I’m Kara Swisher and you’re listening to “Sway.” If you turn on cable news lately, you might have noticed it’s become a little less Walter Cronkite and a little more WWE, with mega-personalities, screaming matches, and the occasional knockout. I’m not just talking about Fox News, though that is certainly the worst of the bunch and notably has been the most watched network for nearly 20 years. Thanks, Mom. But I’m also talking about networks like CNN. The network ever so briefly beat out Fox News viewership between Election Day and Biden’s inauguration. It was an impressive feat, especially given CNN’s dismal ratings back in 2014. So what explains the turn? Well, definitely the impact of Donald Trump — and maybe a more sensationalist approach to presenting the news now. My guest today is Don Lemon. He’s the host of the hit prime-time show “CNN Tonight.” The hour has been dubbed therapy for Trump haters. That might sound good, but it’s really not as great as it may seem. In this era, Lemon has become well-known for his frequent rants about the former president. Memorably, he called Trump a racist and “a loser.” On these points, Don Lemon and I agree. But I wanted Lemon’s take on why cable news has gotten so emotional and how he squares his commentary with the objectives of, well, objective journalism. I also wanted to talk about his new book titled, “This Is the Fire: What I Say to My Friends About Racism.”
Don Lemon, welcome to the show.
Thank you very much. It’s so good to be on.
And congratulations on your engagement by the way.
Thank you very much.
When are you getting married?
After COVID. Everyone asks when — when’s the wedding date? I don’t know. I know so many people, Kara, who planned their weddings during COVID and they kept pushing it back and pushing it back. And then we just decided I don’t want to do that. I think maybe I’ll have a party or celebration. But I want people to be able to gather safely.
I’m assuming that Chris Cuomo is invited, right?
Maybe, I’m not sure. I don’t know if I — I really don’t know who I’m going to invite. I’m sure I’m going to invite loved ones, but it may just be family and friends. My family doesn’t live here so that was part of the equation. It’s tough to get people on the plane when you’re not supposed to travel and that kind of thing.
Right. So your journey has been really interesting to watch because back in 2013, you went viral for a moment when you defended Bill O’Reilly for some comments he made about Black people. In fact, you said he didn’t go far enough.
- archived recording (don lemon)
Because Black people, if you really want to fix the problem, here’s just five things that you should think about doing. Here’s number five: pull up your pants. Number four, now, is the N-word. Respect where you live. Finish school. And number one, and probably the most important: just because you can have a baby, it doesn’t mean you should.
Do you regret those statements?
No, I don’t regret anything that I’ve said when it comes to that. I think that those things may have been misconstrued.
As I talked to my mother who was a young mother. She had a baby at 16 years old. And then had another baby at 18 years old. And then divorced and was a single mom for a long time. She will say, “I wish you guys had more of a traditional family sort of upbringing.” With mom and dad in the home, traditionally. So listen — where you find love — especially as a gay person, I would love to have kids one day. Whether it’s through surrogacy or adoption. But I’m going to plan for those kids. And I’m going to make sure that those kids are priority. And so I don’t think that that is a bad thing to tell people. To have respect in yourself and how you look. I don’t see anything bad about that. I don’t know why people would think that.
It reminded me — you remember when Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote “Lean In,” a lot of — everyone was like, the onus is on women, versus the system.
But I tell you what I’ve learned from that. I’ve evolved from that, not that I regret it. But nowadays, I think that I’m a better communicator.
What’s really interesting to me to watch, in the past few years you become outspoken on racism and particularly well-known for calling out racism in the Trump administration. You did it quite memorably in a 2018 show open — I remember watching it — shortly after it was reported that Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as “shit-hole countries.”
- archived recording (don lemon)
This is “CNN Tonight,” I’m Don Lemon. The President of the United States is racist. A lot of us already knew that.
So talk to me about why you decided to open — I know, right? I remember being, “Whoa, whoa, Don.” What happened to the bro talk with Cuomo? What the heck.
All I can hear is that, my gosh, I had a cold. Can you hear it in my voice?
No, I can’t.
I can hear it. I was like, I had a cold.
O.K., anchor monster. O.K.
No, what was I thinking?
Yeah. That was a choice. I’m sure there was many meetings inside of CNN. What were you thinking with that one?
Not as many as you’d think. No, because listen, I have more editorial freedom, I think, than any person at the network. One, given the time that I’m on. And two, the issues that I cover. And three, because of who I am, I feel that I had the authority to be able to speak on these issues. So, I just sat down with the producers, and I said — and we went through this whole thing about, the president is a liar, and people would say, oh, he, you know, he is shading the truth. You know, all of the whole things where you — where you call everything a lie, everything but a lie.
Yes. So finally one day I said the whole thing, I said, “He’s lying.” And it was tough to say, but then once I said it, it was O.K. You know, it became easier to say. And I realized you can’t just use, as you say, euphemisms. You got to call it out. So it was just — I said, “God, this guy is so racist.” And I said, “Why don’t we just say it?” And they’re like, “Well, is that an opinion?” I said, “No, it’s not. And so let’s say it and then give the proof.” And before, I said that he was — what was the term that I used? He wasn’t racist, but “racist-adjacent” or something like that.
Yeah, so you had been slowly edging up to that.
Yeah, this guy’s a racist, sorry. And then I could see — the camera-people, if you look at me, Kara, the camera-people were at the camera, and they were like —
Don is going around the camera right now.
Looking at me and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, this guy is crazy.”
What did it feel like to do that, finally? Because, you know, people — after the Bill O’Reilly thing, people could critique you for coming out late to calling out racism, but then you just went right into it.
Well, look, I think I was calling it what it is but I just wasn’t saying “racist,” right? And you’re right. So that was on me. And I probably should have said it sooner, but I did it when I did it.
Which now, everybody does.
But I got to tell you, Kara. I felt liberated for a long time. That’s part of my mission is to tell the truth for all people. And especially people who look like me. So if I’m not doing that I can’t sleep at night. And I sleep very well at night, by the way.
I fell off the bed. I was like, whoa. I kept thinking, oh my God, the meeting for this is going to be interesting the next day.
Well, I know the right went crazy, but I do have to tell you. I have a lot of support from the big guy.
Yeah, and if I go too far or whatever, then we’ll talk about it. But that was not a too-far moment. There was more pushback when I said that the biggest terror threat in the United States were white men radicalized to the right. Which the F.B.I. had been saying, but for an anchor to say it on television, all of a sudden I was a racist. I was like, I’m just quoting F.B.I. statistics, what are you talking about?
You also wrote in the book, “silence is no longer an option.”
I’m not sure it ever was an option for you, Don. But O.K. O.K., I want to understand this relation between Trump and CNN. He spent a lot of time berating the network, once called you the “dumbest man on television.” But you say that Trump loves CNN. I think he does. What did you mean by that?
So CNN is an iconic brand, right? Much more than Fox News. And people are like, Fox News, whatever. CNN is CNN. It’s like Coca-Cola. So, he loves that. Like, he is — he wants to be part of celebrity. And for him, being on CNN, and having his name mentioned on CNN, is — it’s part of his celebrity brand that he loves. So he tells the people who are his big supporters, who are — feel like, oh, you know, CNN is the elite, the elite. He wants nothing more than to be part of the elite.
Yeah. So what is CNN’s responsibility in that? Now you don’t run the network, Jeff Zucker does. But “The Apprentice” was greenlit by Jeff, by the way, current president of CNN. The network gave a ton of airtime — and this is — Jeff and I have talked about this, this issue. But how do you look at that? The idea of — not just CNN, but all these cable networks sort of pushing Trump out there as an entertainer. As entertainment. And then it morphing into what happened.
Well, I think Jeff has said that he would have done things differently and then he also — we did things differently for 2020.
I want to know how you look at it though. Do you think CNN had some culpability in not taking this seriously? Or using his too much to help ratings? CNN’s average prime-time viewership more than tripled by 2020.
I don’t know if it’s not taking him seriously. But I do think that you said, does CNN have some culpability? Yes. And I think all news networks did. I don’t think the networks realized the assault on truth and reality that Trump was going to have. And if we did, we probably would not have put his rallies live on T.V. unchecked. Right? And just let him speak and spew his lies and garbage out there. But I think we started to catch on. Now individually, journalists of color, especially, were onto him from the beginning. Black people knew Donald Trump was racist from the very beginning. I did. There were people who I wouldn’t have on the show because they were spewing racist garbage. And quite honestly, Kellyanne Conway was one of them. And Stephen Miller and all of those people. I stopped having them on because they would only come on television to tell lies. Honestly as far as a larger — like journalist — beyond journalists of color who would sit around and say, why are we giving this racist guy so much room and so much air? I don’t really know. You’d have to ask a network executive that. And you’d have to ask why —
But I want to know how you think about it because I get the argument of not giving Trump a platform. But at the same time he was the president. This is the same thing they struggle with at Twitter and Facebook. The idea of, well, he was the president.
I don’t believe in false equivalence though.
O.K., so tell me about that.
I don’t believe — I don’t believe just because you have — I don’t like giving false equivalence to lies. And I think that was the whole idea of what the Trump administration or even the Trump campaign was about. Is that if you had — I’m just going back to 2016, if you had something on that had to deal with Hillary Clinton, then — then necessarily you’d have to have something on for Donald Trump. But when Donald Trump was spewing a lie, or someone that was coming on for Donald Trump was lying to people, or was promoting hatred, and bigotry, and racism, and sexism, do you have to give that a platform? I don’t think so. It’s not a right to be on CNN. And that’s not censorship not to have someone on CNN. It’s a privilege to be able speak directly to the American people. And if you have that privilege, then you have an obligation, I believe, to tell the truth. And so I don’t believe in giving equal weight to someone who’s coming on and then has an underlying objective or mission that is not necessarily good.
So how did you look at what Twitter and other things were doing with him? Because that was a long, painful process until they finally kicked him off after multiple violations.
I couldn’t believe that he wasn’t kicked off earlier. And I can’t believe some of the awful things that people say on Twitter and are allowed to do. Look, I don’t believe in censorship. But I’ll report something to Twitter and they’ll say, “Oh, we didn’t see any reason to take this down.” Now there is a picture of me and Chris Cuomo that’s on Twitter. And people continue to spread it. Someone has Photoshopped Jeffrey Epstein’s face on it. And Chris and I are hugging, like friends, right? And they’ll spread around, “Don Lemon doesn’t want anybody to see this. Don Lemon is a pedophile. He’s hanging out with a pedophile.” He’s hanging out with this, he’s hanging out with that. And they continue to spread this picture on Twitter. That’s just one example.
And so, I think — listen, good for Twitter now. But Twitter should have done this four or five years ago, if not more, when Donald Trump was spreading lies and then called — because their standard for Donald Trump was different. And I think, this is just Don speaking, it was because Donald Trump was keeping Twitter afloat. That they allowed that to happen, because he was bringing attention to Twitter.
Right. So in that vein, one of the things you wrote in the book, you said Donald Trump was the president the country needed. Do you feel like he was president that also cable needed and —
I said that he was the president we deserved.
Deserved, that’s right, I’m sorry.
But probably the president we needed. Because now we see who the racists are. Now we see the bigots.
They’re out in the open.
They’re out in the open. And we thought — we knew it was there. Everybody knew it was there. And again, especially — I hate to keep going back to this, but it’s the truth — especially black people. We knew it was there. Because we’re closer to it. But it was lurking just beneath the surface where most people didn’t realize how close to the surface it was. And now, there’s not even — it’s there. And now we see you, oh, you’re a grade-A frickin’ racist fucker. You’re right out in the open, you don’t need a sheet. You’re in khakis and a polo shirt. Or you’re in a business suit in the office.
Part of me feels like leaving them in the shadows is not the worst idea. Because getting out gives power, especially with the internet and cable constantly regurgitating on itself.
Kara, knowing who they are does not mean giving them a platform.
O.K., all right. But — But —
Because we know who they are, doesn’t mean that you have to put them on CNN or MSNBC or Fox News.
But did that give them news? I mean, I want to get to this idea of, it feels more like entertainment than news. Sometimes it does, both on Twitter and cable and the rest, as they circle each other. Is that helpful to people, and is the emotionality helpful? The Times’ media columnist, Ben Smith, called the network’s coverage, “amped up outrage and righteousness.” Let me play a clip from your show shortly after one of the White House coronavirus task force briefings, which were appalling and everything, from last April.
- archived recording (don lemon)
But here’s the thing, the fact is that Christi Grimm was appointed to her post in January of this year. Who’s the president this year? This year, this year, the president this year. That’s President Trump. So even this fact-challenged president should be able to remember who was president a few months ago, it was him. Spoiler alert, the president is Trump. It was you.
Is this good? Or not? How do you look at this? I mean, look, Sean Hannity goes off on some crazy scheme every night.
I don’t know what the context of that is, but, yeah, I think it’s good.
O.K. Tell me why.
Well, I mean I think it’s good to point out facts. And I think it’s good to point out facts and you can do it with emotion. Otherwise you’re reading a newspaper. And I think that there are people who tune in to me because it’s me and they want to hear —
It’s you. It’s you doing this.
It’s me, but it’s not like I’m sitting in and — It’s not like I’m giving some misinformation. I know my role, I’m a cable news host. And every day in cable news is like a knife fight. You’ve got to break through —
A knife fight?
Yeah, yeah. I’m just making a — you know, from the “Anchorman” thing.
Yeah, got it.
But you have to — sometimes you have break through. And that doesn’t mean that I have to be bombastic. But I think people want to hear from the host that they’ve invested in. And it’s O.K. if it’s me pointing out the obvious when it is so ridiculous.
But do you think that cable needs to bring on more reporters again rather than analysts and commentators? And that that’s good for the American information diet? Which I think has gotten really bad, the information diet.
Yes. I do. I do think that we should bring on more reporters, more experts, more fact checkers, yes yes yes. But I also — I do think — you have to realize that there’s a place for it. Prime-time cable news is different than day-side cable news, or even early prime. Even 7 o’clock. 10 o’clock at night is even different than Anderson at 8:00, or even Chris at 9:00. At 10 o’clock I have way more leeway. So you have to understand your audience and the time of day. So I figure when I’m on, yes people want the news, but they — I think people want the news in a different way. They’ve already absorbed it.
With a point of view.
With a point of view. They’ve already seen Lester. They’ve already seen Norah, and Aaron, and what have you. So they want to sit down and they want to say, well, what is this about, Don? What is this about? How do you feel about that?
Through your lens.
Yes. You get it, you’re smart.
Thank you. Some people think I am. So, the purpose of prime-time cable news of your show. Someone called it therapy for Trump haters, for example. Other people call it different — what do you see it as, and what do you see it going forward?
I do see it as therapy for Trump haters. But I also — again, the difference between me and I think other people is that I tell the truth. But I do it through emotion and I may — you know — a bit more animated. I think Rachel is more righteous —
This is Rachel Maddow.
Rachel Maddow, who’s also an intellectual. And she has way more brain cells than I ever had in my life. She’s lost more than I’ve ever had. I think that she’s more therapy for Trump haters because of how she gets into and just because she’s just way smarter than me. But I think for me it’s just people who are watching going, yeah, that’s right. Someone who actually says it like it is.
Says it like it is. Sounds like someone we know. Donald Trump.
Yeah. But the real thing that I think people don’t get, Kara, is that — what I’m saying is, if I don’t say it, who else will?
All right, so speaking of objective coverage, I want to get back to that the bromance with Chris Cuomo. He’s gotten a lot of heat lately, how he recused himself on covering the brother’s scandals. I don’t think he could do anything else, actually. But he was on the show a lot — the Governor was on the show a lot, when he was in the limelight around COVID. CNN has backed Chris on this. How do you look at this? And any predictions what happens to Andrew Cuomo now?
So the first part, how do I look at this? I look at it is… It would be tough for anybody, especially if it’s your brother. If it’s a loved one, to — to see them going through something like this, regardless of what it is. Chris has told me how he felt about it. That it’s tough for him. That he’s sure his brother is — how do I say this. That he may not have done everything right but he doesn’t necessarily deserve what he’s going through. And a lot of it is, if not most of it, is politically driven, motivated. But Chris is the governor’s brother, he’s not the governor. So I care about Chris on a personal level. I don’t really know Andrew. I think I’ve met Andrew twice, maybe. So how do I look at it? I have to cover it. It was not uncomfortable to cover it, because I know deep-down Chris has been a journalist for almost as long as I have. And he realizes that we have to do it. I wonder how he feels about it with us having to cover it but it doesn’t make me uncomfortable. Does that make sense?
And — yes it does. Do you back Chris in his decision not to cover Andrew? Although he covered him before and brought him on as entertainment.
I do. And listen, I think in the moment — this is just me imagining. I think he probably thought that, I can get information from my brother that no one else could. But I’m not —There was a policy that he would not cover his brother. And I thought that was a good policy before. I think before COVID he didn’t cover his brother. And I don’t know what changed during COVID, but I think that was a good policy. Sp that’s how I feel about that. Now with Andrew Cuomo, I actually think that he can survive it because I think there — quite honestly, there — if you look at the polling, there are more people out there who support him than who don’t support him.
It’s almost Trumpian.
It’s almost Trumpian. And I also think in this day and age, people are concerned about accusations that can just ruin people for accusations. I think people should just let it play out, and see what happens. I think that his term is almost up and by the time that this would wind its way through the courts, if it ever made it to the courts. I haven’t seen anything yet that would make it to the court. He hasn’t been charged of anything. Right? That is court-related.
Yeah, I think it’s interesting. I think he’ll brazen it out.
Now do I think he should run again? No. Do I think he could run again and win? I do, Kara. Isn’t that amazing?
No, no, it’s not. No, not after Trump. He can brazen and shameless things out, you can do that.
If you listen to people, people say — It’s just like the Trump people. They’ll say one thing in the green room, and then once you get them on T.V. they say a completely different thing. It’s the same thing, you’re right, with Andrew Cuomo. They say one thing on television or one thing publicly or with a group of people. And then when you’re with them one-on-one they’ll say, look, the guy is — I don’t see where he did anything that was that bad.
Yeah. I want to talk about CNN and the future of the network and cable in general. Because I’ve had Jason Kilar on, the head of Warner, so your boss’s boss. And he talked about making —
He’s my boss. Nice guy.
I’m sorry? Yeah, he is.
And very handsome, by the way.
He’s a very handsome man.
I know that’s weird, that’s going to be weird. [LAUGHTER]
Said a very handsome man about a very handsome man.
I said who is — This is our new boss, hm, interesting.
O.K. All right, let’s move along. I’m going to get you out of the jam here.
That’s gonna get me in trouble.
It is indeed. I’m going to move you out of a jam before you move along further. All right. There are a number of threats to the business. He and I talked about it a lot. Declining ratings, changing of the guard, diversity challenges. So now that Trump’s out of the White House, cable news viewership all over has been down. Fox’s particularly — prime-time viewership 32 percent from the last quarter. CNN has done better. Still lost 16 percent of prime-time viewers. So are you worried about — Trump always said, “I’m good for cable.” And so cable, people who run cable. Are you worried about the viewership fizzle? So what does it mean you have to do now?
No. I’m not worried about it. I just keep doing what I do. I’ve always been nimble and malleable and whatever comes next I’ll be ready for it. The reason I’m not worried about it is because it beats the alternative. The alternative of him being in there and us having to figure out how we deal with lies, and bigotry, and hate, and the toxicity that was the Trump administration. Which has nothing for me to do with my ideology or politics. Because people have accused me of being conservative. It has nothing to do with politics. Trump was a horrible person. And he was terrible for the country. And it is better for all — for the world that he is no longer the President of the United States. So if that means that cable news ratings go down? Aww. So I’m not really that concerned about it. I would prefer that my ratings go down and Trump not be in office than my ratings be sky-high and him be there. That’s the honest truth.
So there’s a change afoot too. Jeff Zucker is stepping down as CNN’s president this year. Are you sad to see him go and what does that mean? And what is his legacy?
I am sad to see him go. And then people think that it’s like, oh my gosh, Jeff, you’re kissing up to Jeff. I love Jeff. And when I’m done with this, I’m going to go to a lunch and celebrate his birthday with him. That doesn’t mean that Jeff and I always agree. Quite the opposite. And that’s why I love him, because I can pick up the phone and say, “Jeff, look.” And he can yell. But I know when he’s had enough, when he says, “I’m comfortable with my decision.” That means he’s done.
What is his legacy, do you think? Did he save CNN? I mean many people think so.
Yes, he did. He did save CNN. And I mean everything I said when — I don’t know who else could run it. I’m sure someone will come along and they will run it and they will do a great job. And we’ll get along well or maybe we won’t, who knows. But in this moment, I have to be honest, I think the best thing to happen to CNN in a — besides Ted Turner — was Jeff Zucker. And Jeff is open, he listens. He gets the news. But more than anything he understands, I believe, that cable news is about fans. He loves the ratings. But it’s also about having fans. People who will fight for you, when something goes wrong. And the biggest thing for us is, for people who are on the air, in front of the camera, is that he has our back.
Interesting. So who should replace him? Maybe a woman? Because Brooke Baldwin, one of your fellow anchors who’s leaving CNN this month essentially said that the network is a boys’ club. I’m going to put you in the man box right now. You pointed out the most influential and highest paid anchors there are men. CNN does not have any female anchors in prime-time, 8:00 to 11:00 slot. Do you see that as an issue?
Well, a couple of things. I don’t know everybody else’s salary. So I can’t say that it’s a — and it’s a boys’ club. I just got there.
You’re not going to get out with the I just got there thing.
What’s your question, what do I think about what?
Should a woman be running the network? And how do you square the circle of not having — you know, women are just second-class citizens in the CNN universe.
Well, I think we have had women who have run the network. I mean, Janelle Rodriguez ran part of the network. My E.P. is a woman. Anderson’s not, it’s Charlie. And Erin Burnett’s executive producer, show runner, is a woman. So we have plenty of women in positions of power in the network. Now at the executive ranks, I don’t know enough about the organizational chart to tell you that. But listen, my C.M.O. is a woman, Allison Gollust, and she is a huge influence on the network. So should the network be run by a woman? Of course, a very qualified woman. I would love to see a woman run the network.
So — but you don’t think it’s a boys’ club, as Brooke had said. You’re having lunch with Zucker, I’m guessing she’s not.
Well, I don’t know who — I mean I actually called him up and said, would you like to have lunch? I mean, she can do the same thing.
So I mean, I was with Jeff at Brooke’s wedding. So I don’t, you know — And listen, Brooke — I love Brooke. She’s one of my best friends. So can we improve? Absolutely, we can improve with diversity among women and among people of color. But, not terrible. I think on the right track. I don’t really see it as a boys’ club.
O.K., all right. So, prediction on CNN’s future. What do you see as the future of cable news?
I see cable news as more personality-driven than ever before. And I know people don’t like that. But when you have so much information on your devices, people are going to tune into things and people they relate to, and something that inspires some emotion and passion in them.
So the individual people like yourself and others who are compelling.
I think it’s going to be even more personality-driven, even though people think it’s going to go the opposite way. Well, these big shows are going to go away, and — No, I think — I think that’s going to make more room. And people are going to want us more.
We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Don Lemon after the break.
Let’s talk about your new book. You wrote that this book was spurred in part by George Floyd’s death. Can you talk about that?
When I saw the video I had to go in to close the door into my room. And I just cried. And I said — there was just this thing in me that I had to do something beyond what I do on television every night. Because on television I was just sort of covering it but yet still getting my feelings out. But it wasn’t — you know, I was so emotional about it that I couldn’t — it was like every moment I wanted to say something. And two hours a night, or if there was unrest even three or four hours a night, it just wasn’t enough. And so I sat down and I thought about what was the most impactful thing on my life when it came to race. And it was “The Fire Next Time,” by James Baldwin. And James Baldwin started that book with a letter to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. And he started by saying, we’re celebrating freedom 100 years too soon. And I thought about that book and I said, I’m just going to sit down and write a letter to my great-nephew. And I sat down and wrote a letter to — his name is Trushaad, and then I have another one who’s a little bit younger, his name is Cairo — and that’s how it all started to pour out, and then that became the book.
You’ve been covering Derek Chauvin’s trial on your show. So what are your biggest takeaways?
Well, it’s so emotional. As someone who’s watching, even if I didn’t do what I do every day on television, it just seems so obvious to me, Kara. I mean, you look at the video and you — and you hear the experts. I was kind of surprised that the prosecution put on such a good case. And that the defense is —
I thought maybe they would rely on the video and just say, oh here it is, here it is, what do you think? But they’re presenting — they’re really doing their thing and presenting really great expert witnesses. Not only expert witnesses but eyewitnesses. And the people who have a connection to the community. Like the one young lady who said, “I should have done something,” even though it’s not what I should have done, it’s what he should have done, meaning Derek Chauvin. I’m just surprised at all the emotion from the trial.
On your show you had George Floyd’s cousin, Tera Brown, and Eric Garner’s mom, Gwen Carr. How are you thinking about covering the trial in your show itself?
So every day, we think of what we can do to get people to think about this trial personally. Because quite frankly, I want people to understand, to see the humanity in each other, not just in George Floyd but in each other.
But one of the things you write about in the book is, in this conflict, as you put it, is putting “Black corpses” on display. What do you feel as your duty as a journalist in doing that?
Sometimes I feel like it’s a snuff film. Like we’re watching a snuff film, or it’s almost like Black death pornography. Because we keep having to refer to it. I’m looking forward to a day when we don’t have to talk about Black people who are dying in the streets. So I would —The tug of war that I have is that people need to see it.
Right. And you’ve shown a lot of videos of Floyd’s death.
And I’ve shown a lot of videos of it. And we’re showing it over and over because that’s what’s happening. That’s what they’re doing in the courtroom. I just don’t wanna — I’m not sure of where the line is, between people getting used to it where it’s sort of sanitized, or where it is shocking because you see it on television. I don’t know what that line is and it’s something that I struggle with every single day.
Well, do you think discomfort is your job? Because that’s one of the things, people become — I mean, people are on the internet, they see these images all the time. It doesn’t seem to have as big an effect, after a while, of course.
And that’s a concern. If you stop showing it then will it just become like, yeah, you know, another — that Black guy died, or George Floyd died, or what have you, but… Seeing it was so shocking, and I think that’s what made people take notice. Not only the fact that we were sitting around during a pandemic with nowhere to go, and it’s all over your television screens. But I really do think that the George Floyd moment was an inflection point where people said, “Oh my gosh, what are we doing?” So I think initially we have to show those things, but I think at some point you have to back off and not let it become exploitation of Black bodies.
Right. Now one of the things you wrote about is complacency. Talk a little bit about that complacency, because I think that is what exactly what happens, especially in this internet age, where we’re having photos shoved in our faces almost constantly.
Well that’s what’s happening now. And I don’t know if it’s because of the photos or because people don’t want to deal with it. They want happiness. They want light, they want joy. They want things the way that they were. So I think that’s where the complacency comes from. And then if you look at — during the height of George Floyd and the protests, if you look at the number of people who thought that he was killed, it was a much higher number. I don’t have the exact stats in front of me.
These are the polls that ask people if they thought Floyd was murdered by police.
And then if you look at it now, it’s a much lower number because over time people become, “Well, I don’t know, he must have been doing something.” And the video of him dying kind of fades, because people want to somehow in their mind justify what happened.
So one of the things that you talk about is this idea of not liking to be called racists. And you have a good line in the book about white people’s relationship with racism. And you write, “White brothers and sisters, pocket that ‘but I’m not racist’ card.” That feels prescient. Piers Morgan recently said he was disgusted when you accused him of racism.
I’ve said I wasn’t going to respond to the Piers Morgan thing because we know — I never accused Piers Morgan of being racist. Never. It’s not — nowhere — if you look at the transcript, and you look at it, I never did. And so I think that’s Piers trying to either misunderstanding purposefully, or not purposefully, or wanting some sort of — to be elevated or some talking point. But I never accused Piers Morgan of being racist.
So but talk about this idea, the “but I’m not a racist” card. It’s an aversion to the “racist” word, the moniker. Tell me about that line.
I am offended when people take more offense of the idea that someone may perceive that they’re racist than the actual act of racism. If someone said to me, “Don, you’re being sexist.” Then I don’t go, “I’m not sexist.” I will go, “Well, how am I being sexist?” Doesn’t mean that my whole being or my whole body is sexist. Maybe I’m doing something, or saying something, or thought that I have, is sexist in the moment. And I as a dumb man, who’s lived as a man my entire life, I’ve had the privilege of not having to think about things in the way women do. So why would it be offensive to me that someone points something out that I may be unconscious of? That’s what I think entitlement is, that’s what I think privilege is. Is never having to think about it. And if someone calls it out in you or the possibility that it’s in you, that you become so offended that it just — and then it becomes about you. That’s selfish.
Yeah, grievance is a big business these days.
Yeah, but it’s like, why are you so offended? Well, let’s have the discussion. And maybe I can understand rather than, “How dare you?”
Right. So who is the audience then for this book? I kept trying to figure out when I was reading it.
The audience is everyone. You’re trying to figure out if I’m speaking to Black people or white people?
I can’t tell. At different times.
At different times I’m speaking to different people. So there are times when I’m speaking to white people, there are times when I’m speaking to Black people. But it doesn’t mean that because I’m speaking to Black people that white people can’t — I can’t let them in on it.
But when you were conceiving of it, what was — it says, “what I tell my friends about racism.”
The conception was my white friends calling me, asking me about what they do, what to do. They don’t want their kids to grow up in a world like this. They don’t have the vocabulary to be able to tell their kids about racism, to explain George Floyd, to explain Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor. And even my Black friends saying, you know, “All of these white folks are calling me, what do I say to them? Are we the African-American authorities now?” And I would say, “Yeah, unfortunately, we are.”
You also incorporate memoir and family history throughout the book in different places. For example, you write quite touchingly about your sister Leisa’s sudden death in 2018. Can you talk a little bit about the impact of your sister?
I didn’t even realize how much — I mean, I knew it had affected my life, but I had no idea how it still was affecting my life until I had to read it out loud for the audiobook. My sister was my big sister. She was my big hero, my big mentor. And she was my protector, and she was — she taught me how to drive, she taught me how to dress. She taught me life and she taught me how to get through struggles. And then all of a sudden she was no longer there. And I didn’t understand it. She went out fishing on a lake behind her house and never came home. And when my sister called me to tell me that my older sister had died — my sister who’s — she’s older than me as well but she’s the middle child — to tell me that our sister had died, I sat in my chair and said, “I’m going to wake up soon.” And then the longer I sat there I realized I wasn’t going to wake up. That it was real.
That gave me an urgency about life and about what I was doing as a journalist, and my impact on the world, that I didn’t have before. So now, Kara, I really don’t give a fuck. And, you know, I’m 55 years old. I don’t really care what people think about me. I’m going to do the right thing. I’m going to do what I think is true and honest. I’m going to tell you how I feel. I’m just going to be me on television and me in life. Because tomorrow I may not be here and someone else will be sitting in this chair. And so while I’m here I’m going to make — have the impact that Don Lemon can have, and everything else be damned. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s the truth.
No, no. When you think about your sister right now, how did she impact your feelings about talking about racism and experience it? What was her contribution in that area?
She was much more grounded in that than I was. Even her being seven years older, she had quite a different experience with racism than I did. By the time I came along, my parents were doing well enough to shelter me. And to — I went to private school, I went to an all-Black Catholic school, elementary and junior high school. My sisters went to public schools. Public schools that had just recently been integrated. This was in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. So they had to deal with integration, desegregation, kids looking at their hair, asking to touch it, talking about them, calling them the N-word, that sort of thing. And I didn’t. I mean, but I had to deal with that in an odd way with Black people. It was about good or bad hair, long and short hair, light skin, dark skin. But it was mostly for kids whose parents had means and they were all Black kids. So I had a different experience growing up. But then once I got to high school which had been integrated, I think, 10 years before I got there, and becoming the second Black class president, and hearing the N-word openly, and that sort of thing from a school that was predominantly white. My sister was like Angela Davis, the fist-up Black Power and the afro. Her nickname was actually Cleo for Cleopatra Jones, from the grand blaxploitation thing. She would wear the little short fur coat and the afro and she would dress like Cleopatra Jones. She was like Black Power Pam Grier, back in the day. So I got that from my sister, that sort of devil may care. I’m going to say what I want. I’m going to call it out. And that was what I got from her.
One of the things about the book is it’s quite optimistic about racism. You talk about love as a fertile ground for change. I have to say I was like, no. You know what I mean? Like, it’s much, much deeper and much — in the D.N.A. What do you think is necessary for real change in terms of racism?
Well, I think it’s the answer to what you just said, where you said, “No.” Because I am well aware of how deep it is in D.N.A., growing up, you know, this Black gay guy from the South. But I think that ultimately, it’s — you have to have relationships with people. And so being someone who’s in the middle of an interracial relationship, maybe I’m — maybe I’m a bit too optimistic. But I know what can happen when love takes hold. And even if you’re not in a romantic relationship with someone, if you have a true friendship what can happen. And so I think regardless of if it’s deeply ingrained in someone, there are people who are willing to change. And there are people who — where love is a bigger part of them than bigotry. And I think that if we act out of love, if we start relationships with people who don’t look like us, and we’re not afraid of or aggrieved by someone calling us racist, then we’ll get over those hurdles. So that’s why I’m optimistic.
When you also put it in the book that we’re experiencing death throes of white supremacy, I think about the stormers of Capitol Hill. I read a lot on the internet. Maybe I’m spending more time on the internet than you and looking at some of the sort of darker sides of it. Why did you say “death throes“? Because a lot of people feel, never been stronger, including post-Trump.
Because people are fighting like hell to hang on to their entitlement, and their supremacy, and to be the preeminent voice. I feel like we haven’t seen that since the Ku Klux Klan was like storming the South and running rampant. And then it stopped. And now we’re getting back to that, where they’re marching in Charlottesville, and at the nation’s capital. And because they realize that the demographics of this country are changing. By 2040, 2045, we’re going to be a minority-majority country. And when they look at what happened in November of 2020, and they see that there are more people who don’t want to go back to a time of Jim Crow, who don’t want to go back to a time when marginalized people, including women, did not have equity or equality. So I think that even though there’s a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump and a lot of people who were out there storming the Capitol and a lot of people who are out there marching with tiki torches, there are more people who don’t want our country to be that.
Last question, where will we find Don Lemon in 10 years? 8:00 to 10:00 prime-time spot? Playing with your kids? Or you could do both at the same time.
O.K., so, here’s the thing. Don’t tell anybody. I really love what I do. And I love being on in a time where I have almost complete editorial freedom. Maybe I could have that editorial freedom at 9:00, I’m not sure. But I think at 10 o’clock I can pretty much say and do whatever I want, and I do. So I think you’ll see me — you might see me doing the same thing but differently. Maybe on my own network. Maybe it’ll be a Don Lemon subscription network.
You and Glenn Beck.
Me and — [LAUGHS] no. No no.
No. No no no. But honestly, I love CNN. I would like to be able to do things a little bit differently. I would like not to have it be so connected to politics because I’m really not political but that’s where we are right now. And I would like not to have to talk about issues of race so much, because we are dealing with them in a substantial, meaningful way. And then you’ll see me playing with my kids, and probably spending more time on a boat with Tim and our babies and our dogs.
Don, I really appreciate it. I’ll let you get to lunch with Jeff Zucker. Say hi to him. Tell him he is a chicken-shit for not coming on my show.
You want me to tell him that?
Yes. I want you to tell him directly. Use that word. Say he’s been interviewed by me many times before, he’s said all kinds of crazy stuff to me. And he should give me his exit interview to Kara Swisher. Because I know him.
I’m going to tell him that.
O.K. All right, thank you, Don, appreciate it.
Bye, thank you.
“Sway” is a production of The New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong and Daphne Chen. Edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman. With original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Erick Gomez, and fact checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Liriel Higa. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts. So follow this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of Sway delivered to you, download any podcast app then search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday with 100 percent less emotionality than the sob bros of cable news. Thanks for listening.