Lemon’s Lightning

Don Lemon seems to have been given every warning to self-edit before saying what’s on his mind, which, coincidentally, is the one thing that actually delivers ratings.
Don Lemon seems to have been given every warning to self-edit before saying what’s on his mind, which, coincidentally, is the one thing that actually delivers ratings. Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
February 24, 2023

This week, while CNN C.E.O. Chris Licht was trying to bring a modicum of closure to the enduring Don Lemon “women-in-their-prime” fiasco, a national media micro-imbroglio that has become a microcosm of the network’s various challenges—tighter budgets, falling ratings, more fragile egos, ever newer data sets that a bygone era keeps endingCharles Barkley decided to weigh in. The ever-candid Hall of Fame basketball player and star analyst of The NBA on TNT, who also happens to be up for a role on CNN, offered his own candid assessment of the news network’s current predicament in an interview with the New York Post.

As I reported earlier this month, Barkley is one of a handful of marquee talents that Licht is trying to bring in to revitalize CNN’s prime-time lineup, albeit in a part-time capacity. In the Post interview, Barkley confirmed that Licht was courting both him and Gayle King, as I’d also reported last month. He then revealed that Licht was trying to get the two stars to co-host a weekly show together. (They would both keep their day jobs on TNT and CBS, respectively.) Sir Charles equivocated. “We don’t have anything set in stone,” Barkley said. “I’m only considering it because of my respect for Gayle.”

But the real morsel came later in the interview, when Barkley offered a characteristically honest and unvarnished diagnosis of CNN. “I just want to help the company because obviously it is a shit show right now,” Barkley said. “Anything I can do to help.”

The Barkley comment likely raised more eyebrows at Warner Bros. Discovery than Lemon’s mangled and boneheaded evaluation of a woman’s primehood—not least, of course, because WBD is the parentco of both CNN and TNT. Sure, there’s absolutely nothing David Zaslav or anyone else at WBD is going to do about it. Barkley, who rose to fame as a truth-teller both on the court and in TNT’s Studio J, is far too beloved, talented and valuable to ever be reprimanded for dispensing with bromides and talking shit about his own shop. More to the point, Barkley was right. As even Zaz himself acknowledged on this week’s WBD earnings call, the retooling of CNN “isn’t going to happen overnight.”

Lightning in a Bottle

Of course, the juxtaposition of Barkley’s comments and Lemon’s rant highlights a much more fundamental tension for the Zaz-Lichtian vision for CNN. On the one hand, they are trying to make the network less politically and culturally polarizing, less showboaty, and more palatable to a broader swath of Americans than it was in the TrumpZucker era. (On his earnings call, Zaz showered praise on CNN for booking more conservative guests.) At the same time, they want CNN to be compelling and entertaining, and, as Licht has described it, a home for thoughtful and provocative conversations that challenge rigid partisan orthodoxy and better reflect the varied, nuanced perspectives of the electorate. “This is not vanilla, centrist, or boring,” Licht recently told The New York Times.

This isn’t an easy task, because the varied and nuanced views of Americans can often be polarizing, especially in our high-sensitivity climate. And the people capable of creating compelling, thought-provoking conversations are often the very same people who have the temerity to say the quiet, controversial thing out loud. To paraphrase Zucker’s own memorable assessment of Lemon, you don’t get the lightning without the lightning rod.

CNN’s current moment best articulates the challenge. Licht simultaneously covets Barkley’s brand of non-partisan straight talk while understandably declaring Lemon’s remarks about women “upsetting, unacceptable and unfair to his co-hosts.” And he’s right about both. But in Barkley, he’d also be getting the guy who had a decade-long, running joke on TNT’s NBA show about “the big-ass women in San Antonio.” In 2021, Barkley said his bosses at Turner finally asked him to put an end to the San Antonio riff. “You can’t even have fun nowadays without these characters trying to get you canceled and things like that,” he told a local radio show. These sorts of calculations reveal, naturally, the difficulty of Licht’s job. He’s trying to make Walter Isaacson’s CNN for Joe Rogan’s America. 

Can Licht capture the lightning of a Barkley or a Lemon without getting burned? Doing so requires incredibly deft, hands-on management—exactly the kind of management Licht has historically excelled at as an executive producer, but which he has now eschewed in his effort to be an above-the-fray C.E.O., managing up to the parentco while the network’s ratings, revenues and morale spiral.

The Monday Morning Quarterbacks…

In live television, every on-air fuck-up yields a hundred Monday morning quarterbacks—executives, producers, talent, agents, P.R. reps, etcetera, who have their own schadenfreude-laden perspectives on how the crisis might have been averted, or at least truncated. But in the case of the Lemon fiasco, it’s not hard to envision how Licht might have nipped this in the bud had he been in the control room rather than the corner office.

In a counterfactual world, CNN could have gone to a commercial break, and Licht (presumably via a Ryan Kadro-type deputy) could have gotten into his co-hosts’ ears and dictated the structure of the next segment. Licht could have dictated that Poppy Harlow would say something to Lemon like, Don, you’re my friend and I know you and I know how much you respect women, and I know you didn’t mean what you said—what did you mean? 

Then, Lemon would have been able to clarify his remarks: he didn’t mean women were past their prime at 50, only that, tragically, our society unfairly treats women differently than it treats men—and the co-hosts would hence lean into a thoughtful dialogue about the issue. Had that happened, the story would likely have evaporated. Instead, Lemon was raked over the coals by his boss on a Friday, besieged by paparazzi in Miami over the weekend, and forced to take diversity and inclusion sensitivity training the following week, all while the media had a field day. He fucked up, no doubt about it, but it didn’t have to be this bad.

Of course, decisive, under-the-gun crisis management in a moment such as this requires more than just hands-on leadership; it also requires establishing trust among co-hosts. Licht marketed Lemon, Harlow and Kaitlan Collins as genuine friends, and surely they are friendly enough with one another. But all available evidence from inside the building suggests that, when the camera starts rolling, the three co-hosts are actually pretty self-conscious, distrusting of one another, envious about assignments and air time, jockeying for better positions, and struggling to share the spotlight. In this way, they are similar to many of their predecessors and contemporaries in television—especially morning television. And yet it again highlights the error in putting this trio together and throwing them on air before they’d established not just chemistry, but faith in one another and faith in this experiment.

Barkley and King are more seasoned professionals, to be sure. As Barkley’s stated loyalty to King suggests, the two would probably prove hyper capable of threading the needle of responsible provocation on their own. And that would ostensibly help the alleged shit show, at least for one hour, once a week. As for Lemon, he seems to have been given every warning to self-edit before saying what’s on his mind, which, coincidentally, is the one thing that actually delivers ratings.