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Can Don Lemon set CNN straight?

Cable news is broken and the 'CNN Newsroom' anchor could be the guy to fix it



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While Lemon gets dressed, Tinker hangs around in the living room for a few minutes, chatting about his recent move to Atlanta from New York. Art of all sorts — paintings, photographs, collages — adorns the walls. A beautiful Thornton Dial monograph sits prominently on the coffee table. Tinker is friendly, sweet even, but not very interested in being interviewed. In an industry like television, where one is either in front of the camera or behind it, Tinker clearly prefers the latter. Lemon, arriving back in the living room, is obviously the former.

He's now wearing a pressed white shirt open at the collar and tucked into slacks with black, sharp-looking shoes. He has a full, masculine build and a commanding presence that puts one in mind of a politician. In person, his smooth, cream-in-coffee complexion looks as flawless at home as it does under layers of television makeup. His smile is striking. It is not an overstatement to say that his clear eyes literally glitter in the sunlight.

Lemon wants to get lunch at his favorite neighborhood spot, Murphy's, and as he walks in the door the valet guy, someone leaving with a to-go box, the bartender, they all eagerly say, "Hey, Don." He chats warmly with each and then looks aside to say, "Sometimes I feel like the mayor."

Sitting at the bar with a cup of decaf tea, Lemon reiterates twice, "You can ask me anything. Really." That attitude clearly shapes his presence as an anchor. "I just want to be me," he says. "I want to be the person who goes, 'What the hell?' or 'That's really funny,' or 'Sorry, I screwed that up.' I don't want to be perfect. I want to be real."

"In general, when I watch cable news during the day, it's frustrating because it reminds me of a game show. If I want to watch 'The Price is Right,' I'll watch 'The Price is Right.' I'm not consciously thinking that when I'm on the air, but that's just my personality. To be like, 'Are we really doing this?'"

Lemon talks at length about his frustration with gimmicks, the flashy sound effects that sound like outtakes from an action movie, the quizzes meant to keep viewers watching over a commercial break ("If I really want to know the answer I'll just Google it," he says), and the way those ploys work to dumb down the audience and lose more in long-term credibility and viewership than any temporary gain. "I think you can have fun on TV, but you should pick your moments. It should be natural. You shouldn't build in 'Oh, this is our cutesy moment of the day!'"

Lemon is always on his iPhone, constantly checking Twitter and Facebook and talking back to viewers, even during live commercial breaks. "I think everyone [in news media] has whiplash, trying to figure out what to do, how to keep an audience, how to keep viewers or gain viewers where there are tons more choices now and not just in cable but with the Internet, social media, all of that."

He's also eager to say that television can do something his phone can't: "You have to have a personality, someone who is engaging, in order to pull people in. You're drawn in by a human, by someone who you relate to or a personality you like, because otherwise you may as well just go on your iPad."

Cable networks are already well aware of this. The openly partisan networks put in an anchor that speaks to a specific political demographic, a Rachel Maddow liberal or a Sean Hannity conservative, and pander directly to the audience they court. That task is more complicated for CNN, which has, to its credit, resisted relying on partisan programming.

When asked what typecast role CNN intends for him to play, what type of anchor he's expected to be, Lemon pauses. He winces. "I think they want me to be the good-looking black guy. That's what I think. I don't know." He talks about not knowing how his book might affect his career, how coming out and being critical could play into that. At one point he says, "I don't know what will happen when my contract comes up." He thinks about it for a minute and says, "People want to have a box to put you in and I don't fit in anyone's box."

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