“The word ‘no’ really bothers me. The surest way to get me to do something is to tell me that I can’t do it. Tell me ‘no’ and you’ve got a fight on your hands. A rebellion. A challenge.”
Those words were written by Don Lemon who, as host of the prime time weekend edition of CNN, is one of television’s most familiar, most respected and most popular news anchors.
The words are also in keeping with Lemon’s outspoken nature and determination to keep it real in every situation.
“As a journalist, I’m a huge believer in transparency,” he continued. “I don’t like communication with a hidden agenda, and I don’t like people who conceal things to make themselves look better.
“Transparency in the process of obtaining information is crucial. Without it, ‘the news’ might as well be called ‘the spin’ or ‘the opinion.’ If a fact is concealed or missing, you get a very different picture of a person or an event than you might have with full disclosure.
“If you don’t present the viewers with as complete a picture as you can draw, you skew the results. You fail to give the people what they need in order to be able to draw their own conclusions.”
LEMON HAS also not been shy about leveling criticism at CNN whenever he has felt it was justified. Some would say that is biting the hand the feeds you, but Lemon views it as clear communication.
Born Donald Carlton Lemon in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Lemon joined CNN in September of 2006. He had majored in broadcast journalism at Brooklyn College, in Brooklyn, New York. He attended Louisiana State University as well.
He secured a news assistant position at WNYW (TV 5 in New York) while he was still in college. Later, he was a weekend anchor at WCAU (TV 10 in Philadelphia), investigative reporter and anchor for KTVI (TV 2 in St. Louis) and anchor at WBRC (TV 6 in Birmingham, Alabama).
Lemon has much to say about a limiting force that he has labeled “the black box.”
“Again and again in my life, I’ve run up against those who have limited ideas about what and who Black Americans are, and sometimes expressions of those limitations have come from Black people themselves,” he said. “I call these beliefs ‘the black box.’”
He recalled, “As a high school student, I was on the receiving end of assumptions from Blacks and Whites about what it meant to be Black. Now, 30 years later, I’m still having those experiences.
“I’ve always had a sense of the limits of ‘the box’ and I have resisted going within its limits.”
Lemon recalls one of his college professors telling him bluntly —and meaning every word of it — that he would never make it in the field of journalism.
“The impact of my professor’s comments had a searing effect on me,” he said. “I had a moment of clarity. I realized that if I stayed in Louisiana, my professor’s words would probably come true. I realized that if I were going to make it, I’d have to create a new opportunity for myself somewhere else.
“PERHAPS MOST importantly, I realized how much I wanted to make it, for myself and for all of the other Black students who, day in and day out, were told in ways both subtle and overt, that they weren’t good enough.”
James Brown was often tagged “the hardest working man in show business,” and today, Beyoncé has been described as “the hardest working woman in show business.”
If Don Lemon is not “the hardest working man in TV journalism,” he is certainly one of the top contenders. His work ethic is strong, he loves a good challenge and no wall is too high for him to scale. In several instances he has been put in harm’s way, but he used any fear and anxiety as fuel.
Lemon is an expert on how TV stations and networks target their audiences. Little, if anything, is left to chance.
“Time and money are allocated toward certain information and certain audiences,” he said.
It’s about who advertisers want to reach.
“The next time you watch the evening news, pay close attention to the commercials,” he advises. “The commercials tell you exactly who the program is aimed at. The stories in the broadcast, other than the breaking news of the day, will be aimed at exactly the same people as the commercials.”
IN 2011, Don Lemon sparked a substantial amount of controversy by revealing to the public that he is gay, something he never hid from friends, family and co-workers,
He made this move in response to Tyler Clementi, a college student who took his own life, unable to deal with what he had to endure because of his sexual orientation.
“I believe that now is the time for all of us to acknowledge, once and for all, that God made some of us straight and some of us gay,” said Lemon with typical candor.
“I have absolutely no shame in being gay. It’s a fact, much like the fact that my skin is brown, that I was born in Louisiana or that my favorite color is blue. It’s part of who I am.”
And it has nothing to do with his work.
Back to that work ethic:
“I know it’s weird, but I often work on my vacations,” he said. “I work so much because I love it, and I love opportunities to try new things. I’m always looking for a new experience because with every experience comes a new perspective and a new story. This is what I thrive on.”
The Emmy Award-winning Lemon offers some good advice, no matter what one’s profession might be.
“Working hard pays off,” he said. “People notice who’s putting in the extra mile, who’s being innovative and who’s thinking beyond any kind of box.”
Editor’s note: Quotes used in this story are from Don Lemon’s autobiography, “Transparent” (Farrah Gray Publishing, 2011).