CNN News Anchor Don Lemon
Breaking the News to the World
Don Lemon is the anchor of the weekday primetime show CNN Tonight with Don Lemon, as well as a correspondent for CNN's U.S. programming. After joining CNN in September 2006, Lemon has reported and anchored on-the-scene from many breaking news stories, including the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the deaths of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, the Sandy Hook Elementary School and Colorado eater shootings, the Boston Marathon bombing, the George Zimmerman trial, and the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. He has also anchored the network's breaking news coverage of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Arab Spring and the death of Osama Bin Laden. He earned a degree in broadcast journalism from Brooklyn College and also attended Louisiana State University, beginning his career at WNYW in New York City as a news assistant while still in college. In 2011, he released his memoir, Transparent, in which he discusses how he suffered from abuse, homophobia, racism and discrimination as a young child. Ebony named him one of the most influential blacks in America in 2009 and he has won multiple awards, including an Edward R. Murrow Award and an Emmy Award. Tokyo Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie talked to Don Lemon about his career and outlook on journalism.
TJ: What is it that inspired you to get into this field?
LEMON: I have always been curious about things since I was a kid. I think television is by far the most powerful medium that we have. When you combine television and broadcasting and journalism together, when you see it all and it gets to happen in real time as if you are there — nothing is more powerful.
TJ: Is there someone in the field of journalism who has inspired you?
LEMON: I was inspired by Max Robinson... Bryant Gumbel... Peter Jennings... Barbara Walters is one of my biggest heroes, a woman who is really focused and got past so many barriers. And Oprah. She is the number one person who will tell you: don’t try to be perfect and just be yourself. There she is — this woman, who is this non-traditional news figure, who has made it all the way to the top and beyond and has set the marker for everyone.
TJ: What has been the secret to your success?
LEMON: Authenticity and perseverance... and not trying to be perfect.
TJ: What do you think is the most important responsibility of a journalist?
LEMON: To tell you the truth at all costs. Sometimes the truth will set you free, and the truth hurts. It is really true.
TJ: What struggles have you had along the way to get where you are now?
LEMON: I have been underestimated a lot, which is a good thing because while people are underestimating you, you’re busy achieving and outdoing their expectations. I have been pigeonholed to sometimes just doing stories that affect minorities, but one has to transcend if you really want to be a well-known journalist, and I think I’ve done a good job of that. I have had to work really hard for success. I have been in this business since 1991, so it’s not an overnight success.
TJ: Have you faced a glass ceiling as an African-American journalist?
LEMON: With any minority, there is always a glass ceiling. That is very real. I write about what I call the “Black Box” that people put you in and expect you to behave in a certain way. That goes for people not of color and for people of color.
TJ: Have you ever feared being attacked while you are reporting? Has it ever been dangerous to the point that you regretted your decision to be a journalist?
LEMON: No, not really. Usually people have our backs. There is concern from our bosses and our producers, but usually we do what we do because we want to be in the middle of it. I’ve been in riots. I have been tear-gassed, and it can be a little scary. I never regretted my decision to be a journalist. I love it. This is what I live for.
TJ: What do you enjoy the most about working for CNN?
LEMON: It is surprising and comforting at the same time to see this machine kick in. We have resources everywhere, so no matter what corner of the world — I’m surprised that we don’t have a Mars Bureau yet — when something happens, we usually have a bureau or people there. It is automatic and it happens quickly. I don’t think people at home, and even other networks, realize what vast resources CNN has.
TJ: What has been the most difficult story that you have covered in your entire career?
LEMON: Any time that I need to cover a story where a parent loses a child — that is the most difficult. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the death, anytime you have to talk to someone about their child who has died... it is just awful. I can’t even explain it to you.
TJ: I can imagine that. That is terrible. What has been your most memorable interview in your career?
LEMON: It’s always the last one that I did. Donald Trump is always interesting, and there is always a lot of feedback for Donald Trump. Being the first person to interview Barack Obama on CNN before he said he was going to run for president... it was quite an achievement, but it was years ago. He was just a United States senator back then.
TJ: How was Barack Obama then? Was he as professional as he is now?
LEMON: No, quite honestly, he wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong — he was very bright and on the ball, but there is something about being the President of the United States that takes you to another level of amazing. Who knows who is going to be the next president or the next five presidents? You could probably interview those people now and you may not be so impressed with them. Once they become President of the United States, there is a whole other thing that happens. He was great then, but not in the way that he is now.
TJ: It seems you took Donald Trump pretty seriously when he announced he was running for president when not everyone did at the time.
LEMON: Of course, why wouldn’t I? I think people will always look at those things through a political lens — like the people who do not like him, whether they are Republican or Democratic. Any time when one says they are going to run for president, I take them seriously. The first time I interviewed him, I was like — this guy is in it to win it. Not since Barack Obama have I heard this sort of whisper campaign about, “Hey, that Donald Trump guy — he says some crazy stuff, but I like him.” So I realized there was something that the polls weren’t picking up. The traditional political class in Washington was not picking that up. Plus, he is a New Yorker. He is used to the shark-infested media waters of New York City. He knows how to use the media to manipulate them and use it to his advantage. He knows how to negotiate. And the biggest thing is that he is not canned. Most of the other political candidates are canned — their speech or talking points. Whether you like what he says or not, at least he says it. I think that is what resonates with people.
TJ: What do you think is going to be the deciding factor in the elections?
LEMON: The deciding factor is whether people think they have a voice or not. There are so many people who feel that they no longer have a voice, that they have been disenfranchised, and I think that the deciding factor is going to come from someone who gives them that voice. I think there are many people out there who feel Donald Trump does — that he speaks for them. If Hillary Clinton .... can also garner that support from [her] supporters, then [she] will win. If not, then [she is] going to have a heck of a time with someone like Donald Trump.
TJ: Why did you write a book like Transparent, in which you shared so much about yourself with the public?
LEMON: Because that is who I am. I am an open book. If you don’t want to know the answer, don’t ask me. If you don’t want the truth, don’t ask me. I am so glad I did it. It was life-altering and empowering. I don’t know if I will ever do it again. I did enjoy the outcome of the book, but not the process of writing it. I thought I was going to lose my mind telling the story.
TJ: How do you see the field of journalism changing in the future?
LEMON: I think that the traditional news has been reacting to online and social media a lot and I think the pendulum is swinging back. People are starting to come back to traditional media because of the bar we set for ourselves — our standards, practices, research, fact-checking... Most startups and online news organizations don’t have those sorts of standards. I think people, especially in the times that we live in, appreciate that now and they desire it because there’s so much out there. Who knows what’s true and what’s not? At first, if it was on the Internet, they would believe it. That has been proven wrong so many times that people are skeptical and they doubt it. Now they are craving news from traditional sources. tj
The complete article can be found in Issue #278 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.