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Anchoring the National Conversation on Race: Don Lemon

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Don Lemon: The 'Ferguson, Missouri' Interview with Kam Williams

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 Don 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.

Don 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.

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Don Lemon interviewing Capt. Ron Johnson
Photo: Theo R. Welling

Kam Williams: Hi Don, thanks for another opportunity to interview you.

Don Lemon: Hey, Kam, thanks for asking me.

KW: I appreciate your taking the time to speak with me, since you seem to be on CNN 24/7lately. It's been wall-to-wall Don Lemon from Ferguson, Missouri.

DL: [Chuckles] I don't know about that. It's been a tough go, but it's an important story. I wanted to make sure I got it on and got it right.

KW: I have a ton of questions sent in for you by viewers. Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks: 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 [see video below] or when rapper Talib Kweli [see video at the end of this story] put you in the awkward position of having to defend CNN's coverage on the air?

DL: 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: Do you still teach as an adjunct? What grade would you give yourself on the reporting of this story overall?

DL: Yes, I still teach occasionally at Brooklyn College, but I'm now more than an adjunct. I'm now on the board of trustees. I would have to give CNN an A+. I think we did a really good job. No one compared to us, resource-wise. We had every angle of that story covered. That's why people saw it and felt it as if they were there. We did a great job bringing people there. And that's that.

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Don Lemon interviewing Mike Brown, Dorian Johnson's attorney
Photo: Theo R. Welling

KW: Editor Lisa Loving asks: 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 on to 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: Aaron Moyne asks: 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. [see video] 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: Do you have any qualms about the black community making Michael Brown the poster child for police brutality, assuming he had robbed a store and roughed up its owner just minutes before his confrontation with Officer Wilson?

DL: Listen, I can't make people act or react a certain way. They're going to do whatever they're going to do. As with any situation, I would just urge caution and that people reserve judgment until all the facts are out. But I do know that, regardless of what happens with Michael Brown, it's important that we get to the truth. That doesn't take away the distrust of the police and the way certain people are treated by them in our society. This has really opened up that line of conversation. So, if anything comes out of this, hopefully it's a conversation that encourages police departments around the country to look at themselves and to figure out ways to serve their communities better.

KW: Ray Hirschman asks: Based on the evidence surrounding the case now, do you have a gut feeling whether the police officer will walk or be charged with homicide and found guilty?

DL: You never know how these things are going to turn out. But, and I say this knowing people are going to get upset, if you look back at the history of similar cases, it's very tough to convict a police officer in a situation like this. Juries often decide that it's easy for people to armchair quarterback when they don't know what a cop's has to deal with out there on the streets. I think the grand jury will have that in the back of their minds. But I just want justice, whatever that is, whether the Michael Brown or the police officer is right. And I think that's what most people want. However, history has shown that it's very hard to convict a police officer under circumstances like this. That's not to say it's not going to happen, but it's going to be tough.

KW: Steve Kramer asks: Is there any chance CNN would consider devoting an equal amount of coverage to the horrific black-on-black killings being committed by gangs against other gangs and innocent bystanders that occur daily in so many inner-cities in places like Chicago, Detroit, Philly and Newark?

DL: Steve may have a short memory, because we do devote a lot of attention to that. We cover Chicago, black-on-black crime, and violence in big cities a lot. The only reason people probably bring it up is because this is a flashpoint, so you see it on the news now. Ordinarily, we spend more time covering daily violence in big cities than we do covering a story like this. I devote entire newscasts to what happens on the streets in major cities all the time. It just that people might not have tuned in to see it, or it might not draw the attention, because you don't see any rioting or teargas. But we do it all the time.

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.

KW: Thanks again for the time, Don, and keep up the good work.

DL: You're welcome. Sorry, if I sounded tired.

KW: You must feel exhausted. You're on the air every time I turn on CNN. But no need to apologize. This was another great interview. Get some rest.

DL: Will do. Thank you very much, Kam. I appreciate talking to you.

Kam Williams is a syndicated film and book critic who writes for 100+ publications. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online, the African-American Film Critics Association, and the NAACP Image Awards Nominating Committee. Contact him through NewsBlaze. Read more reviews by Kam Williams.

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