Out CNN anchor Don Lemon, widely criticized for recent remarks about women not being “in their prime” if they’re past their 40s, has a history of misogynistic and otherwise problematic behavior, several associates tell Variety — but Lemon disputes their accounts.
“Variety spoke with more than a dozen former and current colleagues who painted a picture of a journalist who flouted rules and cozied up to power all while displaying open hostility to many female co-workers,” the publication reports. “Each and every time, he appeared to charm his way out of facing any meaningful consequences.”
An early incident took place in 2008, two years after he joined CNN, when Lemon was anchoring Live From with Kyra Phillips. Phillips was sent to Iraq to cover the war there, an assignment Lemon had wanted. While she was gone, “he vented his disappointment at being passed over by tearing up pictures and notes on top of and inside Phillips’ desk in the news pod they shared, according to two sources who worked there at the time,” Variety reports. Also, threatening text messages to Phillips were traced to Lemon’s phone.
There was an investigation by CNN’s human resources department, and Lemon lost his co-anchor duties and was moved to weekends, according to Variety. However, Lemon said the incident never occurred and he never knew of any investigation, a CNN spokesperson said. “CNN cannot corroborate the alleged events from 15 years ago,” the spokesperson added. Phillips did not comment to Variety.
Among other interactions with female colleagues, “Lemon called one of his producers fat to her face” and mocked CNN host Nancy Grace on-air, the publication reports. During a conference call with coworkers, he questioned whether Soledad O’Brien, who is of Afro-Cuban heritage, was actually Black, according to those on the call — something Lemon denies doing. Colleagues said he resented that O’Brien got the job of hosting CNN’s Black in America series.
“Don has long had a habit of saying idiotic and inaccurate things, so it sounds pretty on brand for him,” O’Brien, who wasn’t on the call, told Variety.
Others who spoke to Variety accused Lemon of “diva-like behavior,” such as complaining that colleague Anderson Cooper got more time on the air when they were both covering Michael Jackson’s memorial service in 2009. They also said he disregarded CNN policy by beginning a relationship with a 22-year-old CNN employee when Lemon was 41, as “dating a junior employee was frowned upon at the time,” Variety reports. Lemon wasn’t publicly out as gay yet, “but wasn’t hiding it either,” the publication notes.
The sources said Lemon “became more of a provocateur” after Jeff Zucker became head of CNN in 2013. He criticized the Black community on-air, and commentator Goldie Taylor, who had often appeared on Lemon’s show, objected to his remarks and said she was blacklisted for doing so. The CNN spokesperson said he didn’t know why CNN ended its relationship with Taylor.
In 2014, while interviewing one of the women who accused Bill Cosby of rape, Lemon suggested that she could have fought back by biting Cosby’s penis — which “drew widespread condemnation,” Variety notes.
Last September, he asked S.E. Cupp on-air if she had “mommy brain” because she “was stumbling over a statistic,” the publication reports. She appeared shocked, then said she simply blanked on what she was going to say. Also, late last year on CNN This Morning, he asserted that the U.S. men’s soccer team deserves to be paid more than the women’s team because the men are “more interesting to watch.”
And in 2021, actor Jussie Smollett testified in court that a text he received from Lemon was the first indication he had that Chicago police thought his story about being a hate-crime victim was a hoax. Some colleagues said Lemon was unprofessional in sending the text, but a CNN spokesperson told Variety there was nothing wrong with it, as “Don was attempting to prompt a response from Mr. Smollett and book him for his show.”
Many observers expected that Lemon would be punished for his comments about women being past their prime, which came in a February discussion of Republican presidential aspirant Nikki Haley, who is 51. The remarks appeared to shock Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins, his co-anchors on CNN This Morning, and Harlow walked off the set for a moment. He was off the air for two days, but he remains in the assignment. He has apologized and pledged to do better.