Anchor in the Harbor
DON LEMON, THE EASY-TO-LIKE CNN ANCHOR, CHATS ABOUT COFFEE RUNS VIA SKATEBOARD — AND NERDY WINTER AFTERNOONS BY THE FIRE — IN HIS ADOPTED HOMETOWN OF SAG HARBOR. (HE HAS A FEW WORDS ABOUT THE STATE OF THE FREE PRESS, TOO.)
Among television’s best-known talking heads, few can match Don Lemon for star-quality charm. Behind the boyish demeanor and veneer of innocent curiosity lies formidable experience and seriousness of journalistic purpose. Lemon, 51, anchors one of cable TV’s liveliest and most-watched news forums, CNN Tonight With Don Lemon, which airs weeknights at 10 on the East Coast. It was only in the last four years, resettling in New York City after moving away for work twice, that he discovered the East End. He soon fell in love with Sag Harbor and, just last summer, bought into his dream of a small-town getaway amid friendly neighbors and beautiful surroundings. Lemon can be seen skateboarding around the village and, like anyone on self-propelled wheels, risks a scolding from traffic officers when he reaches Main Street.
How much time are you able to spend out east?
Every day I’m off, I’m out here. In the summer, I leave on Thursday as often as possible. If I leave at midnight after my show is done, I’m out here by 2 and stay until Monday afternoon or evening.
What’s your perfect summer day?
Waking up and skateboarding over to the coffee shop — SagTown when it was open — then going right down the hill to my friend’s boat and spending as much time on it as possible. Or just sitting in the backyard by the pool and having people over, usually on Sundays. We hang out, drink some beer, and have a barbecue.
So you spend time here in the winter?
Every weekend. In the winter, I’m inside and enjoy the house more. I light fires, listen to WLNG, I get my weekend crafty handyman on. I’m in and out of the hardware store on Main Street three times a day.
Any other hobbies or pastimes?
This sounds really nerdy but in the winter we do a lot of jigsaw puzzles by the fireplace. We drink a little red wine, eat lots of carbs, pasta dishes, and that sort of thing.
Who are your mentors and role models, personally and professionally?
T.D. Jakes, the pastor, is a personal role model, and I go to him for advice. This may sound weird but, professionally, my boss [Jeff Zucker]. I can go into his office, rant and complain about anything. He actually encourages it. He’ll listen to me, laugh, and say, “Are you done? Now, go back to your office and get to work. You’re doing great.”
Would you like to give a shout-out to any causes or charities?
My main one is Runway to Hope, based in Orlando, which helps families dealing with pediatric cancer. I’m also partial to St. Jude [Children’s Research Hospital]; I do hosting at events for them.
What makes a great interviewer?
Being able to listen. Also being able to challenge someone fairly.
It seems we’re losing the ability to have a dialogue with people we don’t agree with.
I’d much rather have a challenging conversation than an agree-fest. What is it if you agree on everything? Boring.
What are your goals in an interview?
To hear what [the subject] has to say and to gain an understanding of who they are. To be curious rather than judgmental. If you’re truly curious about why someone believes what they believe, says the things they say, you won’t judge them. You’ll listen to them. But if it’s utterly ridiculous or factually inaccurate, then you have to point that out.
Who are some of your most memorable interview subjects?
Probably Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton. President Obama was a very memorable subject. And the most recent was a little boy named Grayson who has Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He’s a really sweet kid. I need to check on him and see how he’s doing.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments professionally?
Since I was a child, I’ve always been curious about what makes people tick, what makes things tick. I always wanted to get behind the truth of things. So, professionally, having a branded show with my name on it where the whole idea is to listen to what people have to say, what they think and how they feel, is my biggest accomplishment.
Personally, my biggest accomplishment is being able to live in Sag Harbor. Every time I drive or walk up to that house, I say to myself, “I cannot believe I live here; this is so amazing.” I love that it’s so bucolic. In the summer, it’s like the perfect little beach town, and in the winter it’s like Bedford Falls from It’s a Wonderful Life. Our little enclave is just really unbelievable. I hit the jackpot when it comes to neighbors. They brought over these perfect welcome gifts. Someone brought chocolate and peanut butter tarts, someone else brought wine and bread, someone else the local beer. I’m thinking, Where am I? Have I gone back to the 1950s?
When people make racially or sexually offensive statements, how do you respond in an even-handed way?
My response is the same on TV or off: I stop them in their tracks. I mean some statements are so offensive that you don’t have to be even-handed. If someone says something that’s bigoted, racist, sexist, or misogynistic, you call them out on it. Because there is no other side to that. Either you’re a jerk or you’re not.
Do you think Trump is a threat to our democracy? Can he have a long-term effect on the media and elsewhere?
I think America is strong enough to survive Donald Trump or anyone else. I think Donald Trump would like to be a bigger threat to a free press, but I don’t think in the end he will be. I think he’s actually helping the press and hurting himself with his criticisms and attacks.
— David Gibbons
Red wine, WLNG, and jigsaw puzzles are Lemon’s choice for down-time on winter days in Sag Harbor. At top: On the stoop of his house, not far from the waterfront.