CNN chairman slams Don Lemon for his comments about Nikki Haley
Don Lemon, the CNN morning show host, faced an internal rebuke from his own station’s chairman on Friday after his on-air comments about women and aging sparked an uproar on the cable news network.
CNN chairman Chris Licht opened his daily 9am editorial call by saying Mr Lemon’s comments, which were widely seen as sexist and insensitive, left him “disappointed”.
“His comments were disturbing, unacceptable and unfair to his co-hosts and ultimately a huge distraction from the great work of this organization,” Mr. Licht told his staff, according to a recording of the call obtained by the New York Times.
It’s unusual for a network boss to lash out at a celebrity anchor — but the situation surrounding Mr. Lemon and CNN’s struggling morning show is nearing a critical juncture just months after its debut.
Mr. Lemon, a CNN veteran with a history of television gaffes, stunned his colleagues Thursday when he claimed on air that Nikki Haley, the 51-year-old Republican presidential candidate, “is not in her prime, is.” I’m sorry.”
“A woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s,” Mr. Lemon said, to the apparent dismay of his CNN This Morning co-hosts Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins. He refused to back down after Ms Harlow questioned his remarks and told her to “look it up”.
On Friday, a far more contrite-sounding Mr. Lemon addressed the CNN newsroom in a six-minute monologue.
“I’m sorry,” said Mr. Lemon. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I didn’t mean to offend anyone.” He added that “the people I’m closest to in this organization are women,” citing a list of female colleagues including presenters Dana Bash and Erin Burnett.
Mr. Lemon was absent from the airing of his program on Friday, although he had previously said he would be taking the day off; he dialed in the Friday call from Miami. A CNN spokesman said Mr Lemon has not been formally suspended. The spokesman declined to comment further on personnel issues.
CNN This Morning began in November as the signature project of Mr. Licht, a former morning show producer who took over the helm of CNN last May. The show was intended to be a statement of intent for Mr. Licht’s vision for the network.
Instead, it was plagued by tensions on and off the air. The co-hosts clashed during the on-air exchange and spoke to one another, a far cry from the easy relationship viewers expect from morning TV. The original executive producer has already been replaced. The New York Post reported in December that the show’s crew was unnerved after Mr. Lemon loudly confronted Ms. Collins about his perception that she was interrupting him too often on the show.
Mr Lemon, who previously hosted a 10pm show, has bemoaned CNN’s plummeting prime-time ratings with some colleagues, according to two people who asked not to be known in order to have private conversations.
Even with that in mind, Thursday’s on-air incident left CNN executives and journalists stunned.
Immediately after Mr. Lemon made his remarks about Ms. Haley and women’s ages, Ms. Harlow reacted in disbelief – “What are you talking about… wait…” – and began backing down. “Are you talking about ‘Prime’ for having children?” she said. “Or are you talking about ‘Prime’ as President?”
“Don’t shoot the messenger,” Mr. Lemon replied, talking about his co-host. “I’m just saying what the facts are. Google it.”
Mr Lemon had discussed a suggestion by Ms Haley that politicians over the age of 75 should be subjected to mental competency tests, a comment seen as a dig at President Biden, who had just turned 80. (Ms. Haley later responded to Mr. Lemon in a tweet referring to “sexist middle-aged CNN anchors.”)
Ms. Haley reappeared on the show about an hour later, in a discussion between Mr. Lemon and CNN correspondent Audie Cornish, who told Mr. Lemon that “the idea of ’Prime’ that you google on the internet ‘ refer to ‘sexual and reproductive prime’. Mr Lemon pushed back and said he had responded to Ms Haley’s criticism of senior politicians.
Ms Harlow appeared petrified during this exchange, and when the show was interrupted for a commercial, she got up and walked off the set, according to three people who knew about the events. Ms. Collins followed her co-host to the powder room to check on her.
When the show resumed, Ms Harlow sat out the following segment, a discussion with CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, before returning for the remainder of the show.
Ratings for “CNN This Morning” have steadily declined since it launched in November, according to Nielsen, and audiences haven’t been able to keep up with CNN’s previous show in the morning slot, “New Day.”
It gives Mr. Licht a big headache who is trying to revive the network at a difficult moment. The new parent company that hired him, Warner Bros. Discovery, eliminated the network’s nascent streaming service CNN+, and Mr. Licht oversaw a series of layoffs late last year.
The early ad campaign for CNN This Morning featured scenes of his three co-hosts laughing together at a coffee shop and gushing about their off-set friendships.
Actual broadcasts have shown little evidence of this buddy-like nature. In the closing minutes of Thursday’s show, the co-hosts had descended to a lighter conversation about the surprising consistency of golfer Tiger Woods, 47.
“72 holes in four days,” said Ms. Collins of Mr. Woods. “Just something someone in their prime might do.”
Mr. Lemon burst out laughing while Ms. Harlow stared straight at the camera.
“Touché, Kaitlan,” she said slyly.