FPR Interviews – CNN Anchor Don Lemon

In a systemically polarized country plagued by an agenda-motivated media, Don Lemon sets the standard for what could be – and what may be – the closest example of objective journalism in America. The 47-year old news anchor began working for CNN in 2006 and he currently hosts the weekend prime-time edition of “Newsroom.”

Photo from Don Lemon.
Photo from Don Lemon.

Before becoming an anchor for CNN, Mr. Lemon was a correspondent for Today and NBC Nightly News, as well as an anchor on both Weekend Today and MSNBC. Some of his achievements include winning an Emmy for his coverage of real estate in Chicagoland and his being named one of the top 150 most influential black individuals in America by Ebony Magazine. Mr. Lemon currently writes editorials for Tom Joyner Morning Show and Black America Web. His impressive resume has elevated his honest point-of-view to one of the most respected in the world of punditry.

Mr. Lemon sat down with us to discuss his background in journalism, the metamorphosis of media, the evolving role of news anchors and the importance of perseverance for college students.

It is well documented that you majored in journalism in college at Brooklyn College and LSU; however, when do you feel was the moment where you knew that you wanted to pursue a career in journalism?

I think I always knew in the back of my head because, as a kid, I was always curious. I would ask people a lot of questions, even people I didn’t know. I talk about this in my book, Transparent. I knew what I wanted to do when I saw this woman who was a local news personality on television who reminded me of my family. I remember saying to myself, “I want to do what she does.” From that moment on – I think I was in high school or college – I never looked back.

So, there was never even a moment where you felt as though maybe another path would better suit you?

I never had many other passions. When I told people what I wanted to do, they would say, “You’re not going to make any money doing that.” So, I thought for a while about going into Pre-Law or something like that. Then I thought about doing Economics because I wanted to make money. But then I just realized, in the first semester, I really hated this, so I started taking journalism classes and that was it. I knew what I wanted to do before, but I just had people telling me other things. But, it doesn’t matter if you’re poor or rich; you have to do what you love. You have to get up every morning and get to work or do whatever it is that you do.

Looking at what you do today, was this what you wanted to do from the beginning, or did your prospects change as your career progressed?

It’s pretty close. I always thought that when I grew up and started wanting to do this. I used to record the Today Show and I would record with a really old DVR the evening news on ABC with Peter Jennings. I would just imitate them into a tape recorder. And then when I got old enough and I got one of those big Panasonic VHS recorders, I would put my own shows together by mimicking that and the Today Show. And then I would sit there and say, “The President is here etc. etc… This is Friday June the 26th 1987. This is Today.” That’s how I started. Then they would go into commercial break, and they would say, “We’re going to be back with some story and your local weather but first this is Today on NBC.” That’s what I would do as a kid.

Photo by Don Lemon/Instagram.
Photo by Don Lemon/Instagram.

In 2011, you released your memoir, Transparent which must have been, at the very least, a very anxious moment in your life. Was sharing such intimate details about your personal life and obstacles early in your childhood a liberating feeling or did you ever doubt your choice in releasing the book fearing the public’s reaction?

Let’s see, it was 2011, and I started writing it in 2010, so yeah it was 2010. And, I didn’t plan on giving such personal details. It was supposed to be more of a not self-help, but motivational book I should say. You know, “You too could do it,” “You can make it,” “You can do what you want,” and I started writing it and I said, “Gosh do you really need another book like this?” So I took it to a publisher and said, “You know, I’m not really crazy about what I’m writing.” So the publisher sent one of the editors down and we sat in my kitchen in Atlanta, and we just started talking. We sat at my kitchen counter and I started cooking and she said, “What do you do?” And I said, “Well, if I want to relax, I’ll either go swimming in the backyard, mow the lawn or cook. I really like to cook, and that just calms me down. Whenever I’m stressed or I’m working too hard or I have some time off, I cook.” So she said, “Cook for me.” So I  started cooking, and we started talking, and we had dinner and a glass of wine and she said, “Why don’t you tell me about growing up?” So I said, “Well, you know, growing up it was not far from a sugar cane factory that used to make syrup.” And she said, “Well, write about that.” And then I said, “And I remember it being so hot that you could smell the tar.” And she said, “Write about that!” So I started writing about that and my childhood. I said to myself, “Well, I might as well write it all down, everything. I don’t have to necessarily put everything in there so I wrote everything out, and they loved it. I wrote about me being molested, as a kid, and then finally I got to the part about moving to New York City. I wrote about coming to terms with my sexuality. Those were not big things in the book but people were just surprised that a journalist would write about these things. They really were just a couple of pages. So, people were interested in that, but it was really just a book about my journey and life as a journalist. Long story short, it was very awkward to have people know so much about me, but it was liberating at the same time.

Lemon's memoir, Transparent.
Lemon’s memoir, Transparent.

Shifting gears from your background and personal life to your current career, it seems that over recent years there has been a shift from anchors simply purveying the news to now offering some of their own insight on the issue at hand. You yourself have found yourself in such predicaments, examples being your feelings on the black community or, just recently, the, now canceled, fight between George Zimmerman and DMX. Do you embrace this shift as a positive development in media, or is there a line that you, personally, are always mindful of?

I am always mindful about who I am and what I’m putting out there. But I don’t see myself as a 1 dimensional person. And I think actual ideals will be met, they will be there, and they will be kept, which is all well and good but I think the media has evolved. And I think that the idea of an anchorperson has evolved. And I think that I could do more than one thing. I write editorials for Tom Joynor Morning Show and Black America Web, which are issues that are focused on African American life and so I could do that. People wrote editorials for newspapers and journals. Journalists, major people, and others have written editorials forever. We hear more about them now because of social media. There have been editorials on newscasts by well-respected major people from Morrow to Cronkite and on and on and on. Now it’s such a hyper partisan environment on cable news, people are paying more attention to it. I will give you a point of view sometimes on the air on CNN, but it’s never really an opinion. Or I will say, “Well I’m stepping out of the traditional anchorman role and I’m just saying this” and I preface it by saying that. That doesn’t take away from my ability to tell a story about Iraq, a plane crash, or some sort of tragedy. Those things are not partisan, and those are not opinionated. I think you should allow our news people to be multidimensional. And especially the way the media is going now. You have to be multidimensional. You can’t just be like, “Okay, here’s the next story.”

Photo by Don Lemon/Twitter.
Photo by Don Lemon/Twitter.

CNN is sometimes lumped into being part of “mainstream liberal media” by other news stations or critiques of media. Do you feel as though being placed under that title does a disservice to the analysis you try to provide your audience, or do you view it as something that just comes with the position and being in competition with news stations around you?

Here’s where I think it does a disservice: I think it does a disservice when the entire – or majority – of your network, regardless of who it is, is devoted to partisan issues. When you take on one extreme to the other. It’s the same broken record over and over again. It does not offer for viewers an objective truth. So, when you move away partisanship, you know, “I’m not a Democrat, I’m not a Republican, or whatever,” you offer people the truth. You can still have passion from that standpoint without taking a political stand. And people may not like it, some people may love it, but that’s what you have to do. So if I watch another network, and they only preach the liberal side. Okay, fine. You’re going to have your own views reinforced. Does that inform you? Probably not. Does that make you feel good? Yes. Same thing if you’re tuning into a conservative network all the time getting your news and being told the same thing over and over. Preaching to the choir, you’re going to have your own views reinforced. It only offers you a way to feel good about your own beliefs. But, it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t make you think about things, and it does not educate you. All it says is, “Hey, I knew I was right!” My biggest critics, other than myself, have been my parents. They’ re my mentors. They will tell you, “No, you’re wrong” or “You have to think about this differently.” Even your professors who you learn from at Fordham, they will tell you, “No, Gregory, you’re wrong” or “You should think about this.” So, I don’t think it hurts to have a point of view. But, it’s good to challenge people from a point of view they might not have thought about.

Last question. If you’re speaking to a room full of college students, what do you say is the most vital piece of advice that has guided you through all of the difficulties you’ve faced throughout your career?

I tell them to work hard and don’t stop. You have to believe in yourself. It does not matter if you have a team of people believing in you or nobody believes in you, as long as you believe in your dream, it will work, trust me. And the other thing is – I know you only asked for one – don’t take anything personally. Especially even if you offer a point of view, you don’t take it personally because at the end of the day what you’re trying to do is educate people, give them information, and offer them the truth. So, don’t take it personally because you’re never going to please everybody. And some people are going to love you and some people are going to hate you, and that’s what you want to happen because that’s when you know you’re doing it right. If you do these things, I guarantee you will be successful.

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