Thanks for reading The Backstory, our weekly digest of the best new work at Puck.
It was another fantastic week: Matt Belloni wrote the definitive exposé on the backstage drama plaguing Yellowstone; Julia Ioffe swapped state secrets with the global security elite in Munich; Teddy Schleifer dug into S.B.F.’s latest legal headache; Dylan Byers uncovered the backstory of the Don Lemon saga; Tara Palmeri reported on Chuck Schumer’s mounting ’24 headache; and Julia Alexander hypothesized about some streaming M&A.
Check out these stories, and others, via the links below. And stick around for the backstory on how it all came together.
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|It has been, in many ways, a monumental week or so in our culture: Zelensky vowed victory as Russia’s war in Ukraine passed its first anniversary; Alex Murdaugh took the stand; a rare ice storm in Southern California again brought into focus the creeping tragedy of climate change; there was the shocking derailment in Ohio and the bizarre death of financier Thomas Lee. Nikki Haley’s entrance into the ’24 presidential race commenced what is poised to be one of the more surreal and enchanting two years of our lives. And yet, on CNN at least, so much of it was overshadowed by the vexing and protracted scandal surrounding anchor Don Lemon.
Late last week, of course, Lemon self-immolated on the set of CNN This Morning, his dawn-side show, in spectacular fashion. In response to Haley’s veiled dig at the advanced age of Donal Trump, her former boss and current combatant, Lemon suggested that she was a hypocrite. What’s more, he extemporized that Haley was past her prime. Women, he continued cringingly, entered their primes in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. (Haley is 51.) When his appalled co-host Poppy Harlow pushed back, Lemon countered that she “Google it.” He made matters worse by offering a perfunctory apology at a staff meeting and jetting off to Miami for a previously scheduled vacation.
The Lemon saga endured for various reasons. Ever since its Zucker heyday, CNN has become a piñata for various high-twitch media factions: Fox News haters, tabloid rubberneckers, and liberals who were put off by the network’s bouts of self-righteousness during the Trump administration. Lemon, in many ways, is an avatar of these strong emotions. His former nightly broadcast could veer toward sanctimony, and his hand-offs with Chris Cuomo could get lugubrious. But that’s the price of doing business in cable news, that ersatz blend of show business and journalism, broadcast live to hundreds of thousands of viewers. It’s hardly a surprise that a photographer for the Murdoch-owned New York Post tracked Lemon down to South Beach after the scandal erupted.
And yet the real reason that his moronic on-air comments turned into a multi-day media cycle, I’d surmise, went far beyond Lemon, himself. CNN, after all, has been entrenched in a nearly year-long scandal—one that includes the Cuomo affair, the Zucker defenestration, the spin-off from Warner media into Warner Bros. Discovery, the arrival of new C.E.O. Chris Licht, the ouster of Brian Stelter, and various programming switcheroos that haven’t quite taken. It’s been a long year. CNN This Morning is an underperforming show on a network that is experiencing decreases in revenue and viewership, all while industrial business models change and consumption patterns adapt. Lemon is savvy and veteran enough to have enjoyed the good old days and similarly recognize that the future looks very different. Was he contemplating Haley’s prime or his own?
At Puck, we’ve been intently focused on CNN’s transformation. My partner Dylan Byers, in particular, has led the coverage on the topic, reporting brilliantly and fearlessly on the internal rumblings and macroeconomic shifts. My own interest in the topic comes, I’ll readily admit, from the fact that CNN—one of the most important brands and businesses in media—is now living proof that even the most hegemonic entities are not immune from secular forces. Lemon’s controversy isn’t merely the latest in a litany of scandals, it’s a microcosm of the network’s larger challenges. And all of us in the industry, even at 18-month-old start-ups, are keenly watching to see how they navigate the challenges. We’ll all learn from their operating plan.
I highly suggest carving out time this weekend to read Dylan’s excellent story, Licht’s Lemonade. Not only is it a probing report into the story behind the scandal, but it’s also an empathetic exposé of the key players at CNN who are trying to make sense of their brave new world. It’s the story of our time, and precisely the sort of tale you can only find at Puck.
Have a great weekend,