Variety did its part Wednesday in seeking to bury scandal-ridden liberal journalist Don Lemon of CNN, uncorking a 2,300-word-plus tome entitled “Don Lemon’s Misogyny at CNN, Exposed: Malicious Texts, Mocking Female Co-Workers and ‘Diva-Like Behavior’” with allegations from “more than a dozen sources” of bravado, creepiness, and pettiness that he so often criticized others (especially Donald Trump) for possessing.
Siegel — who was reporter who’s story on an ABC News producer was watered down without her permission — began with stunning anecdotes about Lemon’s time in the late 2000s in which he was anchoring a weekday show Live From with Kyra Phillips (who’s now with ABC).
After saying “tensions between the pair kept mounting” “for months” with Lemon having to be “pull[ed]...off the air during a commercial break,” Siegel said, at one point, Phillips was selected to go “on assignment in Iraq” and Lemon seethed at being passed over.
In response, Lemon “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.”
It got even worse as Phillips allegedly returned and, while out to dinner, “she received the first of two threatening text messages from an unknown number on her flip phone that warned, ‘Now you’ve crossed the line, and you’re going to pay for it.’”
Phillips “quickly enlisted CNN’s higher ups to identify the sender” and “were traced back to Lemon.” Siegel said “a human resources investigation was launched” and resulted in Lemon being “abruptly pulled from his co-anchor duties with Phillips and moved to the weekends.”
In the first of several embarrassing comments, a CNN spokesperson (possibly Matt Dornic) insisted it never happened.
Siegel acknowledged this squared with Lemon’s recent behavior at CNN This Morning in controversial comments about women and off-air drama with co-host Kaitlan Collins, including his “past her prime” comments about Nikki Haley.
Given the Phillips episode and his escape from any real penalty for his Haley smear, Siegel argued Lemon has consistently “appeared to charm his way out of facing any meaningful consequences.”
Generally, sources told Siegel that Lemon has been “a shameless name dropper and left behind hints that he socialized with important people, like a hand-written note from Stedman Graham that he had taped on his computer” and his boasting of successful lawsuits. And around the same time, Lemon began dating a young male staffer half his age.
Along with one time “call[ing] one of his producers fat to her face,” he targeted then-colleague and rising star Nancy Grace by mocking her mannerisms on the air and calling into question whether fellow colleague Soledad O’Brien was truly black during a meeting as he was incensed she was selected for CNN’s “Black in America” series (click “expand”):
Not long before he was fingered for sending threatening texts to Phillips, he mocked Grace on air by mimicking her, shocking fellow colleagues. Grace declined comment but a person close to her tells Variety that “she thinks he’s an ass” and that he was always “rude, dismissive and really unfamiliar with the [news] content being discussed.”
“That was the beginning of when you knew that Don was kind of volatile and didn’t say good things about women,” says a witness to the Grace incident.
If Lemon felt threatened by Grace, the biggest star at CNN/Headline News at the time, she wasn’t the only one. He was upset that O’Brien landed the gig of hosting CNN’s high-profile “Black in America” docuseries, which launched in 2008. During an editorial call attended by roughly 30 staffers, he suggested O’Brien isn’t Black, according to two witnesses, who found the characterization wildly offensive. “Don always wanted to be front and center on anything high profile, especially anything involving race,” says a colleague.
O’Brien, who wasn’t present, tells Variety, “Don has long had a habit of saying idiotic and inaccurate things, so it sounds pretty on brand for him.”
The CNN spokesperson said, “Don, Soledad and others have in the past correctly referred to her Afro-Cuban heritage as it is a unique part of her personal story. But Don denies making any related remark in a derogatory way.”
When he wasn’t shocking his cohorts, he was annoying them with “diva-like behavior,” says one, like skipping editorial calls, showing up late to the newsroom or just generally exhibiting disengaged behavior. In 2009, CNN was allowed to send one journalist into the Staples Center to cover the Michael Jackson memorial. Lemon was the choice, while Anderson Cooper and O’Brien anchored outside. Sources remember Lemon complaining on social media that Cooper got more airtime.
“That led to a come-to-Jesus moment,” says another senior executive from the era. “Don was told, ‘Look, you’ve got to address your behavior. Your performance as a reporter is great. It’s your behavior that’s gotta improve. It’s what’s going to derail you if you’re not careful.’”
Throw in what a source called “diva-like behavior” and a laziness ranging from “skipping editorial calls, showing up late to the newsroom or just generally exhibiting disengaged behavior,” CNN could have cut bait.
But that never materialized and, with the arrival of puppetmaster Jeff Zucker, Lemon was empowered and protected.
Whether it was the alleged “blacklist[ing]” of one-time colleague Goldie Taylor for criticizing Lemon, his comments to a Bill Cosby rape accuser, or CNN defending his communications with Jussie Smollett, Zucker’s CNN and criticism from Donald Trump enlarged Lemon’s ego and thirst for controversial rhetoric.
Chris “Fredo” Cuomo was let go in a flurry of scandal involving his brother and former Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY), but Lemon skated by. Prior to being named to CNN This Morning, Siegel pointed to one segment where he dismissed S.E. Cupp’s inability to remember a point she wanted to make as “mommy brain.”
And yet, Lemon has survived, leading to a whole host of questions, such as this one: What does Lemon have on these people that’s keeping them from cutting bait? Is it really just being afraid of being called racists?