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Monday, April 24, 2023

Don Lemon, CNN Star Anchor, Departs Network Abruptly - The New York Times

Don Lemon Ousted From CNN in Move That Left Him ‘Stunned’

"Mr. Lemon, one of the network’s most recognizable stars, had been under scrutiny since an uproar over on-air remarks he made about women and aging in February.

Don Lemon during the second night of CNN’s Democratic presidential primary debate in Detroit in 2019. Mr. Lemon had a reputation as a fiery political commentator at the network.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Don Lemon is out at CNN.

In an announcement that Mr. Lemon said left him “stunned,” CNN on Monday declared an end to its longtime relationship with Mr. Lemon, a star anchor who was a fixture of the network’s prime-time lineup before enduring a short but controversial tenure as a morning show co-host.

“CNN and Don have parted ways,” Chris Licht, CNN’s chairman, said in a statement. “Don will forever be a part of the CNN family, and we thank him for his contributions over the past 17 years. We wish him well and will be cheering him on in his future endeavors.”

That benign language contrasted sharply with Mr. Lemon’s interpretation of the day’s events. In a scathing message on Twitter, Mr. Lemon told viewers that he was abruptly informed by his talent agent “that I have been terminated by CNN.”

“I am stunned,” Mr. Lemon wrote. “After 17 years at CNN I would have thought that someone in management would have had the decency to tell me directly. At no time was I ever given any indication that I would not be able to continue to do the work I have loved at the network.” (CNN disputed Mr. Lemon’s account, saying the anchor “was offered an opportunity to meet with management but instead released a statement on Twitter.”)

In a clear sign of acrimony, Mr. Lemon has retained the aggressive Hollywood litigator Bryan Freedman to handle his exit. His contract with CNN runs through 2026, with roughly $20 million still to be paid, according to two people with direct knowledge of his deal.

Hours before the dueling statements, Mr. Lemon, 57, had appeared on air in his usual anchor chair on “CNN This Morning,” the show he has hosted since November with Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins. He showed no signs of anxiety and signed off to viewers with a smile and a friendly, “Bye, everybody.”

One of CNN’s most recognizable stars, Mr. Lemon had a reputation as a fiery political commentator during his eight years as a prime-time anchor. But inside the network, he began to lose support after he made remarks in February about women and aging that were widely perceived to be sexist. The incident generated a national uproar and a rare public rebuke from Mr. Licht.

Mr. Lemon had asserted on-air that Nikki Haley, the 51-year-old Republican presidential candidate, “isn’t in her prime, sorry,” adding, “A woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s.” He dismissed the objections of his female co-hosts by responding, “I’m just saying what the facts are — Google it.” He later apologized to the CNN newsroom and agreed to a corporate training program to address his on-air behavior.

Allies of Mr. Lemon had hoped he would turn the page from the incident. But executives at CNN gradually concluded that his future at CNN had become untenable, according to two people who spoke on condition of anonymity because the internal discussions were sensitive.

In recent weeks, CNN’s bookers had discovered that some guests did not want to appear on-air with Mr. Lemon, and research on the morning show reviewed by CNN executives found that his popularity with audiences had fallen, one of the people said.

In its Monday statement, CNN said that its morning show — a major initiative of Mr. Licht — would continue. “‘CNN This Morning’ has been on the air for nearly six months, and we are committed to its success,” the network said.

Still, Mr. Lemon’s exit raises the possibility of a bigger overhaul. Ms. Collins, a former White House correspondent, recently drew solid ratings during a weeklong run as a substitute host at 9 p.m., fueling speculation within the network that she might be considered for a permanent position in the time slot.

For Mr. Lemon, his abrupt exit capped a dramatic fall for an anchor who just seven months ago was happily ensconced in prime time. His long-running 10 p.m. program, “Don Lemon Tonight,” drew fans for his spiky exchanges and pull-no-punches commentary on politics and the Trump White House.

Mr. Lemon imported that persona to “CNN This Morning,” but it was an awkward fit for an hour when many viewers — making breakfast and getting children off to school — want easygoing patter, not thundering monologues.

Tensions also emerged between Mr. Lemon and one of his co-anchors, Ms. Collins. In December, “CNN This Morning” crew members were rattled after a backstage incident where Mr. Lemon accused Ms. Collins of interrupting him too often.

In recent weeks, CNN leaders were hopeful that Mr. Lemon would adjust to his new morning-show role and that higher ratings would follow.

Last Wednesday, however, Mr. Lemon made headlines again after a highly contentious on-air exchange with Vivek Ramaswamy, a Republican presidential candidate. The segment deteriorated as the men fiercely debated questions of Black history and the Second Amendment; Mr. Lemon’s co-anchor, Ms. Harlow, could be seen sitting silently beside him, at times casting her gaze elsewhere and scrolling through her smartphone.

The incident left several CNN leaders exasperated, the people said.

Mr. Lemon joined CNN in 2006 from a local NBC station in Chicago. In 2011, he made waves when he acknowledged in a memoir what many of his colleagues already knew: he is gay. At the time, few national television newscasters were out in public. Mr. Lemon was upfront about what he described as the risks of coming out as a Black man, sharing his concerns “that people might shun me.”

“CNN This Morning” was a marquee initiative of Mr. Licht, a former morning-show producer who succeeded Jeff Zucker as CNN’s leader in May 2022, has overseen major changes at the network since its parent company was acquired by Warner Bros. Discovery in a mega media merger. Dozens of CNN employees were laid off and some major producers and anchors left.

“CNN This Morning” has gotten off to a very slow start in the ratings, and struggled to keep pace with its predecessor, “New Day.” At an appearance last week at the Paley Center for Media, Mr. Licht said that mornings were “the most competitive” hours in television.

“To launch a new show takes time,” Mr. Licht said. “And so it absolutely has had growing pains, and it will absolutely continue to evolve.” The program will now evolve without Mr. Lemon at the helm.

In a cheerful announcement in September, Mr. Lemon described the chance to host a new morning show as “a thrill” and praised Mr. Licht for selecting him. “I was honestly floored when Chris Licht asked me to do this, and I’m honored by his belief in me,” the anchor wrote at the time.

“Set your alarms folks,” Mr. Lemon added, “because we’re going to have a lot of fun.”

Don Lemon, CNN Star Anchor, Departs Network Abruptly - The New York Times

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