Back in 2008, Don Lemon was co-anchoring CNN’s “Live From” weekday show with Kyra Phillips, a gig that he landed after he arrived at the network two years prior from local news in Chicago. For months, tensions between the pair kept mounting. On more than one occasion, a “Live From” producer and a newsroom supervisor had to pull Lemon off the air during a commercial break because of the anchor’s provocative antics, not unlike his recent declaration that the 51-year-old Nikki Haley isn’t a viable presidential candidate because she “isn’t in her prime.” Amid the charged atmosphere, sources say Lemon disrespected colleague Nancy Grace on the air and Soledad O’Brien during an editorial meeting attended by roughly 30 staffers.
But his antipathy toward Phillips was particularly concerning and had many members of the close-knit Atlanta news team on edge. While Phillips was on assignment in Iraq — a high-profile gig that Lemon coveted — 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. When she returned from Iraq, things only got weirder. One night while dining with members of the news team, 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 was visibly rattled and quickly enlisted CNN’s higher ups to identify the sender.
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Remarkably, the texts were traced back to Lemon, according to those same sources. A human resources investigation was launched, and while the findings were never disclosed to the growing pool of staffers who were aware of the situation, Lemon was abruptly pulled from his co-anchor duties with Phillips and moved to the weekends. It was a demotion by any objective measure and understood to be some kind of disciplinary action. It appears to be the last time he was paired with a female anchor until his most recent assignment on “CNN This Morning With Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins.”
Phillips, who joined ABC as a Washington-based correspondent in 2018, declined comment. A spokesperson for CNN said, “Don says the alleged incident never occurred and that he was never notified of any investigation. CNN cannot corroborate the alleged events from 15 years ago.”
In the wake of Lemon’s Feb. 16 Haley comments — derided as “unacceptable” and “sexist” by everyone from CNN chair Chris Licht to Haley herself, and even referenced by Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh during her best actress acceptance speech — his fate at CNN hung in the balance, with many colleagues privately calling for his ouster. Despite the outcry, he landed back on his feet after riding the bench for two days, posting a Twitter mea culpa in which he insisted that he is “committed to doing better” and ignoring the matter altogether during his Feb. 22 on-air return. Still, the incident has spotlighted Lemon’s troubling treatment of women and unprofessional antics, dating back nearly two decades. 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. Each and every time, he appeared to charm his way out of facing any meaningful consequences.
Those who worked with him say he was 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. Some were unnerved by his talk of his previous lawsuits, believing it signaled that he was litigious. He frequently let drop that he successfully sued Tower Records as well as the Chicago PD for racial profiling and didn’t need to worry about money thanks to the settlements. (Variety can only find record of the former, which was settled in 2001 and appears to be sealed. Through a CNN spokesperson, Lemon says he never sued the Chicago PD). All the while, he began openly dating a fresh-out-of-college staffer despite a major age difference and power imbalance. (Lemon was 41, while the staffer was 22.) The ambitious anchor, who is gay, was not out of the closet at the time, but wasn’t hiding it either. The pair would drive to work together in Lemon’s car and began a long-term open relationship. Dating a junior employee was frowned upon at the time.
“As fast as you could make a rule, Don would bend it,” says one senior executive at the time.
More troubling was his misogynistic behavior, multiple sources say. Lemon called one of his producers fat to her face. 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.’”
Instead of reining in Lemon, his superiors let things slide, perhaps because he had fostered a close friendship with then-Turner Broadcasting System chairman and CEO Phil Kent, sitting in the Turner box alongside Kent at sporting events.
After Kent hired Jeff Zucker to run the network in 2013, Lemon only became more of a provocateur. About six months after Zucker arrived, Lemon gave his on-air take on five ways the Black community could fix its problems, including suggesting “pull up your pants.” He went on to add: “Walking around with your ass and your underwear showing is not OK. In fact, it comes from prison when they take away belts from the prisoner so that they can’t make a weapon. And then it evolved into which role a prisoner would have during male-on-male prison sex. The one with the really low pants is a submissive one. You get my point.” Goldie Taylor, a former CNN consultant who appeared frequently as a guest on Lemon’s weekend show, said she was blacklisted at the network for critiquing Lemon’s controversial comments. “I am personally banned from a network b/c, ironically enough, I dared disagree w/ a black man publicly abt black life […] I don’t throw rocks and hide my hand. That network is @CNN and the anchor is @donlemon,” she tweeted in 2016.
Taylor remains steadfast in her criticism of Lemon.
“I’m never surprised when Don gets in trouble,” she tells Variety. “It makes me neither happy nor sad to see him undermine his own success. There was a time when it appeared that Black people were most often the subject of his ire. Now, it seems to me that when he says something offensive, there’s almost always a woman on the other side.”
(A CNN spokesperson says he does not know why the network cut ties with Taylor.)
One female colleague who had been close to the anchor in his early days at the network found that during the Zucker era, Lemon was losing touch with his former friends. She adds that the change showed in his journalistic choices, with the anchor neglecting important stories affecting the Black community.
“I saw a new Don emerging, and I didn’t like the new Don,” she says. “He likes celebrity. He likes fame, likes power. He was no longer the same person.”
He became increasingly polarizing, particularly when it came to discussing women, which sometimes came off as tone-deaf. In 2014, he drew widespread condemnation when he told a Bill Cosby rape accuser that she could have stopped an attack by biting the comedian’s penis.
Over the years, Lemon relied upon his charm to win over would-be adversaries, particularly men. Even the opposing counsel in the Tower Records lawsuit speaks glowingly of the anchor.
“I thought he was a quality person and a pleasure to be in his company,” says attorney Paul Rosen, who represented Tower Records in the civil suit. “I remember him working with me on a number of cases I had in Philadelphia [after the settlement] and it’s a pleasure to see [him] on air and what he has achieved in the broadcasting field.”
Likewise, Zucker never wavered with his support for Lemon. In 2016, he landed in the primetime lineup with his own show, “Don Lemon Tonight.” That same year, Donald Trump called Lemon “dumb as a rock,” which only contributed to the anchor’s rising star. The more Trump criticized Lemon, the more his fame grew as he quickly became a household name alongside Cooper.
But some colleagues questioned his journalistic ethics. In 2021, disgraced actor Jussie Smollett testified in court that he first learned that Chicago police doubted his story about being the victim of a MAGA-inspired attack after he received a text message warning from Lemon. As a result, Lemon opted not to hand his phone records over to cops.
Says Washington State University journalism professor Ryan Thomas, “Ethically speaking, we can distinguish between conflicts of interest that should be avoided and conflicts of interests that, if they can’t be avoided, should be mitigated and disclosed. [The Smollett case is] very clearly in the former category. … Involving yourself in a story involving a public figure — whether to warn, advise or coach — is as clear and bright and flashing an ethical red line as it gets in journalism. A freshman journalism student would clearly recognize the problems inherent.”
Adds one long-time colleague: “He should have been benched in that instance. No question.”
But CNN says it looked into the matter and found Lemon behaved appropriately. “CNN reviewed the incident in question at the time and found that any interaction was an act of journalism as Don was attempting to prompt a response from Mr. Smollett and book him for his show,” a spokesperson for the network said.
Regardless, Zucker stood by Lemon despite firing anchor Chris Cuomo for advising his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as the latter faced sexual harassment allegations. In arbitration filings, Chris Cuomo’s attorneys argued that his transgressions were similar to Lemon’s. After Zucker was ousted in 2022, many believed that Lemon would be on the chopping block. But Lemon survived the regime change at parent company WarnerMedia following its merger with Discovery that same year. Still, higher-ups were suddenly paying attention to his behavior amid his woeful ratings. In September, he relied on a sexist trope on air to try to explain why fellow panelist S.E. Cupp was stumbling over a statistic about Republicans. “Is it fair to say this because I’m not a mommy, but is it mommy brain?” he asked Cupp. An awkward silence ensued before Cupp answered, “No, Don, I just forgot what I was going to say,” she said.
Then, Lemon was moved back to mornings in November and paired with two female anchors, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins, for the first time since the Phillips debacle. One executive noted that it was a recipe for disaster. And the gaffes continued. One month into the new gig, Lemon drew ire for saying the U.S. men’s national soccer team should get paid more than the women’s team and insisted the former is “more interesting to watch.”
Three months later came the Haley comments, which sources say prompted Harlow to flee the set with Collins following her to try to talk to her. An intense news cycle ensued, with the CNN brand taking a hit at a time when the network’s ratings continue to nosedive as it tries to find its footing in the Licht era. But once again, Lemon survived the outcry.
Still, if there was a past laissez-faire attitude about Lemon, those days appear to be over. CNN is making him undergo “formal training.” Now, more and more people are willing to call him to task, like a critical Washington Post op-ed titled “Does Don Lemon’s punishment fit the crime?” But he remains planted behind the anchors’ desk.
Says attorney Devin McRae, who specializes in entertainment contract litigation, “These provisions that [CNN anchors] have in their contracts that define what is cause for termination, it’s pretty abstract. That allows CNN to subjectively apply it. Ultimately, it does seem to come down to, ‘How is Lemon’s behavior making CNN look?’”