NEW YORK — CNN’s Don Lemon braced himself after being recognized by a viewer on a Harlem street. “I don’t always agree with you,” the person began, ominously. “But keep it up. I’m not always supposed to agree with you.”
His decision to speak out traces directly to coming out publicly as gay in a memoir published three years ago.
Recently, while moderating a discussion with four women on the firing of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, Lemon said he didn’t believe in equal pay for equal work in all circumstances – the verbal equivalent of sticking his head in a lion’s mouth. He denounced Florida’s “stand your ground” law in coverage of a trial involving it. He offered troubled pop star Chris Brown advice “from one black man to another” in a segment on Tom Joyner’s radio show.
No incident attracted more attention than when Lemon said he agreed with some criticism of blacks by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. Young black men should think about pulling up their pants, staying in school, not using the n-word, not having children out of wedlock and taking interest in their communities, Lemon said.
That provoked a response from entrepreneur Russell Simmons, who wrote an open letter saying, “I can’t accept that you would single out black teenagers as the cause of their own demise because they don’t speak the King’s English or wear belts around their waistbands.”
Lemon said he knew that he would get a reaction, and that it was important to start a conversation.
“What surprised me was how many people would be taking it out of context and trying to turn it into something that it was not, that it was a criticism of African-Americans to tell them how to act, that it had something to do with racism,” he said. “That had nothing to do with racism. That was self-empowerment.”
Too often, he said, people think all blacks should feel the same way about issues and criticize any deviation, “which, to me, is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
There’s some concern Lemon is reacting to symptoms rather than the causes of problems in the black community, said Eric Deggans, author of Race Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation.
“I’ve always felt that Don was an underappreciated anchor, and was afraid that he’d be another one of those black anchors at CNN who hasn’t seemed to stick around,” Deggans said. “I’m really glad that CNN values him enough to put him in prime time because I think it’s important.”
CNN has no problem with Lemon’s opinions, so long as he’s not predictably partisan. Janelle Rodriguez, vice president of programming at CNN U.S., said Lemon talks to viewers instead of talking down to them.
“Having a personality is a positive attribute,” Rodriguez said.
Lemon had contracted to write a self-help book a few years ago and the subject even bored him. He turned it into a memoir, including the revelation he is gay. He wasn’t sure he would include that fact before sending his manuscript to CNN’s standards and practices department for review. His company didn’t try to stop him, only warned him to be prepared for the attention.
He worried openly at the time whether it would hurt his career. It hasn’t been much of an issue, although when Lemon criticized Rush Limbaugh for being a “stunt king” for comments the radio commentator made about Donald Sterling, Limbaugh made sure his rebuttal included the fact that Lemon “sleeps with men, proudly.”
Talking openly about his sexuality and being abused as a child has made him free to put more of himself into his work, Lemon said.
“For me, personally, it’s been empowering,” he said, “and I can’t go back.”