Earlier this year, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" ran a segment titled "CNN's Don Lemon appears to not care for CNN." The clip shows the Atlanta-based "CNN Newsroom" anchor, not an especially high-profile presence at the network, repeatedly going off-script live on the air. He condescends to a fluff piece about Harry Potter and laughingly complains about an overwritten bit concerning fictional superheroes, to which Stewart interjects, "That may be the nicest way I've ever heard anyone say, 'Who writes this shit?'" The segment's big punch line shows CNN morning anchor Ali Velshi staging some sort of parlor trick involving a broom, a silver platter, and an egg dropping from a toilet paper tube into a glass of water. The vibe is unflatteringly reminiscent of David Letterman's "Stupid Human Tricks." After the trick is executed, Velshi says, "Oh! I got to tell you, I like Don Lemon a lot. But he's going to have to work hard to top that. 'CNN Newsroom' begins right now with Don Lemon. Good morning, Don."
Lemon responds, "Good morning, I don't think I'm going to have to work that hard. What the heck was that?"
The thing is, though, that someone over at CNN is going to have to work very, very hard if they want to stop the decline the network has been experiencing for years. The 24-hour television news cycle CNN invented three decades ago has become overrun with unabashed partisan pandering from MSNBC and Fox. CNN has floundered, flailing around while ratings plummet — its prime-time viewership dropped 37 percent in 2010, the most of any news network. CNN might be the last guy in the TV room with any honest dedication to nonpartisan journalism, but that doesn't count for much when it's pushing fluff pieces like the ones Lemon mocked live on the air.
To hear Lemon go off-script is to hear what we're all thinking at home: "What the hell is going on with cable news?" The partisan networks don't ask questions, they just give the answers the viewers want to hear. CNN too often seems to think loud noises and cute moments are a good fit for the news. But cable news doesn't need another voice to yell over everyone else, it needs someone who can ask questions and be frank about the fact that the status quo is broken. Could Lemon be the guy to fix it?
Don Lemon is not quite ready. It's noon and the 45-year-old anchor is standing at the door of his Virginia-Highland home in pin-striped pajama pants and a loose white tee. In five hours, he will be wearing a designer suit and tie, his face airbrushed, looking into a camera and discussing the capture of Muammar Gaddafi's son live with an international correspondent reporting from Libya. He's not there yet.
"Ben is still here," he hollers as he walks down the hallway to his bathroom. "You can talk to him." Lemon is referring to Ben Tinker, a CNN producer he's been dating for a few years. Though his friends and co-workers were already well aware that Lemon is gay, he only came out publicly earlier this year, around the same time he published a memoir, Transparent.
The book isn't a trophy case of big catches, as some journalists' memoirs are, but something closer to a coming-of-age story. His childhood in Port Allen, La., in the late '60s and '70s was complicated. His father was married to a woman other than his mother and died when Lemon was 9. He was sexually abused by an older neighbor. He took some time coming to terms with his sexuality. In part, the point for Lemon in telling all of this is to explain that nothing good came of keeping secrets. He argues convincingly for transparency, in his life as well as his work.
Last year, while reporting on the scandal surrounding Bishop Eddie Long, an Atlanta-based Prosperity Gospel leader who was accused of child molestation, Lemon sat down with three young members of Long's church. After listening to Long's devotees defend his every action, he responded by saying, "What got my attention about this, and I've never admitted this on television, I was a victim of a pedophile when I was a kid." It was an unusually candid admission from an anchor, to say the least, but Lemon brought it up in a way that contributed to the conversation, to talk about the methods of an abuser. Rather than taking a judgmental stance on Long, Lemon was admitting perspective, saying, "This is where I'm coming from."
Transparent works to do exactly that, explain where Lemon is coming from as a reporter. He recalls dropping out of college to chase television news work in New York, hustling his way up from the bottom at a Fox affiliate while taking night classes, fighting for important stories as an anchor. He describes in detail his efforts to do serious HIV/AIDS coverage while an anchor at Chicago's NBC affiliate WMAQ and the continual rejection and disinterest in the story from management. Instead of giving up, he researched and personally funded a trip to four countries in Africa — Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, and Tanzania — where the epidemic was raging in 2005. The project was awarded two Emmys.