On Election Day, when New Yorkers were voting for mayor, CNN anchor Don Lemon appeared to have endorsed, or to have defended, New York City’s stop-and-frisk policies on a nationally syndicated morning radio show. Lemon referred to the policy, which has been controversial in New York and widely seen as prejudicial racial profiling, as “stop-question-and-frisk.”
“Stop-question-and-frisk is the biggest issue in the country right now other than jobs and Obamacare, and the next New York City mayor may not know it: but so goes New York City, so goes the rest of the country.” (The winner of the mayoral race, Bill De Blasio, opposes the practice.) Lemon continued, “If he alters the equation of the formula that has reduced crime in New York City to its lowest in decades, one of which is stop-question-and-frisk, and the crime rate creeps back up, beyond local citizens moving away to the suburbs, people will stop visiting, stop spending their tourist dollars,” said Lemon. “So the question is: would you rather be politically correct or safe and alive?”
If Lemon’s goal was to stir up drama, then he got it. Black Twitter, an active online community that pays close attention to African American issues and is adept at bringing about a wide range of social change, started a meme, #DonLemonOn, which characterized Lemon as a hypocrite and called into question his objectivity as a journalist. Some have gone as far as to call for his firing on the grounds that he no longer has credibility as an objective journalist in a time when there are fewer black journalists than ever on the network. (Lemon declined to comment.)
According to Roland Martin, a former CNN contributor, none of CNN’s journalists who anchor news desks, host documentaries, or report the the news—with the exception of Lemon—have the freedom to express their opinions on other platforms, and certainly not on air.
Lemon started contributing to The Tom Joyner Morning Show and its website, BlackAmericaWeb.com (where I have contributed) in September. The show, which targets educated, savvy African American listeners, promoted his contributions as “commentary” when he started the job: “He will offer insights regarding news, politics, entertainment and more that the Joyner audience wants to know about,” states a press release. (Lemon’s publicist insists that he still considers himself a journalist, rather than a commentator.)
Whether or not Lemon’s commentaries on the show express his actual opinions, audiences interpreted his Election Day piece as an endorsement of stop-and-frisk—a perception he disputed in an interview days later with Richard Prince. Lemon told Prince that his comments were being misinterpreted. “I am not supporting stop-and-frisk,” Lemon told him.
But beyond stop-and-frisk, many are taking issue with the fact that Lemon is acting as a commentator at all.
“Actually, you shouldn’t be opposing or supporting it,” wrote Ray Suarez, host for Al Jazeera America. His Facebook post echoed what many others are saying—that Lemon should not be commenting on the day’s issues and still expect audiences to trust him as an anchor and reporter.
But as Kim Pearson, a journalism professor at The College of New Jersey, pointed out, Lemon wouldn’t be expressing opinions without endorsement from the higher-ups. “Clearly Don Lemon isn’t violating his CNN contract, or he would have been reigned in,” she said. In fact, Mediaite reported on Monday night that Lemon is being given his own show.
He had been anchoring the network’s primetime weekend news desk and serving as a US correspondent at CNN, which has long branded itself around reporting resources and reach. But grappling with falling ratings, the network cut back on both in-depth story packages and live-event coverage between 2007 and 2012, according to the Pew Center’s 2013 State of the Media report. The study found that opinion fills 85 percent of airtime on MSNBC, 55 percent on Fox News, and 46 percent on CNN.
Even though CNN still produces more straight news than its two cable news competitors, many media observers believe Lemon’s increasing forays into commentary represent a continued blurring of the lines between journalism and opinion.
And this blurring marks a shift. In a 2008 blog post, Chez Pazienza, a former producer for CNN who was fired for opinionated writing that year, published excerpts of a CNN policy forbidding employees from taking public positions on issues on which the organization reports. Pazienza writes that part of the policy states (capitalization theirs):
MOST IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER:
UNLESS GIVEN PERMISSION BY CNN MANAGEMENT, CNN EMPLOYEES ARE TO AVOID TAKING PUBLIC POSITIONS ON THE ISSUES AND PEOPLE AND ORGANIZATIONS ON WHICH WE REPORT. The best rule of thumb is, keep in mind whether what you are doing or saying is “in public.” In most cases, what you write online is public or can be made public.
But that was 2008, and CNN now has new leadership under Jeff Zucker, the former president and CEO of NBC Universal who was named president of CNN Worldwide at the beginning of the year.
“Jeff Zucker supposedly wants people to be able to express themselves, but if you look at the shows, you might have Carol Costello and Brooke Baldwin who may press people and who might be aggressive in their questioning, but there is no other anchor you can compare to at the network who frequently gives their opinion the way Don Lemon is,” said Martin.
The stop-and-frisk monologue isn’t the first time Lemon’s views have stirred controversy. In July, amid reports about murdered Florida teen Trayvon Martin, Lemon stopped reporting the news in order to pontificate on race and crime in America, lecturing African Americans to “pull up your pants” and “stop having children out of wedlock.” The blowback was so fast and furious that it led pundits on Fox News to defend him. Other African Americans, including comedian Bill Cosby, have expressed similar views. Cosby caught heat too, but he has also spent a lifetime educating audiences about the complexities of race and class in America, including the fact that blacks are not a monolithic group, while Lemon is accused of leaving out key nuances, facts and details, which renders his commentary both inaccurate and unfair.
This is all happening at a time when there has been a noticeable decline in diversity at CNN with the exits of several high-profile African American faces, leaving Lemon one of the few faces of color to mirror demographic changes in a country that cable news networks are charged with covering. Martin, who was temporarily suspended by CNN last year for homophobic remarks he made on Twitter, left the network earlier this year when CNN declined to renew his contract. Former anchors Soledad O’Brien and T.J. Holmes have also departed; O’Brien is currently a correspondent with the newly launched Al Jazeera America; Holmes had landed a late-night news-satire show on BET, but it was canceled after airing for just two months.
Like ministers, journalists don’t stop being journalists, which makes it difficult for many to understand how Lemon is expected to fill the role one minute, and abandon it the next to opine on the news. He needs to make a choice, media observers say.
Pearson believes that Lemon’s continued commentary probably doesn’t hurt CNN from a business standpoint. “A lot of people in CNN’s demographic probably didn’t see it because they don’t tune into The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” said Pearson. “But if Don wants to be a commentator, then that’s what he should do: stick to commentating.”