UPDATE: A few hours after becoming the subject of a damning report from Variety, Don Lemon has denied all allegations.
In a statement provided to The Wrap, a spokesperson for Lemon said that: “The story, which is riddled with patently false anecdotes and no concrete evidence, is entirely based on unsourced, unsubstantiated, 15-year-old anonymous gossip. It’s amazing and disappointing that Variety would be so reckless.”
Original Story Follows:
In February, longtime CNN anchor Don Lemon created a media controversy when he said on-air that Presidential candidate Nikki Haley was “past her prime.” Lemon’s statements — which included the claim that “A woman is considered to be in their prime in their 20s and 30s and maybe 40s” — resulted in the Emmy winner briefly getting benched from his gig as “CNN This Morning” co-host, and led to the anchor reportedly apologizing for his actions on a staff-wide call.
But the Haley incident is only the tip of the misogynistic and sexist behavior from Lemon at CNN, according to a new report from Variety published Wednesday. The story, which features statements from over a dozen sources who currently or formerly worked at CNN, alleges that Lemon had a history of disrespecting women at the cable news giant, including on-air talent like Soledad O’Brien, Nancy Grace, and Kyra Phillips, all of whom have since left the company.
One of the most shocking stories from the report claims that Lemon harassed and sent threatening texts to Phillips when the two co-hosted CNN’s “Live From” weekday show in 2008. According to Variety, sources claimed that tensions between the two grew high after working together for months, and producers and newsroom supervisors had to pull Lemon off the air during commercial breaks multiple times due to provocative behavior.
Reportedly, Lemon’s behavior toward Phillips worsened after his co-host was given an assignment to report in Iraq that he desired. Sources told Variety that while Phillips was away, he tore up pictures and notes inside Phillips desk in the company’s offices. When Phillips returned, Lemon allegedly sent her threatening text messages from an unknown number warning her “Now you’ve crossed the line, and you’re going to pay for it.”
After Lemon was identified as the sender, a human resources investigation was launched; findings were never disclosed to staffers, but he was pulled from co-anchoring “Live From” and moved to weekends. Phillips declined to comment to Variety, but a spokesperson from CNN shared a statement with the outlet saying that: “Don says the alleged incident never occurred and that he was never notified of any investigation. CNN cannot corroborate the alleged events from 15 years ago.”
Outside of the Phillips incident, sources told Variety that Lemon was frequently cruel to women he worked with, including calling a producer fat or mocking Grace live on air; a source who witnessed the incident said “that was the beginning of when you knew that Don was kind of volatile and didn’t say good things about women.”
In 2008, after O’Brien landed the hosting job for CNN’s “Black in America” docuseries, Lemon reportedly suggested that the anchor wasn’t Black on an editorial call she wasn’t on (O’Brien’s father is white, while her mother is Afro-Cuban). O’Brien, who now hosts her own program for Hearst Television, told Variety that “Don has long had a habit of saying idiotic and inaccurate things, so it sounds pretty on brand for him.”
A spokesperson for CNN told Variety that “Don, Soledad and others have in the past correctly referred to her Afro-Cuban heritage as it is a unique part of her personal story. But Don denies making any related remark in a derogatory way.”
The story also quotes Goldie Taylor, a former CNN consultant who guested on Lemon’s show, who claims she was blacklisted for criticizing the anchor after he made comments about how “the Black community could fix its problems” during a 2013 broadcast. “I’m never surprised when Don gets in trouble,” she told Variety. “It makes me neither happy nor sad to see him undermine his own success. There was a time when it appeared that Black people were most often the subject of his ire. Now, it seems to me that when he says something offensive, there’s almost always a woman on the other side.”
A spokesperson for CNN claimed to Variety they did not know why the network cut ties with Taylor. CNN has told IndieWire that all of its statements to Variety as listed in the report, are accurate.
Beyond Lemon’s misogynistic behavior towards female coworkers, the story also claims that early in his career, before he came out in 2011, he openly dated a younger staffer despite it being “frowned on” at the network — Lemon was 41, and the staffer was 22 and right out of college. More generally, sources claimed that he engaged in unprofessional behavior by skipping editorial calls, frequently showing up to work late, or complaining that other journalists received more airtime.
Sources also pointed to the 2021 incident involving Jussie Smollett, who testified in court that Lemon texted him about Chicago police doubting his story about being the victim of a hate crime, as a situation that should have caused Lemon to have been benched from CNN. A CNN spokesperson told Variety that the network reviewed the situation and found that Lemon, who refused to hand over his phone records to authorities, behaved appropriately and was attempting to book Smollett for his show.
On his current assignment at “CNN This Morning,” which began in November, sources claim that Lemon developed tension with his two co-anchors, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins, especially after he made gaffes like claiming the U.S. men’s national soccer team should be paid more than the title-winning women’s team. Sources claimed that the Haley comments caused Harlow to flee the set in anger. Lemon is reportedly undergoing formal training from CNN after the incident.