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Turning Lemon Into Lemonade: In Defense of a Much-Mocked CNN Anchor

Don Lemon relentlessly courts controversy whether it’s his reporting from Ferguson, or driving around in his ‘Blizzardmobile.’ Is his natural home Fox News, rather than CNN?

02.03.15 10:45 AM ET

Say what you will about Don Lemon—and clearly there’s no stopping you—but he has swiftly become, if not the face of CNN, then one of the more recognizable figures on the “Go there” cable news outlet.

Considering the pugnacious yet camera-friendly nature of Lemon’s budding celebrity, it wouldn’t be a shock if his next contract negotiation lands him at a cash cow of a cable network where he might find a warm and lucrative welcome.

It’s a network whose founder has a flair for showbiz, controversy, and riveting television, who encourages a decidedly starboard-leaning worldview among his prime-time anchors, and who cultivates larger-than-life personalities which he fine-tunes into stars. Namely, Roger Ailes’s Fox News Channel.

Last week Lemon rose above (or, many would say, dived below) the media morass by roving the barren, snow-dusted streets of Manhattan while anchoring his 10 p.m. weeknight show, CNN Tonight, in his “Blizzardmobile”—never mind that there was no blizzard in New York City, unless one counts the blizzard of ridicule heaped upon Lemon for his wacky stunt. “Twist: Don Lemon’s Blizzardmobile rounds a corner and discovers, on an empty Manhattan street, the missing plane,” one wag tweeted, recalling Lemon’s notorious question, during CNN’s endless, over-the-top coverage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, about whether the vanished passenger jet could have been sucked into a black hole.

While Lemon was surely not the only TV newsguy who conspicuously violated Mayor Bill de Blasio’s bad-weather ban on non-emergency vehicles, he was by far the most attention-getting.

Jon Stewart—who should be cutting Lemon a check for all the Daily Show fodder he regularly provides—labeled his bizarre gimmick “the worst iteration” of the silly media excesses surrounding the non-event. “Blizzardmobile?” Stewart scoffed. “Settle down, Batman, it’s a Ford Explorer.” 

In recent months, the smooth-faced anchor, who looks at least a decade more cherubic than his 48 years, has differentiated himself from the pack and dominated YouTube with such memorable moments as: demanding of an incredulous Muslim-American civil rights lawyer whether he supports ISIS; asking one of Bill Cosby’s alleged sexual abuse victims why she didn’t simply bite the comedian’s penis; exclusively detecting the smell of marijuana—“obviously”—during a protest of the grand jury verdict in Ferguson, Missouri (where he also engaged in a live on-air bickerfest with a rap performer who challenged the fairness of CNN’s coverage); and otherwise offered himself up as a human lightning rod to an army of detractors poised to strike. 

The august Columbia Journalism Review, for one, featured Lemon near the top of its list of “the worst journalism of 2014.” And that didn’t even include Lemon’s most famous foray into hot-button hubbub in July 2013, when he used his TV perch to lecture his fellow African-Americans on the importance of not letting their trousers sag below their underwear, not uttering the n-word, not littering in their neighborhoods, not dropping out of school, and not having babies out of wedlock. That one prompted a collective conniption.

Arguably, this is not the sort of public relations strategy with which one burnishes a sterling résumé that ultimately leads to an endowed professorship at a graduate school of journalism. Yet, in an era when personal brands are increasingly trumping institutional ones, Lemon—shrewdly or not—has transcended his workaday platform.

In this respect, he’s a bit like Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly—who tend to make every story about themselves—but he is more closely a descendent of Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera, a former activist lawyer and local Eyewitness News star who has spent the past 44 years tirelessly reporting on the ongoing Drama of Geraldo. 

Like Rivera—whose 1991 memoir, Exposing Myself, detailed illicit drug use and various trysts with the likes of Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, and Margaret Trudeau—Lemon wrote his own book-length confessional in 2011. It was more classily titled Transparent and didn’t echo with the thuds of dropping names; he recounted his fatherless boyhood, and his experience of being sexually molested as a child.

And Lemon publicly acknowledged what his friends and family already knew: that he is gay. “CNN was very supportive, but it was also very scary,” he told me in December 2013 about his decision to come out in his memoir. “I didn’t know what people would think of me. I didn’t know if I’d still have a career.”

Like Rivera, Lemon is not averse to theatrical confrontation, though unlike Rivera, it’s difficult to imagine that Lemon would, as Rivera once did, swing his fists in an on-camera rumble with a gang of skinheads, resulting in a broken nose, or entertain viewers by having a globule of his butt-fat implanted in his forehead.

Nor does Lemon—a catalogue model in a former life—regularly pose for shirtless photos and post them on Instagram, as the amazingly fit 71-year-old Rivera can’t resist doing. 

But on Monday night, Lemon did “go there,” tweeting a shirtless photo of his left shoulder vaccination scar to tease a debate on the absolute necessity—or not—of vaccinating your kids. Predictably, social media erupted. “Just when you think @donlemon can’t be any worse, he does this...” one non-fan tweeted, although Lemon’s CNN Tonight left zero doubt that parents should vaccinate their children against measles and everything else.

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On the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me if Lemon, as Rivera famously did, hosted something like a live program in which he opened Al Capone’s vault; of course, when Rivera attempted that trick in 1986, the vault was embarrassingly empty except for worthless flotsam and jetsam.

Like Rivera, who is proudly a member of two traditionally liberal minorities—Puerto Rican and Jewish—Lemon likes to spout counter-intuitively conservative beliefs with which even a white Mike Huckabee supporter might agree. 

So I like to think of Lemon as Geraldo 2.0.

Lemon, who joined CNN’s Atlanta center in 2006 after a career at local stations in New York and Philadelphia and even NBC, has surely established himself among a coterie of CNN franchise players who include Wolf Blitzer, Christiane Amanpour, and Anderson Cooper.

According to people who work with him, he has managed to avoid a diva-like reputation and has proved himself game for anything—whether doing live shots from the scene of the Asian tsunami, working the red carpet at the New York premiere of Selma, hopping into the Blizzardmobile, or, as he did on Monday afternoon, going on other people’s shows to discuss the sad medical emergency befalling Whitney Houston’s daughter.

It’s true that Cooper, Lemon’s fellow out-gay anchor at CNN, doesn’t inspire the same level of merciless lampooning.

Maybe it’s because Cooper—whose on-camera presence ranges from serious political and international news to celebrity gossip—has a certain gravitas that Lemon lacks.

That seems the case even when he’s the substitute cohost on Live with Kelly and Michael, plays the long-suffering New Year’s Eve straight-man to the outrageous Kathy Griffin, or appears on Watch What Happens Live, the campy late-night talk show hosted by his friend, Bravo programming executive Andy Cohen. And if Anderson Cooper is spotted on a red carpet, he’s walking it, not working it. 

Maybe Cooper’s ingrained WASPy reserve—he is, after all, a member of the Vanderbilt family—gives him the ability to create distance between his public identity and the cheesier aspects of cable television, even when he’s knee-deep in them. Lemon, however, always seems emotionally invested. And the critiques of Lemon, whether from black or white viewers, are occasionally freighted with racial overtones.

Yet he has a thick skin and, apparently, a self-deprecating sense of humor. After Jon Stewart skewered the Blizzardmobile—and suggested that if Lemon wasn’t careful, he’d end up toiling in a real Blizzardmobile, that is, a Dairy Queen truck—Lemon posted as his Facebook profile picture the Daily Show’s photo-shopped image of himself serving shakes and ice cream.

And he could comfort himself with the knowledge that his much-derided hour on the snowy streets of New York beat the competition in the all-important 25-54 demographic—including Fox News.