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CNN's Don Lemon returns after sexist and ageist remarks about Nikki Haley


CNN star Don Lemon has been making news lately for the wrong kinds of reasons. He offended women across the country and in his own newsroom on Thursday with sexist comments. He apologized. Now he has taken some time off, but he is due back on the air tomorrow morning. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is here to explain what's going on over at CNN. Hi, David.


SHAPIRO: Start with what Don Lemon said. What got him in trouble?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it started with Nikki Haley. She was kicking off her presidential campaign for the Republican nomination for next year, but she did it last week. She said anyone running for president over 75 should have to take a test for cognitive function and release it publicly. And that was clearly a dig at President Biden but also her Republican opponent, former boss, former President Donald Trump. I want to play for you what Don Lemon said. You can really kind of hear co-host Poppy Harlow incredulous at what she's hearing. Here's how it played out.


DON LEMON: This whole talk about age makes me uncomfortable. I think that - I think it's the wrong road to go down. She says people - you know, politicians or something are not in their prime. Nikki Haley isn't in her prime. Sorry. When - a woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s.

POPPY HARLOW: What are you - wait.

LEMON: That's not according to me.

HARLOW: Prime for what?

LEMON: It depends. It's just, like, prime. If you look it up, it'll - if you look - if you Google, when is a woman in her prime, it'll say, 20s, 30s and 40s.

FOLKENFLIK: Look it up, he said. So Poppy Harlow gave him a chance to walk it back. Our former beloved colleague Audie Cornish, who's now with CNN, did so, too - didn't really happen on the air.

SHAPIRO: So what went on behind the scenes?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the first thing - Nikki Haley started fundraising on this almost immediately. Chris Licht is the chairman of CNN. He briefly addressed it in a staff meeting Thursday. He did so then again Friday. Apparently, that hadn't done the trick. He called it upsetting, unacceptable and unfair - not only presumably Nikki Haley but also to his female colleagues.

And on that conference call with staff Friday morning, Don Lemon followed Chris Licht. He apologized, apparently, for about six minutes. He talked about his own status as a gay Black man. Lemon was off Monday. CNN said that it was planned for the President's Day holiday. Late last night, Licht sent out a terse note to staff. He said Lemon had agreed to have what he called formal training. Licht said CNN balances accountability with fostering a culture in which people can own, learn and grow from their own mistakes.

SHAPIRO: How does this fit in with Don Lemon as we know him as a public figure? Is it out of character for him?

FOLKENFLIK: It's not entirely out of character. I mean, he came from primetime as a solo host and as a star, and he was known for occasionally saying things that might well get him in trouble. It's not sort of simply delivering the headlines, right? I think in coming over to the morning show, it was evident over the weeks and months since that happened that he saw himself as the main star of the show in a way that perhaps executives and his co-host didn't intend. It was meant to be this trio - Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins. There were reports in December of him belittling Collins off the air in a way that she felt very demeaned by. And let's just agree that on the air, he sure talks over them a lot.

SHAPIRO: What are the stakes here for CNN and for Licht, and where do they go from here?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, Chris Licht has, you know, effectively been charged with refreshing CNN, moving it away from what was perceived as a strong anti-Trump lineup on primetime and elsewhere. He has a history of inventing these successful a.m. shows. He's trying to replicate the magic here. I think what we're going to see now is not only whatever this formal training is for Lemon but also unrelenting scrutiny. A year from now, people either look back and laugh and say, look how far we've come, or they'll point to this moment as the reason that Don Lemon had to go. And either this can prove to be a problem solved for Chris Licht and on to others or a big headache in a sea filled with them.

SHAPIRO: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks.



David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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