Is Don Lemon sexist? Maybe, but that's just part of the problem for CNN

The CNN anchor's thoughts about what constitutes a "woman's prime" leads us to conclude he needs a reassignment

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 24, 2023 5:45AM (EST)

Don Lemon attends the 16th annual CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute at the American Museum of Natural History on December 11, 2022 in New York City. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for CNN)
Don Lemon attends the 16th annual CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute at the American Museum of Natural History on December 11, 2022 in New York City. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for CNN)

Don Lemon finally did it. For the first time in the limited span during which I've been professionally obligated to track the "CNN This Morning" co-host, he inspired me to enter a search term into Google that wasn't some version of, "What did Don Lemon do now?"

Millions of people know what he did this time, but for the benefit of the blessed news cycle virgins who have avoided the latest fracas, here's a brief recap. On the Feb. 16 episode of CNN's still-nascent a.m. show, Lemon confronted former South Carolina Governor and Nikki Haley's ageist call for mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old with . . . more ageism, mixed with old-fashioned sexism.

"This whole talk about age makes me uncomfortable," admits the 56-year-old Lemon. "I think it's the wrong road to go down."

Then he hit his turn signal, lurched off the highway and eased on down said slippery road. "She says people, you know, politicians or something are not in their prime. Nikki Haley isn't in her prime. Sorry," he continues. "A woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s. That's not according to me."

Amazingly his co-hosts Poppy Harlow, who is in her "maybe 40s" and Kaitlan Collins, 30, barely twitched as this tumbled out of his mouth. Harlow did, however, calmly press him by saying, "What are you talk – Wait. Prime for what?

"It depends. It's just, like prime," declares Lemon, whose age qualifies for membership in the AARP. "If you look it up, if you Google, 'When is a woman in her prime?' it will say 20s, 30s and 40s . . . I'm just saying what the facts are. Google it, everybody at home. 'When is a woman in her prime?' It says 20, 30s, and 40s."

Don Lemon was always going to say something like this because he always has and likely always will.

That's what I did, along with who knows how many other people, only for all of us to be shocked by our collective finding that no such definitive answer exists. Instead, the top results consist of many outraged responses to Lemon's cocksure proclamation. "Don Lemon Is So, So Confused About a Woman's Prime,'" Slate fumes in a response that was published the same day.

USA Today called attention to Patricia Heaton's clapback thread on Twitter. Business has been very, very good for, a website dedicated to "redefining the over 50 woman." I doubt that I would have found this resource if not for Lemon's latest recurrence of the cognitive trots.

Meanwhile Haley, the woman who started it all, has been fundraising off the fuss.

On Wednesday, Lemon returned to the "CNN This Morning" desk after his absence on Monday and Tuesday and in the wake of an internal memo from CNN's CEO Chris Licht that assured Lemon's co-workers that he was contrite and had "agreed to participate in formal training." But he didn't even belch in the direction of an on-air apology, preferring to bust out a pre-air tweet to his theoretical audience: "I've heard you, I'm learning from you, and I'm committed to doing better." 

At this Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse wondered, "How much 'listening' and 'learning' must this man do to realize sexism is bad?"

Far be it from me, a woman bra strap-deep into her F**k It 40s, to tell anybody how they should react to Lemon's latest headlines. I will merely suggest that Hesse is on to something. Questions like that already have an answer, though, allowing us to leap over the noise to the conclusion we should draw from this incident and others like it.

It is this: Don Lemon was always going to say something like this because he always has and likely always will. That means he doesn't belong on morning television, where the audience traditionally skews female. Guess how many of those viewers Lemon would consider to be in or out of their "prime."

In some shadowy part of his Boss Brain, Licht had to have been aware of that when he moved Lemon from primetime to the morning slot and teamed him with Collins and Harlow. Licht came to CNN from CBS, where he presided over "CBS This Morning" (now known as "CBS Mornings") for four years and is credited for making it a true competitor in network news.

That wouldn't have happened if he hadn't struck pay dirt via the winning onscreen collegiality demonstrated by Gayle King, Norah O'Donnell and . . . let me check my notes, ah yes. Charlie Rose.

Perhaps he surmised Lemon would be less problematic than Rose. Who's to say? What we can discern is that an anchor who had the temerity to ask one of Bill Cosby's accusers why she didn't do a better job of fighting off his sexual assault  may not be the best guy to team up with two women.

This may not be a fair comparison – after all, said incident occurred in 2014. Why, that's ancient history! Everyone makes regrettable statements, especially in pressured situations. And live TV is nothing if not stressful. Pros simply know how to skate with the challenge.

Comfort on camera also has a way of loosening candor and, provided a producer has assembled the right components, can create onscreen alchemy. (Sometimes too much.) It can be that, or the opposite. Lemon's ease in the anchor chair on "Don Lemon Tonight" emboldened him to ask all kinds of borderline questions, including of commentator S.E. Cupp. When Cupp lost her train of thought during a September 2022 exchange, Lemon was moved to ask, "Is it fair to say – because I'm not a mommy, but is it mommy brain?" 

Three months later and not long after the launch of "CNN This Morning," Lemon was mansplaining to his colleagues that male soccer players deserve higher pay than their female counterparts with a better track record of wins, "because people are more interested in the men."

Lemon walked his way into this foul like so: "Everyone's gonna hate me, but: the men's team makes more money. If they make more money, then they should get more money." Harlow and Collins countered that with facts about unequal investment in men's sports versus women's, prompting Lemon to blurt, "I'm not sexist."

Later in that same broadcast, Harlow backed him up when he said it again, citing their decade-long friendship. Then he cited having grown up in a family of women, and all the strong women in his life – some of whom he cited in the apology he made the next day to his co-workers at CNN.

Comfort on camera ... can create onscreen alchemy. It can be that, or the opposite.

"The people I am closest to in this organization are women," Lemon said, according to a story by CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy. "The people I seek counsel from most in this organization are women."

Lemon probably genuinely believes he's not sexist in the same way that, say, Haley's competitor for the Republican nomination may genuinely believe he's not racist. Bringing this up is relevant. Lemon's reputation surged during Donald Trump's presidency due to his willingness to call out the former president's bigotry while many of his colleagues refused to state the obvious.

Lemon's -ism appears have taproots into the frontal cortex of his cerebrum, entangled in a way that may be impossible for any amount of "formal training" to overcome. Lemon probably has some clue about the obvious never-says. Sixteen years into his CNN career should have been enough time for a person to learn what not to speak out loud. But instructing a person on how not to think may be beyond the abilities of Warner Bros. Discovery's human resources department.

Meaning: if ad-libbed debate is the CNN morning squad's directive, Lemon's bound to get into trouble again.  

But let's disconnect gender from the subject for a moment to point out that most people don't want to start their day with a side of polarizing, acrid energy creeping into their headline round-ups. If Page Six is getting clicks from printing a body language expert's deconstruction of the evident tension displayed by Harlow on his first day back, regardless of said expertise's legitimacy, that signals a reconfiguration may be in order.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

The ratings tell a more reliable story.  Fox News' "Fox & Friends," with its perennially grinning, vapid hosts, is a Vegas Strip fountain of misinformation almost always delivered in agreement, and agreeably. That's why they're the primary morning destination for right-wing politicians, surrogates and the cable news audience, drawing an average of 1.2 million viewers in January.

MSNBC's "Morning Joe," which averaged a viewership of 827,000 last month, handles more substantive issues with relative jocularity, a product of the baked-in chemistry between Joe Scarborough and his co-host and wife Mika Brzezinski, along with fellow co-host Willie Geist.

Lemon's freshest fiasco only broadcasts the deficiencies dogging "CNN This Morning" to a wider audience that otherwise may have continued to ignore the show. The program's feeble performance since its November launch is reflected in its January total viewer average of 372,000 – the majority of which is comprised of women over the age of 50, according to media reporter Dylan Byers. (Its predecessor "New Day" averaged 414,000 total viewers across 2022 before it was yanked.)

This is not a call for Lemon to be fired, nor does it imply that what he said on the air this week is a minor slip-up not worth calling attention to. Recent TV news history shows that's unlikely to happen – it could, but it probably won't – especially since Lemon only offended with his stupidity as opposed to sexually assaulting colleagues or exhibiting a reckless lack of ethics. His former primetime colleague Chris Cuomo did much worse.

This may simply be Licht's wake-up call to shuffle Lemon off to a daypart for which he's better suited, because plainly morning television is not his gig. From there viewers can make their judgments about whether he's still in his prime, leaving his entirely capable "CNN This Morning" co-workers to get to work on ushering in its new day.



By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Chris Licht Cnn Commentary Don Lemon Kaitlan Collins Poppy Harlow Sexism