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New Year, New Don Lemon

The controversial CNN host has reinvented himself as a vessel for millennial instinct. Unfortunately, he’s still a cable news anchor.

(CNN/Ringer illustration)
(CNN/Ringer illustration)

Hey, remember when everyone hated Don Lemon? No? You don’t recall how he was once the most mocked CNN anchor, a telegenic buffoon who once frequently inserted himself as the rational man at the heart of various news developments and civil rights crises only to find himself on everyone’s bad side? Remember when he said that Black Lives Matter activists needed to “grow up” and “start listening” instead of protesting? In fairness, this was an eternity ago. By “eternity,” I mean a year and some change. October 2015. It was a different time.

Lemon’s infamy among media critics and Black Twitter dates back a few years. Following George Zimmerman’s acquittal on murder and manslaughter charges in the death of Trayvon Martin in 2013, Lemon notoriously hosted a “tough love” segment where he cosigned Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s fear-mongering about “black-on-black crime.” A year later, Lemon and Talib Kweli argued about CNN’s coverage of the protests in Ferguson. Later the same year, Lemon interviewed Bill Cosby accuser Joan Tarshis, and wondered aloud why she didn’t resist his alleged advances more forcefully. He asked Arsalan Iftikhar, a human rights attorney, “Do you support ISIS?” This is Don Lemon’s pre-Trump highlight reel: an unbroken streak of L’s that nonetheless coincided with a steady climb in his viewership, which has occasionally peaked over CNN anchors including Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, and Jake Tapper since 2015. Lemon is bad for civic life, perhaps, but he’s exceptionally good for the news business. Tapper may be CNN’s prime-time brain, but Lemon is the network’s face, its voice, and — unfortunately — its future.

The best thing Lemon ever did (for himself, if for no one else) was to get locked into an ongoing feud with Donald Trump. Responding to an August panel discussion about violent overtones in Trump’s campaign rhetoric, the president once called Lemon “dumb as a rock.” It’s a tricky ad hominem since it’s not so different from how many media followers might have once described Lemon six months ago. There’s an entire GQ profile that casts Lemon as being as smug and unbearable in person as he is on TV. If you Google “don lemon black people,” you’ll see the now-charred remains of a cottage industry once dedicated to mocking and contradicting him, with unfortunate suggestions in the “Related Searches” section such as “don lemon black people need to pull up their pants” and “don lemon is a coon.”

Lemon’s running stand-off with Trump marked the inflection point of a broader rehabilitation, one apparently designed to make Lemon more personally and politically relatable to his core demographic. When CNN covered New Year’s Eve festivities this year, it sent Lemon and his fellow anchor Brooke Baldwin to broadcast live from the Spotted Cat Music Club in New Orleans. While Baldwin seemed sober, Lemon took tequila shots and began venting about dating and his work-life balance on camera. At one point, he removes his jacket and nearly submits to a live nipple piercing at Kathy Griffin’s insistence. Lemon gets his left ear pierced in the middle of the bar instead. “I’m cutting you off after this one,” Baldwin tells him.

It was a glorious sight, and a personal resolution as much as it was an act of public rebranding: New year, new me! Now, just two months deep into 2017, Lemon has largely reinvented himself as a bland vessel for millennial instinct. In the past few days, he’s endeared himself to many liberal viewers in the course of two different CNN segments. On Friday night, he shut down a five-way panel discussion about President Trump’s travel expenses when one guest, GOP consultant Paris Dennard, wouldn’t quit characterizing the conversation as “fake news.”

Lemon asked Dennard, “Do you actually know what the definition of fake news is?”

“What we’re doing right now,” Dennard answered.

“Please stop it with that stupid talking point,” Lemon said before cutting the segment short and signing off for the weekend. Left unresolved by the host and his panelists was whether the segment was indeed a decent use of anyone’s time.

On Monday night, Lemon hosted the documentary filmmaker Ami Horowitz, whose Friday appearance on Fox News inspired President Trump, while addressing a Florida rally on Saturday, to decry a fictional terror attack carried out by fictional refugees in the very real Kingdom of Sweden. The Fox News segment focused on a digital short, released via YouTube in December, in which Horowitz made several claims linking immigrants to a (fictional) surge in violent crime in Sweden. Lemon, playing the hero for once, rigorously debunked Horowitz’s stats. In a single weekend, Lemon became a champion for reason and justice. (It’s like his Arsalan Iftikhar interview never happened!) But in this case, Lemon can take only as much credit for disarming Horowitz as his industry, cable news, can take for amplifying Horowitz in the first place.

Don Lemon isn’t the only cable news asset who’s enjoying a post-Trump boom. His unique ratings successes aside, many of CNN’s anchors — Lemon, Baldwin, Cooper, and Erin Burnett — have all seen major upticks in key viewership ratings since the eve of President Trump’s election. But CNN has successfully positioned Lemon as bait for the millennial attention economy, which is a vicious cycle of nonsense. Lemon, who now makes a big show of opposing Trump, is in no position to hold the president accountable in meaningful ways; his industry requires him to convene overstaffed panels in response to unreasonably dramatic BREAKING NEWS alerts. The new Lemon — much like the old Lemon — seeks attention, but not results. That’s cable news for you. It’s a uniquely debased medium, corrosive and worthless, and its current state is not Don Lemon’s fault. Nonetheless, he’s still the problem.