you all at the network?
There’s competition, but it’s not a secret. Everybody is competitive. Everyone wants to put on a good show. Everyone wants the best show and the big story, and everyone wants to be first, but more than first, we want to be accurate and everyone wants to have the higher ratings. I mean, there’s competition amongst siblings. Right. Do you have sisters and brothers? Were you guys competitive? Are they competitive? Do they love each other? Of course.
Were you always a competitor? When you were in high school, did you have a sport?
I wasn’t a competitive team-sport athlete, but I was always a great swimmer, played a little bit of tennis, not a lot. I was always a good runner, that sort of thing. I wasn’t a team sports kind of guy, but I was always smart — but more than smart, I was clever. I always wanted to work and I always wanted to look good and I always wanted to sound good.
Sound good? What does that mean?
Well, I loved the English language, I loved dissecting sentences. I love the way good grammar sounds in my ear. That’s the kind of kid that I was, but I was also kind of a mama’s boy. My sister will tell you now, “Man, that Don was always the same thing. He was always curious about something, always trying to educate people about something, always trying to find out the facts about something.”
And eventually, that person can end up…
… pissing a lot of people off when they didn’t like to hear what I have to say — and then, ultimately, I end up being right. I’m always more right than wrong. If I’m wrong, I’ll tell you. But I’m always more right than wrong.
When was the last time you’ve been in a fistfight?
The last time I threw hands? It’s been a while. I can’t do that now because I get in a fistfight and people want to sue me for everything. If you go into a bar and get into a fistfight, they break it up. Even if you have to go to court or whatever, it’s no big deal. But for me, it’s a whole lot of things. I’m in the paper and I may not have a job. So I try not to throw hands, but it’s always right there. I used to fight all the time when I was a kid.
So you were like a little Deebo?
I used to look out for my sisters and my little cousin. I went to Catholic school and a lot of my friends where I live went to public schools. They used to underestimate me. But I used to throw hands a lot. Remember the windmill? [Laughs]
Are there any stories that you were told you couldn’t do on the network?
No. It’s a collaborative effort. I go back and forth with producers and bosses. But I have the most editorial freedom of anyone in the network, considering the time of night and the kind of person that I am.
What do you mean, the kind of person you are?
I put it out there. It’s not like I’m any different on the air than I am off the air. And the reason you’re asking me about all these things that I said is that I don’t really have a filter. I’m not trying to pretend to be somebody I’m not. And I do know that without fear, knowing that people are not going to agree with me, knowing that I’m going to get criticized, knowing that I’m going to be trending, knowing people are going to be calling me names. I’m not afraid of that. That’s been one of the biggest contributors to my success. People love it and they hate it at the same time because there’s passion on both sides. And sometimes you watch people you hate more than you watch people you love when it comes to television, right?