When he’s not needling President Donald Trump on CNN, Don Lemon is busy breaking in the two mini-poodles he recently adopted from a rescue shelter.
He’s also making time to visit the Twin Cities to give two speeches in conjunction with Martin Luther King Day. “We are thrilled to have Mr. Lemon share his experiences of how Dr. King guided him as a journalist,” said Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund, which is featuring the broadcaster at a fundraising breakfast Monday at the Armory in Minneapolis.
Lemon, a polarizing figure who doesn’t shy away from his disdain for the current president, is also expected to talk about his scramble to the top and the challenges he faced as a black gay man in TV news at an event Sunday at House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul.
As he prepared last week for his prime-time program, “CNN Tonight,” which has risen 25 percent in the ratings in the past year, the Louisiana-born anchor took a few minutes to address the on-air fights he referees, how he and colleague Chris Cuomo spend their free time together and just how intoxicated he gets while covering New Year’s Eve.
Q: How relevant is King’s message today? Do you think it still resonates?
A: Listen, I don’t think he’ll ever be forgotten, but there are moments in our history when he’s more thought of, when he’s more needed. Like now.
Q: What do you think the reverend would think of the current state of the country?
A: He was a realist. He would think progress has been made, but look at Charlottesville. I don’t think he’d be surprised by that. If he were around today, he’d be fighting for immigration and for those who face hardship in this country. He wouldn’t be afraid. He’d be trying to sit down with the powers that be.
Q: Even President Trump?
A: Look at the leaders he met with during his lifetime. If he could sit down with them, he could sit down with the current president. That’s just who he was.
Q: All my parents do these days is watch cable news. They even stopped watching sitcoms and dramas. Is there such a thing as watching too much news?
A: My mom is the same way. I find her watching CNN 24 hours a day. She’s never been a political person, but she is now. She even watches the rebroadcast of my show. I don’t have TVs in my guest room, so when she comes to my house for the holidays, she’ll sleep on the couch in the basement because there is a TV in there and she never turns it off.
I would never tell anyone to turn off CNN, but I do tell people they need to step back and take their eyes off the TV every once in a while. I have a “No Trump” rule at dinner. I don’t want to talk about it. You know how you put down your cellphone at dinner? I think it should be the same with discussions about the administration.
Q: So what do you prefer to talk about in those moments? How do you escape from politics?
A: I go to a lot of fancy restaurants, but I really like wings. I’ll go to a sports bar and eat. Not that I’m a sports fanatic, but I’ll sit with the guys and root for the Saints or whoever.
People might be surprised that I love design. My house is in perpetual remodel mode. My real happy place is out on the water. Chris Cuomo and I are always going out fishing. We’re part of the boating community.
Q: When you are working, you’re engaged in a lot of battles. Do you worry that you’re contributing to the tension?
A: That’s not what I’m there for. The fighting on my show is no different than fighting at the dinner table. I don’t think there’s any malice there. Most of us are friendly to each other off the air. But I understand what you’re saying about the nature of cable news. Usually it gets heated when someone is not telling you the truth and I feel an obligation to tell viewers the truth.
Q: But couldn’t you just read the headlines?
A: If that’s what you want, go back to 1987, when the anchorman was the voice of God. That world is over. When people tune into the news these days, they want information, but they also want to figure out how to feel about certain things. They feel like bystanders with very little power. They don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. Folks on TV have the access to people who can inform them on how they should feel about certain things.
This is really an exciting time to be a journalist. Our role has never been more important.
Q: It’s become a tradition to figure out how intoxicated Don Lemon is on New Year’s Eve. So once and for all: Drunk or sober?
A: Listen, I’m having a great time. I’m never not in control. If people think I’m drunk, let them have that. I’m not going to give it away. Let’s not ruin the fantasy.
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 • @nealjustin