Don Lemon Unmasked: 9 Facts About The Former CNN Anchor

In their 2015 profile of Don Lemon, GQ described him as such: "He may not be the steady, infallible news anchor America needs right now. But he sure feels like the anchor we deserve." Over a decades-long career, Lemon demonstrated both charm and controversy. After joining CNN in 2006, he was prominently featured as an anchor on several different shows and was associated with some major stories. His public profile rose after he publicly came out in 2011, and again when he became both a critic and a target of former president Donald Trump.

At the same time, Lemon's style of journalism and a host of gaffes both real and perceived made him a figure of fun online. More substantial controversies came about through his remarks to a sexual abuse victim during an interview (though Lemon himself is an abuse survivor), and comments made about the Black community. Behind the scenes at CNN, Lemon allegedly alienated coworkers through a diva attitude and misogynistic comments that his cozy relationship with management kept from getting him into trouble. His April 2023 dismissal from the network came after his short tenure as a morning show host generated a run of negative headlines, including a lengthy Variety article that detailed his off-air confrontations.

His politics have varied wildly

To judge solely on Donald Trump's angry tirades against Don Lemon during his administration, someone might assume that the former CNN anchor was a Democrat, or at least on the liberal end of the political spectrum. But Lemon's politics have varied considerably throughout his life. In an interview with GQ in 2015, he said that he was a registered Republican in college and had voted for Ronald Reagan. Decades later, Lemon was an independent voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Lemon said that the Reagan administration's handling of the 1980s AIDS crisis turned him off from the Gipper. But some of his stated values and positions — for example, that families need two parents — have led others to still describe him as conservative. Lemon rejects that label but denies being a liberal too. As a Black, gay man, he belongs to two demographics often counted as reliable Democrats, but he's been outspoken about his independence. "I think I have values that are important and realistic," he told GQ, "and ... I thought out what my values should be."

Lemon's frustration with political labels extends to the political parties themselves. Though he regularly votes in elections, he's complained on air about the restrictive nature of the two-party system and the pressure it exerts to generate lockstep voting behind candidates.

Don Lemon anchored for Fox and NBC affiliates before coming to CNN

Don Lemon was interested in journalism from a young age. As a youth growing up in Louisiana, he was inspired by news anchors like Max Robinson and Peter Jennings. But when he went to Louisiana State University to study journalism, he was told by a professor that he had no chance in the business as a television anchor. Lemon told GQ that he took the remarks as an implicit put-down of a Black journalist's chances.

Lemon dropped out of Louisiana State, moved to New York, and took night classes while pursuing work. He found it through a local Fox affiliate. Reporting for Fox stations took him to the Midwest, where he reported out of St Louis and Chicago. After a few years, he jumped ship to NBC affiliates. It was at NBC stations that Lemon began winning accolades for his work. He won Emmys in 2002 for his coverage of real estate and in 2005 for his on-site look at the AIDS crisis in Africa, a project he paid for out of his own pocket when his Chicago station proved reticent. Lemon was also given an Edward R. Murrow Award in 2002 for his coverage of the Beltway sniper attacks.

His gaffes were popular online fodder

Don Lemon has been a popular anchor in his time, though not always for the reasons a journalist might wish. A profile on him by GQ led with a description of his more embarrassing moments at CNN. Anchors working on cable news networks are in a medium that can lend itself to easy soundbites over nuanced discussion, and the hours of live airtime that need filling aren't always carefully prepared in advance. Tripping over your words is inevitable sooner or later, and Lemon's online critics have taken delight in chronicling his gaffes — sometimes to the point of sacrificing accuracy.

Lemon first became a target of widespread online criticism for a more serious matter. In 2013, against the background of the George Zimmerman trial, he not only expressed sympathy for conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly's assessment of the Black community but offered his own harsh challenge and prescriptions. The rebuke he faced didn't dim his star at CNN, but it did seem to put a target on his back as far as the web was concerned.

Over the years, Lemon was said to have interviewed a llama, took it for granted that Ferguson would smell of marijuana, and speculated that a black hole could have swallowed up Malaysian Flight 370. None of those incidents were as silly as they sounded after being passed around online; he interviewed a llama handler, and the black hole question was submitted by a viewer and dismissed by Lemon as ridiculous. 

Did Don Lemon violate journalistic ethics with the Jussie Smollett story?

In 2021, Don Lemon found himself caught up in the Jussie Smollett case. Smollett stood accused of hoaxing an assault in 2019, and while initially acquitted, he faced subsequent charges in 2020 leading to a new trial. Lemon and Smollett knew each other and maintained contact during the trial, something Lemon admitted on air while covering developments in the case. While acknowledging the falsehoods spread by Smollett, Lemon maintained that he deserved to be assumed innocent until proven guilty.

In his testimony, Smollett testified that he was first made aware that Chicago police didn't believe the story behind his assault from a text sent by Lemon (per Newsweek). The anchor hadn't disclosed that particular point of contact, nor had he turned over his phone records to investigators. Though there was no legal prohibition against Lemon discussing this with Smollett, it was seen by many as a breach of journalistic ethics, a violation of the principle of not becoming involved in a story. There were calls for Lemon to be fired, with the situation compared to Chris Cuomo's dismissal after his involvement with his brother Andrew's controversies. Cuomo's own lawyers made the comparison in arbitration with CNN.

No professional consequences befell Lemon for his texts, which Julie Rendelmen noted to Newsweek were only referred to in Smollett's testimony. For Smollett, the trial ended in a conviction, a brief jail stint, and a $145,000 fine.

He was critical of his own network

CNN may advertise itself as the most trusted name in the news, but the network has faced regular criticism for sensationalistic coverage and perceived false balance. It was a regular target for Jon Stewart during his run on "The Daily Show," often for its superfluous fluff. Stewart highlighted the unseriousness of CNN with a segment titled "CNN anchor Don Lemon appears not to care for CNN" (via Comedy Central). In it, Lemon struggled to keep a straight face through a story about how much it would theoretically cost to attend Hogwarts, made sardonic asides while reading superfluous copy from the prompter, and seemed dismissive of a random demonstration of an egg dropping into a cup.

In an interview with Creative Loafing, Lemon directly voiced some of his issues with cable news, particularly the gaudy production elements around news shows. "It reminds me of a game show," he said. "If I want to watch 'The Price is Right,' I'll watch 'The Price is Right.'" While not explicitly naming his own network, Lemon did seem to hit on issues with CNN. When asked if he was expected to reflect a preset type, comparable to a reliably liberal or conservative commentator from other networks, Lemon grew uncomfortable with the thought of such a fixed label.

At other times, Lemon has been more defensive of CNN. In an interview with Stewart's colleague Stephen Colbert, he stood up for new CEO Chris Licht's strategy of pursuing moderate Republican voices.

Don Lemon was inspired to come out by Tyler Clementi

Don Lemon has said that he knew he was a gay man since childhood, and he made no secret of it among colleagues. While at CNN, he was in a relationship with a producer for four years. But Lemon did not discuss his sexuality on air, or in any public forum. He was advised not to by his management team and by trusted mentors, for fear it could cost him his career in an era when only two news anchors with a national platform were openly homosexual.

Though he thinks he would have come out eventually, Lemon told Pink News that he was moved to share his sexuality after the suicide of Tyler Clementi. Clementi was a student at Rutgers University who died after he was reportedly filmed in an intimate situation with another man by his classmates. "I don't want there to be any more Tyler Clementis," said Lemon. He had long resisted writing a book about his life, but after encountering Clementi's story, decided that discussing his upbringing and acknowledging his own sexuality could be beneficial to other vulnerable youth. The memoir, "Transparent," was dedicated to Clementi.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

He faced assault charges

On August 11, 2019, Don Lemon became the target of a lawsuit. Per Deadline, a man named Dustin Hice alleged that, the year prior, he had been sexually harassed by Lemon in a bar in Sag Harbor, New York. He reportedly attempted to extract $1.5 million from the anchor to avoid the suit, and before erasing his social media presence posted quotes of then-president Donald Trump criticizing Lemon's employer, CNN.

The network was quick to deny the incident, with Lemon himself offering no immediate comment. His lawyer, Caroline Polisi, characterized the suit as a malicious cash grab with no basis in fact. While the lawsuit was seized upon by some critics of Lemon, notably Trump supporters who gathered outside the courthouse, Hice's case was complicated by his own actions. In March 2022, he was fined $77,000, to be paid to Lemon, after a judge determined that Hice had attempted to bribe witnesses and interfere with potential evidence. By that May, the suit was finished; Hice dropped it and issued a statement that he had misremembered the night in question.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

He's allegedly had tensions with several female co-workers

Early in Don Lemon's tenure at CNN, he was paired with Kyra Phillips on the "Live From" block based out of Atlanta. Phillips was an established presence on the network, and the "Live From" team was close. According to a lengthy investigation by Variety, Lemon's behavior upon joining "Live From" alienated and disturbed his co-workers. He was said to be openly resentful of Phillips being given plum assignments, like on-site reporting from Iraq, and took it out on notes and personal items in her desk. Producers allegedly had to speak to Lemon during commercials more than once. And threatening text messages sent to Phillips, Variety claimed, were traced back to Lemon. He denied the charge through a CNN spokesperson, but shortly after the incident, he was demoted from "Live From" to a weekend slot.

Years later, Lemon was made co-host of a morning show with Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins. A series of comments taken as misogynistic invited criticism, and Harlow allegedly left the set in frustration after one such incident. But tabloid reports painted an even more dramatic and contentious atmosphere, with Lemon raging at Collins for supposedly interrupting him during a December 8, 2022 broadcast. Lemon and Collins offered no comment on the story, and when Lemon was fired from CNN, Collins and Harlow wished him well on air. 

Allegations of misogyny go back years

The run of negative headlines ahead of Don Lemon's dismissal from CNN began in February 2023, when he described Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, 51, as "past her prime." While meant as a challenge to Haley's demand for competency testing on older politicians, the comments were widely taken as sexist, and Lemon was briefly suspended and told to go through sensitivity training. It was in the wake of those comments that Variety published a lengthy piece on Lemon that suggested he had a history of misogynistic statements and behaviors.

Past conflicts with his 2008 co-host Kyra Phillips were relitigated, as were claims he disrespected other female anchors on and off the air around the same time. Lemon was said to have insulted producers, gotten female critics blacklisted from appearing on CNN, and alienated himself from former friends with a diva-like attitude. His on-air comments over the years included a claim that men's soccer players earned more money than women by being more popular and asking inappropriate questions of one survivor of Bill Cosby's sexual abuse.

Lemon's close links to CNN chief Jeff Zucker allegedly kept him out of serious trouble for his issues with female coworkers, but after Chris Licht took over the network, he came under more scrutiny. While specific allegations were either denied or passed over for comment, Lemon remained dogged by the allegations until his firing.