The Don Lemon interview

August 5, 2011

Today’s interviewee joined CNN in September 2006 and currently anchors CNN Newsroom during weekend prime-time and serves as a correspondent across CNN programming. He joined CNN after serving as a co-anchor for the 5 p.m. newscast for NBC5 News in Chicago and after working in New York as a correspondent for NBC News, The Today Show and NBC Nightly News. In addition to his reporting in New York, Lemon worked as an anchor on Weekend Today and on MSNBC. He serves as an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College, teaching and participating in curriculum designed around new media. He has won an Edward R. Murrow Award for his coverage of the capture of the Washington, D.C. sniper as well as several local Emmys. Earlier this year he published his memoir Transparent, which takes readers behind the scenes of journalism, detailing his own struggle to become one of the most prominent African American men in television news.

Living or dead, on-air or in-print, who are some of your favorite journalists?
That's a hard one to answer. There are so many incredible journalists out there. That said, Max Robinson was an amazing journalist. He left us far too soon. He had an incredible presence and made you pay attention. I also looked up to Ed Bradley and Peter Jennings. Both embodied characteristics of ultimate journalists. I'll be happy to accomplish half of what they did in this profession.

You're on Facebook and Twitter: What do you enjoy about interacting with your viewers? Are you ever wistful for the old days when anchors were more distant from their audience?
I really enjoy social media.  And I thoroughly enjoy interacting with viewers. It's quite frankly an honor to be able to do it. Plus, it affords me the opportunity to hear from them instantaneously. It also gives me the opportunity to explain why or how I conduct interviews etc. Being able to interact with the viewer is a luxury that many journalists before me never had. I don't in any way long for the time when anchors were more distant. We've progressed beyond that and there's no turning back.

When I was reading back over the stories about your book and you coming out, I kept getting sucked into the comments, which often devolved into flame-wars. Both as a reporter who is very plugged-in and as a role model to a lot of people, how do you pick your battles? How do you know which dissenters to engage and which to ignore?
Well, the book is titled Transparent for a reason. I believe that no subject nor question is off limit. If someone has a constructive question or criticism, I will engage them. But I don't read or respond to anonymous internet comments. It doesn't serve any good. Many people thrive on the anonymity of the internet and just want to stir the pot. I don't engage in that because those people usually have an agenda. And truth and learning aren't necessarily what they're seeking. They just want attention and my time is too valuable for that sort of ignorance. But if you have a thoughtful question or criticism I will most certainly consider responding.

Did coming out so publicly affect your everyday life at all?
Yes and no. I'm still the same person. But I'm just a freer and more authentic version of myself. It's been an incredibly liberating experience. I wish everyone could experience the freedom I'm experiencing every single day.

Why did you choose to come out via Twitter?
I chose to come out via Twitter because I take my Twitter and Facebook followers very seriously. It truly is a community; and one which I respect. I knew the New York Times article would be published the next day and I wanted my on-line family to hear it from me personally. The best way to do that was to tweet it to them so that they could respond to me individually. I did it out of respect to them for watching me and most of all supporting me for all these years. It was my way of letting them how much I respect them and how grateful I am for their presence, support and encouragement.

What did you do to unwind at the end of that particular day?
I called my mom, had dinner with my boyfriend, then fell asleep on his couch in his New York City apartment with my Twitter feed scrolling endlessly on my laptop. He shut off the computer and left me there so I could get a good night's sleep.

You didn't just come out when you came out: you also discussed colorism and being sexually abused as a child. Which of these topics was the hardest to address in your book?
The abuse was the hardest to discuss. Anyone who's ever experienced abuse of any type knows how difficult it is to admit let alone discuss publicly.

How difficult was the process of writing the book (just from the writing perspective)? Did your experience as a reporter help you or was it a totally different animal?
It was difficult at points and easy at others. I had a great collaborator who would review what I wrote and then write back or call with suggestions, criticism and encouragement. Having to write everyday as a journalist helped but it was quite a different experience than writing news. I was writing and sharing some of the most personal details of my being. Try it sometimes and experience for yourself how difficult that is. Let's just say I'm glad it's over for now.

Changing gears, which were your favorite cities to work in prior to your arrival at CNN (and why?)
I loved working in Philadelphia. It's where I grew up as a journalist. I had some incredible mentors at my station in Philadelphia. They taught me much of what I know. It's also the city in which I bought my first home and met the best friends of my life.

Is there anything you miss about reporting in the smaller markets?
I miss being part of the fabric of a particular city and i miss the immediacy of local reporting but that's about it. I like national and international news. I'm a big picture kind of guy. CNN is the perfect fit for me.

What were some of the silliest stories you've had to cover in your career?
There are too many to even remember and are even worth commenting on. We all have to do things we are not comfortable with in our jobs. That's life.

You've covered a lot of big stories in your career--what were some of the smaller or more offbeat items you reported on that you're still very proud of?
I've covered more stories than I can even recall.  But I did feel empowered on the local level by being able to have an immediate impact on people's lives-- like helping them fight city hall or getting some utility fixed in their neighborhood. The one that has had the biggest impact on my life and career was reporting from Africa. That was life-altering.

Where do you get your news (aside from CNN?)
I'm a voracious reader. And I get a lot of news on line from many different sites. I even get news from Twitter.

How does it feel to be the 289th person interviewed for Zulkey.com (and now WBEZ?)
It feels awesome. Not everyone can be a first. And some of us don't even get the opportunity to be number 289. I'm honored.