CNN personality Don Lemon didn’t just cause a social media firestorm when he used the N-word during a debate about racism on Monday’s broadcast of “CNN Tonight.” He’s also drawn the wrath of experts on racial matters, who are calling his use of the polarizing word “unprofessional” and “uncalled for.”
Lemon shocked viewers by holding up a sign bearing the N-word uncensored and asking if it offended viewers. His display was in part a reaction to President Barack Obama’s use of the word during a discussion about racism on Marc Maron‘s podcast and partly in response to the controversy over the Confederate flag. But what may have started as an insightful debate, ended with Lemon being accused of staging a distracting stunt.
“Using that sign, I thought it was uncalled for,” Bob Butler, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, told TheWrap Tuesday. “He could have had the same conversation [about whether the N-word is offensive] without showing the sign to people watching television.”
Butler added, “When I first saw it, the first thing I thought was, ‘Why did they have to do that?’”
V. Nenaji Jackson, Ph.D., professor of Africana Studies at California State University Los Angeles, defended Lemon’s right to use the word under the banner of free speech, but added that it was “unfortunate, and unnecessary and on some level unprofessional for him to have held up that sign.” She went on to describe what Lemon did as “buffoonery and minstrelsy.”
But then again, Jackson noted, Lemon has a tendency to employ sensationalism over substance.
“His journalistic style is to use shock value because he sometimes lacks substance,” Jackson pointed out. “I rarely find myself informed by Don Lemon. He uses a lot of theatrics.”
Butler noted that the issue of sensationalism isn’t restricted to Lemon, noting that “the media is really part of the problem.”
“I understand that’s what the cable networks want to do, to provoke conversation, in some cases to incite people, to be controversial to make people watch them to see what they’re going to do next,” Butler said. However, he added, “the media needs to understand that when you do things that marginalize a community, it’s a big, big problem.”
Jackson compared the CNN anchor’s over-the-top style to the legacy of notable black journalists including Clarence Page, William Raspberry and Ida B. Wells, saying Lemon falls short of his predecessors.
“They advanced us in their journalism on this issue, but [Lemon] has not advanced us,” Jackson asserted. “As a matter of fact, he has become a distracting kind of sideshow.”
But not everyone had a problem with Lemon’s N-word sign. David L. Horne, Ph.D., professor of Africana Studies at California State University Northridge, told TheWrap that the public’s outrage is the result of their misunderstanding Lemon’s message.
“It didn’t bother me. Don Lemon was trying to make people understand that you are focusing on the wrong issue!” Horne insisted. “You’re not talking about him calling someone out of their name, calling them the N-word. You’re not talking about Don doing that. We’re talking about trying to understand what racism means or how it operates in our society. He was saying ‘focus on the real issue and not tangential issues.’”
Nonetheless, Jackson was disappointed. Asked what she would say to the CNN personality, Jackson offered, “Don, I really wish that you would use the best of you every day consistently to report the news, especially as it relates to black issues … The work that it took for a Lester Holt
It very well could turn out that Lemon could walk back from his N-word stunt with a mea culpa, but Butler suggested that, even if Lemon owns up to stepping out of bounds, it’s unlikely to make much difference, especially with the current media mentality of offend first and ask for forgiveness later.
“Things are never going to change until we have a sensitivity in the media to understand what we’re doing. We can’t do stupid things and think we can apologize and it will be OK,” Butler lamented.
Watch the video below of Lemon’s CNN segment.