Cover Story: Can Don Lemon set CNN straight?

Cable news is broken and the ‘CNN Newsroom’ anchor could be the guy to fix it

Earlier this year, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” ran a segment titled “CNN’s Don Lemon appears to not care for CNN.” The clip shows the Atlanta-based “CNN Newsroom” anchor, not an especially high-profile presence at the network, repeatedly going off-script live on the air. He condescends to a fluff piece about Harry Potter and laughingly complains about an overwritten bit concerning fictional superheroes, to which Stewart interjects, “That may be the nicest way I’ve ever heard anyone say, ‘Who writes this shit?’” The segment’s big punch line shows CNN morning anchor Ali Velshi staging some sort of parlor trick involving a broom, a silver platter, and an egg dropping from a toilet paper tube into a glass of water. The vibe is unflatteringly reminiscent of David Letterman’s “Stupid Human Tricks.” After the trick is executed, Velshi says, “Oh! I got to tell you, I like Don Lemon a lot. But he’s going to have to work hard to top that. ‘CNN Newsroom’ begins right now with Don Lemon. Good morning, Don.”

Lemon responds, “Good morning, I don’t think I’m going to have to work that hard. What the heck was that?”

The thing is, though, that someone over at CNN is going to have to work very, very hard if they want to stop the decline the network has been experiencing for years. The 24-hour television news cycle CNN invented three decades ago has become overrun with unabashed partisan pandering from MSNBC and Fox. CNN has floundered, flailing around while ratings plummet — its prime-time viewership dropped 37 percent in 2010, the most of any news network. CNN might be the last guy in the TV room with any honest dedication to nonpartisan journalism, but that doesn’t count for much when it’s pushing fluff pieces like the ones Lemon mocked live on the air.

To hear Lemon go off-script is to hear what we’re all thinking at home: “What the hell is going on with cable news?” The partisan networks don’t ask questions, they just give the answers the viewers want to hear. CNN too often seems to think loud noises and cute moments are a good fit for the news. But cable news doesn’t need another voice to yell over everyone else, it needs someone who can ask questions and be frank about the fact that the status quo is broken. Could Lemon be the guy to fix it?

Don Lemon is not quite ready. It’s noon and the 45-year-old anchor is standing at the door of his Virginia-Highland home in pin-striped pajama pants and a loose white tee. In five hours, he will be wearing a designer suit and tie, his face airbrushed, looking into a camera and discussing the capture of Muammar Gaddafi’s son live with an international correspondent reporting from Libya. He’s not there yet.

“Ben is still here,” he hollers as he walks down the hallway to his bathroom. “You can talk to him.” Lemon is referring to Ben Tinker, a CNN producer he’s been dating for a few years. Though his friends and co-workers were already well aware that Lemon is gay, he only came out publicly earlier this year, around the same time he published a memoir, Transparent.

The book isn’t a trophy case of big catches, as some journalists’ memoirs are, but something closer to a coming-of-age story. His childhood in Port Allen, La., in the late ’60s and ’70s was complicated. His father was married to a woman other than his mother and died when Lemon was 9. He was sexually abused by an older neighbor. He took some time coming to terms with his sexuality. In part, the point for Lemon in telling all of this is to explain that nothing good came of keeping secrets. He argues convincingly for transparency, in his life as well as his work.

Last year, while reporting on the scandal surrounding Bishop Eddie Long, an Atlanta-based Prosperity Gospel leader who was accused of child molestation, Lemon sat down with three young members of Long’s church. After listening to Long’s devotees defend his every action, he responded by saying, “What got my attention about this, and I’ve never admitted this on television, I was a victim of a pedophile when I was a kid.” It was an unusually candid admission from an anchor, to say the least, but Lemon brought it up in a way that contributed to the conversation, to talk about the methods of an abuser. Rather than taking a judgmental stance on Long, Lemon was admitting perspective, saying, “This is where I’m coming from.”

Transparent works to do exactly that, explain where Lemon is coming from as a reporter. He recalls dropping out of college to chase television news work in New York, hustling his way up from the bottom at a Fox affiliate while taking night classes, fighting for important stories as an anchor. He describes in detail his efforts to do serious HIV/AIDS coverage while an anchor at Chicago’s NBC affiliate WMAQ and the continual rejection and disinterest in the story from management. Instead of giving up, he researched and personally funded a trip to four countries in Africa — Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, and Tanzania — where the epidemic was raging in 2005. The project was awarded two Emmys.

While Lemon gets dressed, Tinker hangs around in the living room for a few minutes, chatting about his recent move to Atlanta from New York. Art of all sorts — paintings, photographs, collages — adorns the walls. A beautiful Thornton Dial monograph sits prominently on the coffee table. Tinker is friendly, sweet even, but not very interested in being interviewed. In an industry like television, where one is either in front of the camera or behind it, Tinker clearly prefers the latter. Lemon, arriving back in the living room, is obviously the former.

He’s now wearing a pressed white shirt open at the collar and tucked into slacks with black, sharp-looking shoes. He has a full, masculine build and a commanding presence that puts one in mind of a politician. In person, his smooth, cream-in-coffee complexion looks as flawless at home as it does under layers of television makeup. His smile is striking. It is not an overstatement to say that his clear eyes literally glitter in the sunlight.

Lemon wants to get lunch at his favorite neighborhood spot, Murphy’s, and as he walks in the door the valet guy, someone leaving with a to-go box, the bartender, they all eagerly say, “Hey, Don.” He chats warmly with each and then looks aside to say, “Sometimes I feel like the mayor.”

Sitting at the bar with a cup of decaf tea, Lemon reiterates twice, “You can ask me anything. Really.” That attitude clearly shapes his presence as an anchor. “I just want to be me,” he says. “I want to be the person who goes, ‘What the hell?’ or ‘That’s really funny,’ or ‘Sorry, I screwed that up.’ I don’t want to be perfect. I want to be real.”

“In general, when I watch cable news during the day, it’s frustrating because it reminds me of a game show. If I want to watch ‘The Price is Right,’ I’ll watch ‘The Price is Right.’ I’m not consciously thinking that when I’m on the air, but that’s just my personality. To be like, ‘Are we really doing this?’”

Lemon talks at length about his frustration with gimmicks, the flashy sound effects that sound like outtakes from an action movie, the quizzes meant to keep viewers watching over a commercial break (“If I really want to know the answer I’ll just Google it,” he says), and the way those ploys work to dumb down the audience and lose more in long-term credibility and viewership than any temporary gain. “I think you can have fun on TV, but you should pick your moments. It should be natural. You shouldn’t build in ‘Oh, this is our cutesy moment of the day!’”

Lemon is always on his iPhone, constantly checking Twitter and Facebook and talking back to viewers, even during live commercial breaks. “I think everyone in news media has whiplash, trying to figure out what to do, how to keep an audience, how to keep viewers or gain viewers where there are tons more choices now and not just in cable but with the Internet, social media, all of that.”

He’s also eager to say that television can do something his phone can’t: “You have to have a personality, someone who is engaging, in order to pull people in. You’re drawn in by a human, by someone who you relate to or a personality you like, because otherwise you may as well just go on your iPad.”

Cable networks are already well aware of this. The openly partisan networks put in an anchor that speaks to a specific political demographic, a Rachel Maddow liberal or a Sean Hannity conservative, and pander directly to the audience they court. That task is more complicated for CNN, which has, to its credit, resisted relying on partisan programming.

When asked what typecast role CNN intends for him to play, what type of anchor he’s expected to be, Lemon pauses. He winces. “I think they want me to be the good-looking black guy. That’s what I think. I don’t know.” He talks about not knowing how his book might affect his career, how coming out and being critical could play into that. At one point he says, “I don’t know what will happen when my contract comes up.” He thinks about it for a minute and says, “People want to have a box to put you in and I don’t fit in anyone’s box.”

For what it’s worth, that statement seems to ring true for Lemon. It’s easy to assume that a gay black guy like Lemon is a diehard liberal, until the moment in his book when he gushes about Ronald Reagan or recalls his time involved with Young Republicans in college. He even has plenty of kind words to say about Bill O’Reilly. Maybe those things are something of a put-on; he certainly skews liberal at times. Ultimately, Lemon’s not interested in giving anyone the answers they want to hear, “I’m not concerned with what people think of me,” he says. “I mean, I’m a gay black guy. If I can’t ask questions without caring what people think of me, who can?”

“News people are human. They have backgrounds, they have certain lenses, they have certain filters. I don’t believe any newsperson should be ideological or partisan. I think you should always seek to point out the truth and if something is bullshit, it’s bullshit.”

He checks his phone. It’s time to go to work.

Past the security guards and escalators at CNN’s world headquarters, Lemon arrives at a newsroom that feels roughly the size of football field, though it’s probably smaller than that, and filled with desks and about 100 reporters. Each desk is equipped with a computer and three flat screen monitors.

Lemon gets settled into his desk, combs his hair with an Afro pick, the classic kind with the big, black fist for a handle, and then announces to anyone in earshot, “Oh, and everything you say today is going to end up in Creative Loafing.”

In this newsroom, whatever industry trouble CNN may be facing isn’t immediately palpable. The team of reporters and producers works briskly and with orchestrated focus, convening for a meeting to discuss the latest story developments. Occupy Wall Street gets a lot of talk. An animal rights group has released video from a factory farm that has left McDonald’s in damage-control mode. A couple of producers sketch out a rough schedule of priorities on a white board while reporters hash out the details. The capture of Gaddafi’s son in Libya is set to be the lead story at 5 p.m.

While Lemon starts to work over a script for the newscast, a senior producer, Glenn Emery, walks over. He talks a lot about his years of work with the network, how he can’t imagine working for any other news network: “Journalism is still the gold standard here. As much as possible.” He also says that he’s leaving in January.

Lemon checks his Twitter feed on his iPhone and shows me a message from a viewer that reads, “Why are all of the black anchors on the weekend?” When I ask him what he thinks about that, he just shrugs his shoulders. Later, at a photo shoot for this story, I ask him if he knows why T.J. Holmes decided to leave CNN for BET. He shrugs his shoulders again at that question, “I think he probably wanted something more than weekends.” After considering it a bit longer, he says, “If we complain about it, we’re malcontents but if you don’t how do you sleep at night?”

Lemon is assertive about his abilities. In Transparent, he complains about being assigned to lesser crime reporting while an anchor in Chicago, saying, “Sending me, with all I had learned from my experiences with NBC News, out to cover a shooting was like sending a tank out to break up a fight between a couple of kindergartners.” He carries himself in that cocksure and convinced manner, too. But the traits that come across as self-important in person are the same mannerisms that make Lemon magnetic in front of a camera and lights.

Minutes before he’s scheduled to be on the air, Lemon heads into what looks like a full-blown hair and makeup salon. A guy with long hair and a soul patch sets into working on him without saying a word. He fixes his hair, sets up a few layers of makeup, breaks out an airbrush and works it over his face.

Lemon walks from hair and makeup directly to the “CNN Newsroom” studio, which is preceded by a series of black doors with warning signs, the kind of thing that usually precedes air-tight chambers in Hollywood films or indoor shooting ranges. Once you pass through, you enter into a glass, square fishbowl room filled with computers. It’s a room you imagine might have a name like “Control Room.” There is no one in this room.

Past the “Control Room” is the “Newsroom” set, a white cube of futuristic flat and white polished surfaces lit by about a hundred different cannon-shaped lights pointing in all directions. Every surface that isn’t white and polished is smokily transparent and illuminated by moving, multicolor fiber optic lights. The cameras are the only fixtures that don’t fit into this polished and glowing sphere. They are hulking black monsters trailed by thick cords that look lifted from an H.R. Giger illustration and move across the floor in smooth but sloth-like glides.

None of this seems that strange and alienating to the people working here. The young crew walks around in an unhurried and casual manner that doesn’t much mimic the frantic pace of up-to-the-minute news. Occasionally, someone makes that hand and finger pointing like a gun gesture that people are supposed to make on television sets. Lemon has his iPhone out again, his thumb sliding slowly against the screen in the unmistakable manner of someone checking a Twitter feed.

Everyone working on the set wears an earpiece through which they hear a live feed of the show’s audio: the video clips, the wooshing transitions, the talking heads in distant studios, and so on. If you’re not part of the crew and don’t have an earpiece, the room remains almost completely, eerily silent. Every once in a while, someone will say something like, “Two minutes.” On occasion, one member of the crew will speak with another about something in a hushed murmur. Otherwise, the set is silent, sealed off from the world.

At 5 p.m, the set swings into motion. Lemon looks directly into the camera and says, “We begin with new developments from Libya and a big capture. The most wanted man in Libya is in custody right now. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the notorious dictator, was captured in a desert gun battle.”

Lemon discusses the situation with an international correspondent. The crew can hear both sides of the conversation and Lemon nods along as she talks. On a nearby monitor, both Lemon and the correspondent are visible, transformed into side-by-side talking heads. But the room itself is silent. It takes just a second to realize that this whole studio, the entire science-fiction-like infrastructure has been built here just so this one guy, the anchor, can sit in a quiet room and ask questions. It is an awe-inducing thought, that this place is a calibrated, finely tuned institution solely in the service of question asking.

Lemon asks the correspondent, “What’s the reaction in Tripoli?”

The strangeness of the studio is that it easily can become something else; in a minute you could be filming something entirely different than the news. It could be a scene in Star Wars. It could be a comedy show. What’s disconcerting is that the gimmicks and the stupid jokes and the fluff pieces fit in so easily here. It feels like if we look away for just a moment, we might look back and the news really will be a game show.

Lemon’s attitude, his style of talking back to his own show and to CNN itself, is a reminder that the whole reason for his job, for this room existing at all, is to ask questions. The moment that gets obscured, it just becomes another television show. Sure, he’s a bit vain and a little cocksure, but this guy wants the news to be just as much of a star as himself. He doesn’t want to be the loudest voice in the room, he wants to ask questions. It seems so simple, but it might be the best bet cable news has for a future.

Lemon asks another question. “Is this the last big catch? Who else is out there?”