Don Lemon’s recent departure from CNN has left a notable hole when it comes to prominent Black media voices on cable TV news.
Lemon was CNN’s most well-known person of color for the past decade, and the network has no clear replacements for him in the pipeline.
“Don Lemon was arguably seen at CNN as a face and voice you came to expect during moments of national crisis,” said Stephane Dunn, professor and chair of Cinema, Television & Emerging Media Studies Program at Morehouse College. “He was especially effective during times of strife like Ferguson and George Floyd.”
Craig Allen Brown, managing editor of The Atlanta Voice, called Lemon “a very necessary figure in this complex world of journalism. Being LGBTQ and informed. Having an informed Black diverse person in the media space is essential.”
Soon after Lemon’s departure, civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who heads the National Action Network and hosts the MSNBC show “PoliticsNation,” released a statement with Marc Morial, the president and chief executive of the Urban National League, asking CNN for a clearer explanation of why Lemon was let go.
“Don’s voice has been invaluable to the conversation of how we become a more just nation,” the statement said. “With the health of our democracy undergoing perhaps its greatest test, we cannot afford to silence his voice.”
After Lemon’s departure, CNN released a terse statement thanking him for his service but hasn’t said anything more. A CNN spokeswoman did not respond to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s request for comment about minority representation on the network.
Even before Lemon’s departure, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) raised concerns last fall about the lack of Black prime-time cable anchors when he was moved to morning broadcasts. “With the cancellation of CNN’s ‘Don Lemon Tonight,’ NABJ is even more concerned about the lack of Black representation in prime-time cable lineups. After host Don Lemon’s departure, MSNBC’s Joy Reid will be the only Black host of a prime-time cable news and information program,” the organizations said in a press release.
NABJ also reported that they had spoken with CNN CEO Chris Licht about the situation, stating that he was “‘unequivocally considering’ having Black on-air talent play a major role in its prime-time programming.”
CNN Wednesday announced Kaitlan Collins as its 9 p.m. host, taking over Chris Cuomo’s slot, with the 10 p.m. slot still open since Lemon was moved.
Lemon had name recognition on CNN, but his prime-time show was not a broad-based hit in the cable news world. “Don Lemon Tonight” ranked 40th among all cable shows in 2022, averaging 619,000 viewers a night, according to Nielsen ratings. In comparison, MSNBC’s 10 p.m. show hosted by Laurence O’Donnell drew 1.4 million a night and Fox News’ Laura Ingraham attracted 2.3 million.
Lemon first came to CNN in 2006 in Atlanta and built his reputation expressing his viewpoints about race and civil rights. In 2010, while discussing sexual coercion accusations against Atlanta’s Bishop Eddie Long, Lemon revealed on air that he was sexually abused as a child. A year later, he released a memoir “Transparent,” in which he revealed he was gay.
Jeff Zucker, the new CNN president in 2012, liked Lemon’s honest style and moved him to New York, eventually giving him his own prime-time show.
When John Malone and David Zaslav took over CNN’s parent Warner Bros. Discovery last year, they made it clear that they were going to try to bring CNN back to its roots as a middle-of-the-road news operation. Eric Deggans, the TV critic for National Public Radio, said the news bosses were uncomfortable with Lemon’s evening show where he had shaped himself as “a culture commentator.”
So new president Chris Licht moved Lemon to mornings last fall, a transition that never quite worked. CNN was scaling back on opinion to focus more on hard news, but Lemon’s opinions got him in hot water. In February, he said on air that 51-year-old presidential candidate Nikki Haley was not “in her prime,” a remark some perceived as sexist.
This prompted criticism even from Licht, and Lemon was given sensitivity training. But freshly leaked stories of misogyny and misbehavior further tarnished Lemon’s reputation. So last month, CNN decided he had become a liability and let him go.
The most visible Black anchors on TV now are seen in the mornings: Gayle King on “CBS Morning News”; Hoda Kotb, Craig Melvin and Al Roker on NBC’s “Today” show; and Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan on “Good Morning America.” Leslie Holt has been the evening anchor on “NBC Nightly News” the past decade. Cable TV isn’t quite as diverse. Fox News has Harris Faulkner at 11 a.m. and noon. MSNBC has Joy Reid in the early evenings.
CNN’s Black anchor representation is Sara Sidner, who became a late morning weekday anchor last month out of New York, and on weekends, Victor Blackwell and Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta and Abby Phillip in Washington D.C.
MSNBC has established itself as the home for African Americans and the network now consistently pulls in bigger audiences, said Roland Martin, a former CNN contributor who now runs his own media site Black Star Network.
Martin said this wasn’t the case in the late 2000s when he worked there. But, Martin said, CNN made a deliberate shift that “opened the door to MSNBC to swoop in and take those Black viewers. And that has now been the case for 15 years.”
Licht has said he is trying to bring in as broad an audience as possible for CNN with “dispassionate” news coverage. Martin said CNN lacks that base of Black viewers to build upon and Black news consumers now have far more options in 2023 than they did when he was there.
“African American viewership and listenership has exploded in the podcast and digital space,” Martin said. “Mainstream media has largely forgotten the Black consumer.”