The host of “CNN Tonight” had a cryptic message for viewers just before he signed off from his May 14, 2021 broadcast.
“This is the last night [of] ‘CNN Tonight With Don Lemon,’ anchor Don Lemon announced. “It’s been really, really great … but changes are coming, and I will fill you in.”
The comments sparked a frenzy on social media. Was Lemon, one of the cable news network’s biggest stars, saying goodbye? Was he going to one of its competitors?
The hubbub became so frantic that Lemon took to Twitter to defuse the situation, tweeting that he was not leaving CNN, just starting a new phase of his career. His prime-time show would be rebranded with a new title, “Don Lemon Tonight,” and strike a more informal tone. He would often forgo wearing a tie and take a more casual approach in interviews.
He flashed his megawatt smile a few days later on May 17, when he appeared in his usual time slot. “Without any further ado, this is ‘Don Lemon Tonight,’” he said. “Has a ring to it, doesn’t it?”
But that dulcet sound is no more. Lemon’s unceremonious exit from CNN on Monday, just hours after his shift as co-anchor of “CNN This Morning,” is the culmination of his remarkably swift fall from grace at the company, where only two years ago his name alone was seen as enough to carry the network’s nightly flagship.
“I am stunned,” Lemon tweeted in response to the news, adding that he had been informed of his ouster by his agent. “After 17 years at CNN I would have thought that someone in management would have had the decency to tell me directly.” (The network took exception to Lemon’s characterization of his departure, calling it “inaccurate.” “[Lemon] was offered an opportunity to meet with management but instead released a statement on Twitter,” the network said in a statement posted online.)
With his good looks, smooth voice and authoritative news delivery, both behind the anchor desk and in the field, Lemon had risen from correspondent to one of the network’s top personalities since joining CNN in 2006. Often sent to explosive hot spots domestically and internationally, Lemon — CNN’s only Black news anchor — was also comfortable sharing intimate details of his personal life, and had celebrity status within the Black creative community in Hollywood.
In recent years, though, the anchor appeared to squander his capital at CNN through a series of public missteps. Instead of covering the news, Lemon became the news, engaging in heated on-air clashes with his “CNN This Morning” co-hosts Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins and sparking controversy with inflammatory statements about women’s soccer and GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley.
There were also questions about Lemon’s journalistic judgment. During Jussie Smollett’s 2021-22 trial for making a false police report about an attack in Chicago, the former “Empire” star testified that he discovered police did not believe his story when he received a text from Lemon that he was being investigated. Lemon drew heavy criticism for covering the story without disclosing that he and Smollett were friends.
These dust-ups took place against a backdrop of broader tumult at the network. CNN lost veteran leader Jeff Zucker in February 2022, when he resigned over failing to disclose a relationship with his chief marketing officer. That April, CNN shuttered its dedicated streaming service, CNN+, shortly after its debut. And top management at new parent company Warner Bros. Discovery was open about its displeasure with the network’s political leanings, telegraphing a move to the center.
Such problems make a stark contrast with Lemon’s prime-time peak, during which the star never looked less than comfortable. Lemon regularly and candidly addressed racial issues, and through his “Don’s Take” segment took aim at “racist, white supremacist cowards” and President Trump. He once said Trump sent “armies of bigots to threaten my life.”
Nor did Lemon hold back from being emotional, even personal, on air. He choked up and sang along with a song by Aretha Franklin when he announced the death of the Queen of Soul. He spoke of being devastated when his sister suddenly passed. He bragged often about his fiancé, Tim Malone. And he spoke about the difficulties of reporting on sexual assault, detailing how he was abused at a young age.
His lighter side was also frequently on display, particularly during his banter with former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, whose show was the lead-in for Lemon’s. The two would tease and argue with each other for several minutes, and their chemistry was so electric that they developed a podcast inspired by it called “The Handoff.” “I love you, D. Lemon,” Cuomo would say. (Cuomo was fired from CNN in 2021 after it was revealed that he was involved in the public-relations management of a sexual harassment scandal that forced his brother Andrew to resign as governor of New York).
Lemon did not share the same rapport with Harlow and Collins when he joined them on the “CNN This Morning” desk last November, a move seen as a step down for the newsman, who was leaving a platform with his name. Perhaps as a result, the morning show, one of the network’s first major initiatives under Chief Executive Chris Licht has been a ratings disappointment, attracting the smallest viewership of any program on the three major cable news networks. (By contrast, in the first quarter of 2021, “CNN Tonight” was the most-watched program at 10 p.m. among viewers aged 25 and 54, an audience coveted by advertisers.)
At times, the conversation could grow tense. During a discussion about women’s soccer in December, for instance, Lemon said that men’s soccer was “more interesting to watch … The men’s team makes more money. If they make more money, then they should get more money. The men’s team makes more money because people are more interested in the men.”
Harlow pushed back, telling Lemon she had a “big issue” with his comments and that men’s teams make more money because they draw advertisers.
A bigger firestorm erupted Feb. 16 when the hosts discussed Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s call for mental competency tests for politicians over 75 and term limits in Congress. Lemon suggested that Haley, 51, was no longer “in her prime.” He added, “A woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s, maybe 40s,” and cited apparent Google searches to defend his stance.
Harlow, and later commentator Audie Cornish, both pushed back at Lemon’s remarks. They said the “prime” Lemon was referring to was a woman’s reproductive years and that Haley was referring to one’s political prime and mental capacity.
“Are you talking about prime for child-bearing, or prime for being president?” Harlow responded.
Liberals and conservatives alike weighed in with criticism of Lemon’s comments. Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, responded to Lemon on Twitter and made an appearance on Fox News, calling him and his comments “sexist.”
“Look, he made that comment, I wasn’t sitting there saying sexist, middle-aged CNN anchors need to have mental competency tests, although he may have just proven that point,” Haley said.
Lemon later apologized on Twitter, saying his words were “inartful and irrelevant, as colleagues and loved ones have pointed out, and I regret it.” He also apologized to his colleagues, saying “I believe that women of any age … can do whatever they set their minds to. The people I am closest to in this organization are women. The people I seek counsel from most in this organization are women.”
He was absent from the next three broadcasts of “CNN This Morning.” Licht told staffers that Lemon had agreed to undergo training after a “frank and meaningful conversation” and would soon be returning as co-host, adding, “We take this situation very seriously.”
But Lemon’s troubles did not end when he returned to air. Earlier this month, he was the target of a scathing story in Variety that alleged Lemon has a history of misogynistic actions and “diva-like behavior.” The piece contained accounts from more than a dozen former and current colleagues who “painted a picture of a journalist who flouted rules and cozied up to power all while displaying open hostility to many female co-workers.”
The report also alleged that the 57-year-old newsman, who has survived CNN’s regime changes, repeatedly charmed his way “out of facing any meaningful consequences.”
Lemon was angered by the story, calling the claims “patently false anecdotes.”
He got more attention a few weeks ago after engaging in a highly contentious argument with GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. Harlow sat by silently as the two men talked over each other. At one point, Lemon said, “You’re sitting here, whatever ethnicity you are, explaining to me about what it’s like to be Black in America. Sorry.” (Ramaswamy is Indian American.)
The specific reasons for Lemon’s firing have not yet come to light, but given the host’s track record, he is not likely to remain quiet for long. In a Monday tweet about his firing, he said, “It is clear that there are bigger issues at play.”
In the meantime, the network has already lined up two new Black stars for its prime-time firmament, announcing over the weekend the forthcoming “King Charles,” a new weekly show set to premiere this fall featuring “CBS This Morning” host Gayle King and former basketball star Charles Barkley.
For his part, Lemon seems to have been aware of the microscope he was under. “I know I was not always perfect. No one is perfect,” the host said in his final episode of “Don Lemon Tonight,” acknowledging that the move to mornings was bittersweet. “There is immense pressure that comes with this job and, in particular, this time slot.”