DePauw University professor and media critic Jeffrey McCall told Fox News that Lemon fits well with CNN's primetime objective to feature analysis and interviews, but he is clearly not a news anchor in the traditional sense.
“He is a host of an opinion driven show in which his opinions are front and center. Thus, he is a host rather than a news anchor,” McCall told Fox News. “People who watch his show surely know all of this and are happy to hear his insights. His show does discuss news topics, but it is not designed as an objective news show.”
Lemon initially gained broadcasting prominence as a news anchor, covering breaking news and reporting from the scene of major stories. But Lemon has offered his opinion on a regular basis in recent memory as CNN has veered further to the left during the Trump administration.
NewsBusters managing editor Curtis Houck told Fox News that Lemon is “the quintessential example of how the line has been blurred at CNN between anchors, analysts, commentators, contributors, correspondents, hosts, and reporters” because all of them pontificate a biased agenda against conservatives and the president.”
MSNBC and Fox News are typically transparent about specific on-air personalities hosting opinion shows, but CNN lists Lemon’s program as a “news” show on its official website while others are listed in an “interview and debate” category. Lemon’s bio also labels him an “anchor,” which typically indicates a straight-news reader.
CNN did not immediately respond when asked if “CNN Tonight with Don Lemon” should still be classified as a straight-news program.
Lemon has called Trump a “racist,” a “fraud,” “con man,” questioned whether or not the State of the Union should air on a delay to avoid “propaganda” and even declared that he wouldn’t shake the president’s hand. He has also questioned Trump’s mental fitness, criticized Attorney General William Barr and cut off a guest who accused him of "contributing" to the political divide in the country.
“When they openly condemn ordinary Americans for supporting the President, decry him as racist, push policy positions like gun control, and use snarky chyrons, you stop just delivering the news and become activists,” Houck said. “Lemon's hostility to those who think differently is one such example. Sure, conservatives appear on his show, but they're often harangued by not just Lemon but two, three, four or however many other panelists are on hand.”
Earlier this week, Lemon appeared on former ESPN personality Jemele Hill’s podcast and explained that if anyone at CNN could call President Trump a flat-out racist, he is the anchor up for the task and doesn’t care about any backlash.
“If I’m not gonna say it, who is gonna say it? So we opened the show that way,” Lemon said, referring to a Jan. 2018 edition of “CNN Tonight.”
A news anchor and an opinion host might not seem very different to the average viewer, but the media industry considers the titles distinct. News anchors are expected to report the news and leave the punditry up to the opinion hosts. Back in 2010, Lemon famously proclaimed CNN doesn’t “do opinion,” creating a quote that is often revisited by the network’s critics.
“We put the story out there and we try to stay in the middle of the road,” Lemon said at the time.
Since Lemon’s claim, the network has essentially implemented an anti-Trump programming strategy – a significant change from CNN founder Ted Turner's bare bones, objective approach to journalism.
Fox News’ Mark Levin recently criticized Lemon for touting himself as a down-the-middle newsman.
“If you want to join the DNC, then join the DNC. If you want to join one of these left-wing groups like MoveOn or Think Progress, then join one of the left-wing groups. Or, if you want to be a member of Antifa, because he’s kind of partial to Antifa, then go join Antifa. But to sit there as a newsperson, and to make the kind of commentary about you’re about to hear is disgusting,” Levin said last week before introducing a clip of Lemon offering anti-Trump commentary.
Lemon’s liberal opinions haven’t helped CNN attract viewers, as “CNN Tonight” finished the month of April as the No. 36 most-watched program in cable news, according to TVNewser. Lemon averaged only 681,000 viewers for the month despite the cushy primetime slot, even finishing behind several daytime programs on Fox News and MSNBC.
While “CNN Tonight” is regularly thumped in the ratings department, the Lemon-anchored program recently moved to a glamorous updated studio at CNN’s luxurious new facility in the Hudson Yards area on the West Side of Manhattan. Lemon even managed a shot at Trump when showing viewers the new digs, suggesting that the president can't afford such a large space since he isn't a "real billionaire."
Fox News’ Joseph A. Wulfsohn contributed to this report.