Award Winning CNN Journalist Headlines Black History Month

Even after covering some of the world’s toughest stories over the past 30 years, Don Lemon sees hope.

Amid the angst of current political and social unrest, America continues to shift toward a more equitable society and can embrace hope, Lemon, CNN’s award-winning broadcast journalist told about 300 students, staff, and members of the public at Farmingdale State College Feb. 7.

His appearance was sponsored by the Office of Student Activities, Student Government Association, and the Office of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion in celebration of Black History Month. Dr. Kevin Jordan, Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Excellence moderated the discussion.

“I think we are moving forward,” despite some obstacles, said Lemon, who co-anchors CNN This Morning. “I would tell young people they are all deserving of this American experience. Ignorance is timeless. There are a lot of people not operating in the truth. It’s time for us to be more current and less judgmental, and figure out what’s needed to be open-minded and stand in truth.”

One way to move forward is not banning books and making sure students have the correct history of the U.S. “We can’t allow one group to write an inclusive history.”

That history includes information about slavery and Black history, as well as the history of women, Native Americans, the LGBQT community, and other minorities, he said.

Current debates about pronouns and sexual identities will fade, if the focus is on acceptance.  “We’ve always gone through labels. Just call people what they want to be called—how does it hurt you? Just allow people to be who they are and respond to them as who they are.”

Older generations are having more trouble adjusting to the gender fluidity that younger ones take for granted, Lemon noted. He was a bit taken aback when he overheard pre-teen girls in his building’s elevator casually talking about a friend who was non-binary. When Lemon went to an ‘80’s-themed Halloween party dressed as female aerobics’ instructor, he expected some derision and comments that aerobics instructors are female. But the daughter of the party host opened the door, looked him up and down, and said, “You need a scrunchie,” Lemon recalled. “Young people today get it and don’t understand why we don’t get it.”

Awareness and anger about injustices are also on the rise. The COVID-19 pandemic, which tested the country in so many ways, also contributed to that awareness, according to Lemon. With most of the country in isolation, Americans turned to their screens. While many were in quarantine, George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 and people were glued to their TVs. “It was a shared experience,” Lemon said. “We had to pay attention. It galvanized us in that moment. The biggest lesson was that people paid attention to it and weren’t afraid to speak out and feel the outrage.”

Journalists’ roles are also shifting, as reporters share more of themselves or their feelings during emotional stories, while preserving objectivity, some reporters are specifically advocacy journalist. “There is plenty of room for objectivity,” according to Lemon. “Advocacy journalism is not pejorative. There are advocacy journalists. My point of view comes from being a Black gay man in America; if I don’t point that out, then why are we there? It’s allowing people to understand where you are coming from.”

Navigating emotions in difficult situations is always complex, he added. “You want to be professional and be real. You want people to see you are authentic, have people see you are human, and share the experience with the audience.”

When Lemon interviewed the parents of Tyre Nichols, the Black man beaten by Memphis police on January 7 who died three days later, his mother talked about how her son was on an assignment from God and been called home, how embarrassed she was for the Black police officers who beat him, and when she saw her son in the hospital, he reminded her of Emmett Till, the Black teenager lynched and killed by white men in Mississippi in 1955. “She was crying, I was crying,” Lemon said. “How can you not be emotional? At other times you have to compose yourself…

“I am a man of a certain age; I’ve earned the right to sit where I am and do what I do,” he noted.

He could not recall another time when journalists have received so much criticism and yet their role is so essential, according to Lemon. “I can’t think of a more important time,” he added. “Our job is to inform people. You have to get a message out that lands, convey a message that is relatable.

“Journalism to me it is all about why—why are we doing it,” according to Lemon. “It’s all about truth and facts.” Getting it right is always more important than getting it first, he said and added “It isn’t real until CNN says it. Don’t buy into the BS. We know we are right.”

The news industry shines a light in areas that are important, Lemon noted. “Journalism saved my people.” Broadcast journalists chronicled the civil rights movement, shocking the nation with scenes of protesters being beaten by police. “If the cameras had not been there, chronicling events, we might not be here.  It gave us a path. It chronicled Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X… protests, the rise of the first African-American president. It helped people of color around the world, created a spirit that inspired Nelson Mandela to lead a movement (in South Africa.)”

Lemon’s interest in journalism sprung from his inquisitive nature. “My parents allowed me to be curious. I would go up to people in restaurants while we were on vacation and ask them where they were traveling to.” His mother urged him not to bother people, but his father said it was good that he learned not to be afraid to talk to people. “My parents allowed my curiosity to flourish.” 

One of his earliest inspirations was Jean West, a local Black newscaster. “I didn’t see many people like me on TV—she looked like my mom, my sister, my aunts-- not a stereotype.”

Later he started carrying around video cameras and filming friends and making his own movies and his own “show.” “I realized I wasn’t so bad on camera.”  He completed his degree in Broadcast Journalism at Brooklyn College, where is now an Adjunct Professor.

Looking back, Lemon said he could not think of anything he would change about his professional or personal life. “I think I would have told my younger self not to worry so much about what people think,” he said. “Just be excellent.”

College students are one of his favorite audiences. “Students really have open minds; they are in the middle of the learning process.” 

Students often ask him what they need to do to “make it” in broadcasting as a woman, a gay person, or a Black person. “I tell them, ‘Don’t worry about that—worry about being excellent first,’” Lemon said. “Excellence always wins. The rest will come. It’s not about what you are. You need to know your worth. Work hard. Don’t worry about what others think about you. I hope you have an army of friends and supporters behind you. (But) No one has to believe in your dream but you.” 

Lemon’s message meshed well with FSC’s mission and goals. “Don Lemon is an adept communicator and authentic journalist,” said Jordan. “His ability to guide with directness and candor as well as an appropriate tone command trust and respect. His visit to Farmingdale was a pleasure and demonstrates our commitment to building a responsive inclusive culture.”

More photos: A Conversation With Don Lemon.