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Word Choice Woes: Don Lemon's Comments May Have Cost Him His CNN Career

A building with a neon sign that says "All we have is words"

His sexist and ageist comments were made on live TV, so it’s hard for him to take them back. If only CNN host Don Lemon had paused to reflect on how to express himself in a more respectful way. But he didn’t, and now, those words in the workplace appear to be costing him, bigtime.

On CNN This Morning in February, Lemon — appearing live on the air with his two co-hosts, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins — said that Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley was not “in her prime.” A public backlash ensued. He took a break from the airwaves. He apologized. But the cable news network announced on April 24 that it had officially parted ways with Lemon. He had worked for CNN since 2014, hosting and co–hosting a variety of primetime and weekend shows.

How did his language lead to this turn of events?

In February, Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, announced her presidential campaign, saying that “America is not past its prime — it’s just that America’s politicians are.” She also said that politicians over the age of 75 should take a cognitive function test and make the results public.

In this video clip of the Feb. 16 show posted by Politico, Lemon says on air: “This whole talk about age makes me uncomfortable. I think that — I think it's the wrong road to go down. She says people — you know, politicians or something are not in their prime. Nikki Haley isn't in her prime. Sorry. When — a woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s.”

Harlow: “What are you — wait.”

Lemon: “That’s not according to me.”

Harlow: “Prime for what?”

Lemon: “It depends. It's just, like, prime. If you look it up, it'll — if you look — if you Google, ‘when is a woman in her prime,’ it'll say, 20s, 30s and 40s.”

Although CNN gave no reason for the split, Variety magazine suggests the sexist remarks about Haley may not be Lemon’s first dip in the pool, with a recent story alleging several incidents of sexist and misogynistic behavior by Lemon with female colleagues over the years.

Sexist and ageist remarks are unfair, discriminatory and perpetuate stereotypes. They also go beyond harming the person being targeted. A company’s reputation and credibility can suffer. Colleagues may feel uncomfortable, unwanted, and disrespected. The work environment can become hostile. Trust can break down. Morale, collaboration and productivity can evaporate. Workplace prejudice based on a person’s age, if that person is 40 or older, is illegal under federal law, something that Lemon and Haley may both want to consider.

What does it mean to be in your prime? Merriam-Webster defines it as being “active and in good health.”

Being 40+ wasn’t an issue for TV chef Julia Child, who started cooking in her 50s; or Scottish singer Susan Boyle, who rose to global fame at 47; or Laura Ingalls Wilder, who penned Little House on the Prairie at age 65.

It’s also worth noting that it often takes politicians years to gather the experience required to serve at the highest levels of public office. Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of the U.K. at 53; Angela Merkel was elected Germany’s chancellor at 51; Golda Meir was voted prime minister of Israel at 70; and Kamala Harris was made vice president of the U.S. at 56.

Some published reports have suggested that Lemon, who in the past hosted his own talk show, had become comfortable pushing the boundaries as a primetime provocateur. Is that the right tenor for a morning news show? Some would argue that this type of forum calls for hosts to convey more measured views, especially when the target audience of national morning news shows is female viewers.

As an experiment, I ran one of Lemon’s statements through Reflect, our AI communication coaching tool that provides people with an objective view of what they’re saying and how it might be interpreted by others. Here’s what happened.

“Nikki Haley isn't in her prime. Sorry. When — a woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s.”

A Reflect AI reaction image of an older and younger woman holding hands

Imagination has no age

What if Lemon had expressed himself in a more respectful and constructive way, by refraining from comments about Haley's age and gender? What if he’d focused on the pros and cons of her policy proposal? What if Lemon had considered the fact that he, at 57, is older than Haley, who is 51?

Now that Lemon has tarnished his own reputation — with word choices that might follow him throughout his career — it's worth asking whether he’s past his own prime.

Carolyne Zinko is the Editorial Director of Alphy and Reflect AI.

Reflect by Alphy®, our AI-powered coach, helps you and your team communicate in a more productive way. Reflect analyzes communication from all angles — ageism, sexism, racism, confidence, sentiment, apologies, and more — to make you aware of your words, tone, and speech across all your devices, from desktop to mobile.


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