CNN Tonight Anchor Don Lemon sees the coronavirus pandemic and the protests against police brutality as intertwined, he told Hollywood Reporter Editorial Director Nekesa Moody at the Promax Virtual Experience on Tuesday.
“There are two viruses affecting this country: one is COVID-19 and the other is racism 20. The two are relatable,” he said.
“You see [that] African Americans and people of color are affected by COVID-19 more than anyone else because African Americans and people of color tend to be on the bottom rung of society. They tend to have jobs where they are in contact with people mostly. They have underlying conditions. So those two are relatable. You may think that you’re covering different stories, but really they are related and relatable in more ways than you think.”
But Lemon, who has gotten increasingly outspoken about issues of race and politics in his nightly news slot, sees both crises as potential opportunities. “I don’t think we’ll get this opportunity again in my lifetime to have people open to change and be available to affect some change,” he said.
To that end, Lemon has started a podcast titled “Silence is Not an Option” that features conversations about race. It debuted about a month ago and immediately hit number two on the Apple Podcasts charts. Today, it remains in the top twenty.
“This podcast is specifically about race, not specifically about the moment,” Lemon said. “Race is a third rail that runs through society and our culture. It is what America was founded upon. It is a deep dark secret—something we hold on to in America that we don’t like to discuss. I think people are afraid to speak up in this moment. They don’t know what to say and they don’t know what to ask and specifically I mean white people.”
Lemon hopes the conversations he has on his podcast allows listeners to get more educated—and therefore comfortable—on the issues of race currently being discussed in the culture.
“I wanted people to come and listen with an open mind. After you listen, then you can have a conversation and ask all of those questions you want to ask but don’t because you are worried about being called a racist.”
One of the podcast’s key points is to create a safe atmosphere around which people can have difficult conversations.
“We don’t want to put people in the place where they are castigated for thinking or saying the wrong thing. We have to give each other some leeway in this moment. When you personalize it, people become more comfortable to be who they are, and more open to change,” Lemon said.
For Lemon and his family and friends, some of whom he’s invited to be on the podcast with him, these issues of race are personal.
“Being a Black man from the south who happens to be gay, I have a certain lens that I view the world through, and that’s not necessarily a bias—that’s my experience,” he said. “If I can’t give my point of view and speak through the experiences I have had as a man of color who has lived on this earth for more than 50 years who happens to have this platform, what am I going to do? I would be derelict in my duty as a journalist and derelict in my duty as an American if I didn’t speak to those issues with honesty. It is just me meeting the moment. It is my time to be me on television and that’s what I’m doing.”
Lemon admitted to Moody that, like almost everyone, the pandemic and subsequent protests have brought him some difficult days.
“There was one moment that was surreal to me,” he said. “I was sitting in my studio alone, with my producer and the control room in my ear. No one was in the same building. I was reporting and I didn’t know if anyone was listening. It was like a Twilight Zone episode, it was like Don Lemon watching Don Lemon do the news.”
That proved to be a moment in which Lemon had to make a choice and stick with it: “I either had to keep it together or lose it. It was so overwhelming—the lack of leadership and the frustration among Americans and the disconnect among Americans. I had to wonder if it was real and how we got to this point. We’re living in a country with a vacuum in leadership, a president who is trying to divide us instead of bringing us together and trying to stoke racial dissension so it’s incumbent upon Americans to do it ourselves.”
Since starting on CNN Tonight in 2014, Lemon has gotten increasingly comfortable with taking a position on certain issues. On Monday and Tuesday, Lemon was trending on Twitter after he got into an uncomfortable exchange with actor Terry Crews over his tweets criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement as being too extreme.
Are all white people bad?
Are all black people good?
Knowing this reality- I stand on my decision to unite with good people, no matter the race, creed or ideology.
Given the number of threats against this decision-
I also decide to die on this hill.
— terry crews (@terrycrews) July 4, 2020
Lemon opened the interview by asking Crews why he decided to “die on that hill,” so to speak, but didn’t agree with Crews’ views on Black Lives Matter. After about eight minutes, the interview ended on a tense note, with Lemon saying, “I’m over it, Terry,” and Crews tweeting Tuesday morning: “If I’m truly your equal, I can discuss my concerns with you - but if I’m not - all my concerns are perceived as threats.”
READ MORE: The Hollywood Reporter