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CNN reporter Don Lemon earns respect for shedding light on race issues

Kam Williams
CNN reporter Don Lemon earns respect for shedding light on race issues
CNN reporter Don Lemon (r) interviewing Dorian Johnson, attorney for the family of slain 18-year-old Michael Brown. (Theo R. Welling photo) (Photo: Theo R. Welling)

CNN’s Don Lemon has anchored and reported many breaking on-the-scene news stories, including the George Zimmerman trial, the Boston marathon bombing, the Philadelphia building collapse, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the Colorado Theater Shooting, the death of Whitney Houston, the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the death of Michael Jackson, Hurricane Gustav in Louisiana, and the Minneapolis bridge collapse.

In 2009, Ebony Magazine dubbed Lemon one of the 150 most influential blacks in America. Furthermore, he has won an Edward R. Murrow award for his coverage of the capture of the Washington, D.C. snipers, and an Emmy for a special report on real estate in Chicagoland.

Lemon earned a degree in broadcast journalism from Brooklyn College where he currently serves as an adjunct professor, teaching and participating in curriculum designed around new media. Here, he talks about CNN’s coverage of the recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Kam Williams: Do you think your ability to report from Ferguson, Missouri was adversely affected by your almost becoming a part of the story like when you got shoved or punched by that racist cop or when rapper Talib Kweli put you in the awkward position of having to defend CNN’s coverage on the air?

Don Lemon: Well, I don’t know if I became part of the story. I just think we had so many resources devoted to it that we were way ahead of the competition. So, everyone tuned in to CNN, and they were watching us. [Regarding Talib Kweli] I’m not the only one on the air who’s been put in a position of defending our reporting. If someone comes on and criticizes it, we’re there to tell them the truth. [Regarding Officer Dan Page] I got pushed by an officer live on television, but that was just me doing my job. He pushed me, so it wasn’t as if I’d injected myself into the story. We were standing where we’d been instructed to stand, and he came around the corner and shoved me when I just happened to be doing a live shot on The Situation Room. I don’t think that made me part of the story. It was more that everyone was watching when news was breaking live around me.

KW: Were there any teachable moments for you as a journalist covering the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting?

DL: I think there’s always a lesson you can learn from any situation. In this case, I learned how tightly people hold onto their beliefs. And, here, people had really strong beliefs about this story on both sides. People supporting the officer felt Michael Brown did something wrong. Those supporting Michael Brown said the cop did something wrong. There was very little that you could do to convince either side otherwise, or simply to be objective and not jump to conclusions. So, if you were just reporting the facts, and said “Michael Brown did this…” you’d be challenged by his supporters asking, “How do you know that?” By the same token, if you said, “Witnesses say the cop did this…” the officer’s supporters would challenge you with “Well, how do you know that?” It reconfirmed that I have to be objective in my reporting and allow viewers to read into it whatever they want. So, the teachable moment for me was a reminder that I just have to state the facts.

KW: Are you satisfied that CNN has covered the Michael Brown case objectively, devoid of bias and sensationalism?

DL: Absolutely! My answer is “yes” and I’m so happy that Aaron asked this question because that means that people are paying close attention. So, it’s incumbent upon us not only to be objective but to be passionate about our reporting… meaning wanting to be there… wanting to tell the truth… and wanting to tell the story from all sides.

KW: A crowd control police officer overtly referred to protesters as “animals” on CNN. Is that sound bite an accurate reflection of the state of relations between Ferguson’s police officers and the African-American community?

DL: I can’t answer that because I’m not a resident of Ferguson. I can only tell you what, from being there, people are saying to me. And I know that there are some good officers in the Ferguson Police Department, and then there are some bad ones, just as in any police department around the country. But I don’t know if someone calling protesters “animals” is an accurate reflection of the Ferguson Police. You’d have to ask the police and the people of Ferguson. I know they have issues with the department. That’s what you saw playing out on television. They are passionately distrustful of the police. Many people are. There’s a disconnect between the police and the community. And so that’s a question that’s better answered by those who live there.

KW: Has the court of public opinion already outweighed any opportunity for Officer Wilson to voice his rationale for shooting Michael Brown so many times?

DL: No, I don’t think it’s outweighed his rationale. The officer is yet to tell the public and the media what he did. I’m sure he’s already spoken with investigators. What everyone else is really waiting on is to hear his side of the story. But he can do that at any point. So, if anyone feels there’s been some bias in the reporting of the story that’s because only one side is telling their story. The officer hasn’t told his story in the first person. In the beginning, the Ferguson Police gave a version. Then they turned it over to St. Louis County. And then there’s an alleged friend of the police officer who called a radio station to tell her side of the story. But that’s really been it. So, you haven’t heard much from the officer’s side. However, you have heard from witnesses on the scene who have a lot to say about what they saw happen to Michael Brown. So, if you don’t have the officer or someone speaking on his behalf, how do you tell his story? You can’t.

KW: In your opinion, was there a sufficient threat against the police for them to don riot gear, use teargas and make such a show of deadly force?

DL: I don’t know about a sufficient threat, but I do know there were agitators in the crowd. We saw some of them. Come on! We saw people get shot in front of us. I wasn’t at every scene that turned into a violent situation, but I did see protesters instigating in some instances. Still, the overwhelming majority of people said they were doing nothing but exercising their right to protest and to march on the street when all of a sudden they came up against a heavy police presence pushing them out of the way. I take them at their word that this was true. The police said to us that we didn’t see everything that’s going on… that people were throwing bottles of water and urine at them, and that when something’s flying through the air they have no idea whether it might be a Molotov cocktail. So, while I might tend to agree with the conventional wisdom that it looks like an overly-militarized presence, just judging from the optics of it, I would nevertheless take both sides at their word, because I’m not the police and I wasn’t in the crowd 100% of the time. I think there was some instigating by police, and I think there was some instigating by some of the people who were out in the crowd.

KW: How has all the looting affected the public perception of the Mike Brown case? Did the optics of that serve to divide the country along color lines?

DL: I think in a way it distracted us from the real issues: first, the killing of Mike Brown and, secondly, the police’s relationship with certain members of the community. When you saw people stealing, that changed the narrative of the story. But it also showed how upset people are. I think you’d be hard-pressed to go back in history and find any sort of major change achieved without some sort of upheaval. Even during the peaceful, non-violent Civil Rights Movement, something would break out. There are often people in a crowd who will do things they’re not supposed to, even during the celebration of winning the Stanley Cup, the World Cup or the NBA championship. We see it all the time. It was no different in Ferguson. But it doesn’t suggest that the people there are different from anyone else. It’s just that there were a few agitators in the crowd. And yes, I do think it did take our focus off of what’s really important.

KW: Have you been the victim of a profile stop by police?

DL: I have had interaction with police officers, yes. What man of color hasn’t? That’s the reality. I was also detained for “shopping while black.” Listen, I live in America. If I live in this country, things are going to happen to me, especially as a black man. I’ve talked about my experiences before, but I don’t really want to be the story.