Ratings-challenged host Don Lemon has emerged as Teflon at CNN, with the network standing by his every move despite the constant negative attention he creates.
CNN’s latest defense of the embattled anchor came last week when Variety published a bombshell report revealing scandalous allegations about him such as sending threatening text messages to a colleague from a burner phone and repeatedly exhibiting misogynistic and “diva-like” behavior. CNN ripped the claims in a strongly worded statement that blasted the report as “riddled with patently false anecdotes” and “based on unsourced, unsubstantiated, 15-year-old anonymous gossip.”
A longtime media industry executive who previously worked at CNN is baffled that the network continues to stand by him.
“Well before the Variety article appeared, it’s been one of the biggest mysteries in TV news why CNN keeps Don Lemon around. He rates poorly, he is a source of constant embarrassment and his new morning show is an unqualified disaster,” the media insider told Fox News Digital.
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“Now his long history of degrading women has been laid bare,” they continued. “What mysterious hold does he have over his bosses that explains his longevity?”
Current CNN employees are also wondering why their network has kept Lemon on the payroll despite all the headaches.
“There are plenty of people just as talented and popular with viewers that are not such a heavy lift,” one CNN insider told Fox News Digital.
When asked whether Lemon is worth the trouble for CNN, another insider replied “I’m honestly not sure,” adding that it’s “no secret” that he has done “moronic things.”
One insider close to CNN boss Chris Licht told Fox News Digital he thought the Variety report was “rough” while insisting it wasn’t substantiated, a position the network echoed in its response to the story.
Eric Schiffer, a crisis management guru for some of the biggest names in media, sports and entertainment, suspected what could be behind CNN’s staunch defense for its embattled morning host is that the network is weighing its “legal vulnerabilities” since Lemon isn’t hesitant to take others to court. Lemon is reportedly filing a lawsuit against Variety over its story, and Schiffer told Fox News Digital Lemon “is on borrowed time unless he can get these reported impulse control issues under control.”
“It will be Don’s behavior that takes himself out or not moving forward. He needs to get a grip on his behavior, or he’ll be ‘Done’ Lemon,” Schiffer quipped.
Schiffer warned CNN “it’s likely” that more shoes will drop from Lemon’s past based on Variety’s investigative report, but Lemon could salvage his career at the network if he can master “emotional intelligence.”
“He’s got to align with the expectations of leadership, or he sets himself on fire,” Schiffer told Fox News Digital.
Variety put a spotlight on a plethora of older allegations that date back to 2008, but Lemon has managed to fuel accusations of misogyny 15 years later.
Lemon found himself in hot water in February for claiming Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley was past her “prime” at age 51, citing Google as his source while stunning his female co-anchors in the process.
The morning host offered a mea culpa during the network’s editorial call the next day, but female colleagues weren’t pleased.
“Most pathetic attempt at an apology I have ever heard in my life,” a CNN insider told Fox News Digital at the time. “It did not go over well… f—–g a–hole.”
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Colleagues were further enraged when Lemon was spotted on Miami Beach after the insensitive remarks about Haley. Lemon was then ordered to take “formal training” but returned to his struggling morning show just days later.
Lemon’s “prime” comments were universally panned and not just by conservatives, receiving mockery from Biden spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre during a White House briefing and even making its way to this year’s Oscars ceremony. Best Actress winner Michelle Yeoh told women in Hollywood, “Don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime.”
But not everyone was calling for his scalp. Fox News contributor Tammy Bruce, for example, insisted in an opinion piece that CNN shouldn’t cancel Lemon “for being a jerk,” telling readers his firing would go too far despite how “infuriating” his remarks were.
Those remarks are hardly the first time Lemon’s on-air rhetoric sparked backlash among female viewers, however.
In 2014, he infamously asked a Bill Cosby accuser why she didn’t simply bite his penis to prevent an alleged rape. Last September, he asked CNN analyst S.E. Cupp if she was suffering from “mommy brain” after she lost her train of thought during a panel discussion. In December, Lemon clashed with his female “CNN This Morning” co-hosts while arguing male athletes make more money than women because “people are more interested in the men.”
His recent streak in alienating female viewers comes after years of alienating conservative audiences, which was encouraged when CNN was run by Jeff Zucker. Lemon compared Trump supporters to Ku Klux Klan members, defended Antifa, and fumed over people unvaccinated against coronavirus “taking up the space” in hospitals.
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While Lemon’s divisive rhetoric on air has created headaches for CNN honchos, he’s been at the center of off-air drama, too.
Lemon was pulled from his prestigious solo primetime gig to an ensemble morning show alongside co-anchors Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins last year, but he insisted the move wasn’t a demotion. In fact, he even went on CNN and said Licht offered him a “promotion.”
Media watchdogs disagreed, as a primetime program bearing the name of the host is considered the highest possible perch in cable news – but CNN going along with Lemon’s version of events was an indication that he is truly safe at the network, especially as Licht purged the network of other polarizing hosts such as Brian Stelter.
As Variety pointed out, Lemon had not been paired with women co-anchors in years, but it didn’t take long for “CNN This Morning” to make tabloid news.
On Dec. 8, during CNN’s breaking news of Brittney Griner’s release from Russia, there were multiple on-air instances where Collins attempted to interject while Lemon was speaking. At one point, Lemon wagged his finger above the desk and told her “stand by one second.”
While off-air, however, 56-year-old Lemon got “nasty” at 30-year-old Collins, scolding her for interrupting him, which left her “visibly upset,” a source who witnessed the exchange told Fox News Digital.
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The New York Post first reported on the incident, which a CNN spokesperson told Fox News Digital was “wildly overblown,” another instance in which the network stood by Lemon.
“Don, Kaitlan and Poppy were friends before they were co-anchors, and they remain friends today,” the CNN spokesperson added at the time.
Despite the duo allegedly remaining friends, Collins dumped the high-powered agent she shared with Lemon before the ordeal made headlines. This week, Collins will anchor CNN’s 9 p.m. ET timeslot as part of its ongoing rotation of anchors that have filled the primetime vacancy since Chris Cuomo’s firing in 2021. Some could view this as Collins trying to potentially parachute her way out of co-hosting the beleaguered morning show with Lemon.
On Friday, Insider published a scathing report about Lemon on the heels of the Variety piece.
“His behavior has hurt the show since it launched. The stench won’t go away. Variety is the latest example of that. I assume he’d be out,” a CNN insider told the publication before quoting a current CNN staffer who defended Lemon because “You need people like Don Lemon on TV, he mixes it up.”
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DePauw University journalism professor Jeffrey McCall, a staunch critic of CNN, feels it’s always a bad sign for a news organization when one of its journalists becomes the topic of news coverage.
“That’s been the case for CNN now for some time with regards to Don Lemon and the trend doesn’t have any sign of letting up,” McCall told Fox News Digital. “It’s hard to know how accurate the Variety report really is, but that an industry trade publication took on Don Lemon as a subject is news in itself.”
Despite the free publicity Lemon generates with his laundry list of negative press, “CNN This Morning” has failed to find an audience. “CNN This Morning” shed viewers each month from its November launch through March, averaging a dismal 346,000 total viewers last month. The struggling show has dropped 24% of the monthly audience it managed when it launched last year.
Ratings data courtesy of Nielsen Media Research.