Drive-By Thoughts: Making Dollars and Sense of Don Lemon’s Logic

Don Lemon recently joined a storied list of black public figures that have, throughout the years, chided the black community’s cultural failings. Lemon not only agreed with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly’s post-Zimmerman trial moratorium but thought O’Reilly did not go far enough in blaming black people for their dire straits.

I have no desire to jump into the fray. Black Twitter has done a number on Lemon’s position. Several thoughtful essays have been published.

I am sticking to what I know. I certainly do not know Lemon’s heart, mind, or scholarly training in culture, race, ethnicity and stratification.

I do, however, know a little about organizational logics.

That training in how organizations, like media, operate made Lemon’s comments and subsequent doubling-down on their most fallacious points made my spidey sense tingle. Lemon’s comments happened on his home network during a planned segment. Had the network thought those comments out of step with its station identity or marketing goals, there is no way we would have seen Lemon on The View a few days later still beating his sagging pants drum. That suggests Lemon’s public move to the right was likely done with the sanction (if not outright under the guidance) of his network superiors. That is simply how things are done in the highly competitive network news game.

That leads us the question of how Lemon’s black conservatism fits in with CNN’s larger mission.

How is CNN doing in the ratings?

After a period of serious decline that had the network regularly trailing Fox News and MSNBC, CNN is on the comeback trail. CNN president Jeff Zucker was brought in to right the ship this year. As of this last quarter CNN leap-frogged MSNBC to hit number two.

One of Zucker’s first moves was to push out the network’s resident race auteur, Soledad O’Brien. Sources at the time were cited as saying, “Soledad is talented at producing in-depth, serious pieces of journalism, and is a tough interviewer. That doesn’t seem to fit the direction the network is going.”

The direction the network is going.

Lemon is a news reader, not a reporter or even a producer. He has certainly not been on the trajectory to become a public intellectual. Until O’Brien left he was not known for taking on topics like “the N-word: should we use it“. O’Brien’s ouster seemed to not only represent a sea change in CNN’s commitment to even the Nerf ball version of hard-hitting reporting, but it also left a hole for a resident race person.

When you consider that the number one news network, FOX, has had a pretty good run with conservative talking points completely unhinged from data, reality and analysis, the new organizational logic of empty conservative race rhetoric at CNN starts to emerge.

Lemon’s foray into black conservatism fills two holes at CNN. One, it positions him in the “race person” role left by O’Brien’s departure. Two, it positions him as the network conservative. That last role is likely being shaped by CNN’s ideological position among its competition. Lemon does not stand a chance of being more liberal, learned or loved by a news-viewing black audience as MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry. He has no ground he can stake there for CNN’s benefit. As CNN’s black conservative, however, he does not have to engage the liberal MSNBC. He has a better chance of making attention-grabbing noise by debating his role-playing equals at FOX: O’Reilly, Hannity and the like. Lemon’s new focus on black dysfunction makes him CNN’s resident black and conservative, allowing the network to punch up at number one Fox instead of down to number three MSNBC.

Lemon is quite literally a two-fer.

One thought on “Drive-By Thoughts: Making Dollars and Sense of Don Lemon’s Logic

  1. Nice analysis ! I agree, but I still have to wonder about what black people make of the cultural image that he challenged?

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