If Don Lemon is being squeezed behind the scenes at CNN after making polarizing remarks last week, none of the pulp is showing up on camera.
Lemon returned to “CNN This Morning” Wednesday after being absent from the new A.M. program for three consecutive broadcasts following pushback — both internal and external — to comments he made about when women are in their prime, dialogue that generated opposition not only from his co-anchors, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins but viewers and colleagues. None of the trio mentioned the incident on air Wednesday, focusing instead on delivering the news. Collins held forth from Poland; Harlow interviewed Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz; Lemon juggled multiple tasks and noted the historic moment President Biden was having this week.
Lemon has already made two apologies for the gaffe, and added a third Wednesday before appearing in front of CNN cameras. ” appreciate the opportunity to be back on @CNNThisMorning today,” he said via Twitter. ‘To my network. my colleagues and our incredible audience — I’m sorry. I’ve heard you, I’m learning from you , and I’m committed to doing better. See you soon.”
In talks with CNN management, Lemon agreed to “participate in formal training,” CNN CEO Chris Licht told staffers Monday night, noting that “We take this situation very seriously.” Still, he told employees, “It is important to me that CNN balances accountability with fostering a culture in which people can own, learn and grow from their mistakes.”
Behind the scenes, the anchor was apologetic, according to a person familiar with the matter, and acknowledged the mistake he had made. CNN executives, this person says, conceded that “CNN This Morning” remains a work in progress and expressed hope that a new executive producer slated to come on board would bring new leadership to the show.
By not having the anchors address the recent controversy on air, CNN is breaking with some recent tradition. Other networks have insisted that talent wallow in mea culpa, hoping, perhaps, that doing so would generate ratings, When Megyn Kelly featured a discussion about dressing in blackface for Halloween on her ill-fated “Megyn Kelly Today” for NBC News in 2018, she came back the very next morning, and opened the show with a direct address to viewers at home: “I want to open with two words: I’m sorry.” She then pivoted to a panel discussion in which Roland Martin and Amy Holmes, two Black journalists, talked to her about the severity of her remarks the previous day.
Others have employed similar strategies. Joy Reid, grappling in 2018 with allegations that she penned a cache of blog posts carrying homophobic remarks, took to her MSNBC weekend program, “A.M. Joy,” to discuss her behavior with Jonathan Capehart, before he became a regular weekend anchor on the network himself, and GLAAD executive Zeke Stokes. When Bill Maher offended viewers of his HBO series “Real Time” by using a racial slur in a tossed-off joke during the program, he returned to the air the following week to hash out the ramifcations with guests such as Ice Cube and Michael Eric Dyson.
Lemon’s return does not mean CNN’s work on its new morning program is over. Viewership for “CNN This Morning” has fallen off since its launch in November, according to data from Nielsen. In its first month on the air, the show won an average of 99,000 viewers between 25 and 54. In January, that crowd had fallen to an average of 74,000, a decline of approximately 25%. The program is just one task on Licht’s docket. He and CNN executives are also in the midst of readying a new program in primetime and continue work on a new Sunday newsmagazine.