Don Lemon’s Apology for Nikki Haley Age Remarks Hints at Deeper Tensions at CNN Morning Show

The premise of a good morning-news show is that it helps viewers wake up with their morning coffee. CNN’s new A.M. entry is quickly turning into a place where the coffee is being thrown.

Don Lemon, one of the three anchors of ‘CNN This Morning,” apologized Thursday afternoon for remarks made on the morning’s broadcast about when women are in their prime, during a segment about comments from new Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley regarding the age of some of her political rivals.

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“She says people, you know, politicians or something are not in their prime,” Lemon said on the program “Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime, sorry. A woman is considered to be in their prime in 20s and 30s and maybe 40s.” The comment spurred co-anchor Poppy Harlow to try to get Lemon to modify his stance. “What are you talking about, wait — prime for what?” she asked, a move that resulted in Lemon stepping even further into his position. “If you Google ‘when is a woman in her prime,’ it’ll say 20s, 30s and 40s,”
he replied.

The on-air dust-up has drawn attention both inside and outside the Warner Bros. Discovery cable-news outlet, according to a person familiar with the matter, with younger staffers taking offense and others asking how CNN can try to book prominent female politicians and newsmakers after one of its best known anchors seemed to inveigh against older women.

And it is the latest in a series of tense moments on air between Lemon and his two co-anchors, Harlow and Kaitlan Collins. Lemon recently appeared to critique Collins’ interview with James Comer, chair of the House Oversight Committee, about upcoming hearings on the topic of Hunter Biden’s laptop. Lemon even waved off music signaling the show was about to go to a commercial break to continue making his point about issues he had with Comer’s responses. He may have been trying to criticize the politician, but it looked as if he was taking partial aim at his colleague.

The trio at “CNN This Morning” were thrown together quickly, part of a bid by CNN CEO Chris Licht to devise a more competitive A.M. option after the long-running CNN early-bird program “New Day” had begun to see noticeable ratings dips. And chemistry on camera takes time to develop; it is rarely present from the get-go. But the person familiar with the matter says the current interplay often leaves Collins, one of CNN’s more aggressive journalists, looking shy or circumspect and forces Harlow into a referee role she does not want or relish.

Spokespersons for CNN could not be reached for immediate comment.

Lemon apologized Thursday via Twitter for his comments. “The reference I made to a woman’s “prime” this morning was inartful and irrelevant, as colleagues and loved ones have pointed out, and I regret it,” he said. :”A woman’s age doesn’t define her either personally or professionally. I have countless women in my life who prove that every day.”

CNN took a big risk by moving Lemon from his longtime primetime perch to mornings. The shift has left CNN with two hours to fill and it’s not clear at present that “CNN Tonight,” a discussion program led by Allisyn Camerota or Laura Coates that has replaced Lemon’s nighttime program, has gained traction.

Licht has a track record with morning shows. He helped launch MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” — now a competitor — and subsequently moved to CBS to retool “CBS This Morning,” steering the show toward a harder-news disposition than its two main rivals, ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “Today.”

CNN could use new energy in the morning. In 2021, CNN’s “New Day” took in about $35.1 million in advertising, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending, marking a 34% fall from 2020, when it captured around $53.4 million. In comparison, Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” generated $39.8 million in 2021, while MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” won $33.1 million.

Coming up with a winning A.M. formula takes work. Morning is often a tender hour, when people have yet to steel themselves for the day. Viewers can come to look upon morning anchors as a sort of substitute family, and on-air squabbling doesn’t create connections.

CNN will continue to serve up a morning show, no matter what happens in the days ahead. But viewers really want to see seamless interplay among the talent, not flashes of irritation. They want an omelet, rather than seeing the eggs being broken to make it.

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