Don Lemon was ousted from CNN, leaving him “stunned.”

Don Lemon is on the road at CNN.

In an announcement that Lemon said he was “stunned,” CNN on Monday declared the end of his longtime relationship with Lemon, a celebrity presenter who was a staple of the network’s prime-time cast before he became one underwent a brief but controversial tenure as a morning show co-host.

“CNN and Don have split,” CNN chairman Chris Licht said in a statement. “Don will always be a part of the CNN family and we thank him for his contributions over the past 17 years. We wish him well and will cheer him on in his future endeavours.”

This friendly language was in sharp contrast to Lemon’s interpretation of the day’s events. In a scathing message on Twitter, Lemon shared with viewers that he was abruptly informed by his talent agent “that I’ve been terminated from CNN.”

“I’m stunned,” Lemon wrote. “After 17 years at CNN, I would have thought someone in management would have had the decency to tell me directly. At no point was there any indication that I would not be able to continue my beloved work on the network.” (CNN disputed Lemon’s account, saying the moderator was “offered an opportunity to meet with management, but instead received a statement on Twitter published.”)

In a clear sign of bitterness, Lemon hired aggressive Hollywood litigator Bryan Freedman to handle his exit. His contract with CNN runs through 2026, with around $20 million still to be paid, according to two people with direct knowledge of his deal.

Hours before the dueling statements, Lemon, 57, had gone on air in his usual presenter’s chair on CNN This Morning, the show he’s been hosting with Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins since November. He showed no sign of concern and said goodbye to viewers with a smile and a friendly “Bye everyone.”

One of CNN’s best-known stars, Lemon gained a reputation as a fiery political commentator during his eight years as a prime-time host. But within the network, he began to lose support after making comments about women and aging that were widely perceived as sexist in February. The incident sparked a national uproar and a rare public rebuke from Licht.

Lemon had claimed on-air that Nikki Haley, the 51-year-old Republican presidential candidate, “is not in her prime, sorry,” adding, “A woman is considered to be in her 20s and 30s and maybe in her prime.” 40s.” He dismissed his female co-hosts’ objections by replying, “I’m just stating the facts — Google it.” He later apologized to the CNN newsroom and agreed to a company training program to address his behavior improve on air.

Lemon allies had hoped he would put the incident behind him. But CNN executives were beginning to conclude that his future at CNN had become untenable, according to two people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because internal discussions were sensitive.

In recent weeks, CNN’s bookers had noticed that some guests didn’t want to go on the airwaves with Lemon, and research into the morning show reviewed by CNN executives found his popularity with audiences had waned, one of the people said.

In its Monday statement, CNN said its morning show — a major initiative by Licht — would continue. “‘CNN This Morning’ has been on the air for nearly six months and we are committed to its success,” the network said.

Still, Lemon’s exit raises the possibility of a major overhaul. Collins, a former White House correspondent, scored solid ratings during a week-long run as a 9 p.m. backup presenter recently, sparking speculation within the network that she might be considered for permanent employment in the timeslot.

For Lemon, his abrupt departure capped a dramatic fall for a presenter who was happily nesting in prime time seven months ago. His long-running 10 p.m. program, Don Lemon Tonight, drew fans for his snarky exchanges and astute comments on Trump politics and the White House.

Lemon imported that persona to “CNN This Morning,” but it was an awkward situation for an hour when many viewers — making breakfast and taking kids to school — want easygoing babble, not thunderous monologues.

Tensions also arose between Lemon and one of his co-hosts, Collins. In December, the crew members of “CNN This Morning” were upset after a backstage incident that Lemon accused Collins of interrupting him too many times.

For the past few weeks, CNN executives have been hoping Lemon would settle into his new role on the morning show and that higher ratings would follow.

Last Wednesday, however, Lemon made headlines again after a highly controversial exchange with Vivek Ramaswamy, a Republican presidential candidate. The segment deteriorated as the men heatedly debated Black history and Second Amendment issues; Lemon’s co-host Harlow sat silently next to him, sometimes tossing her eyes elsewhere and scrolling through her phone.

The incident has angered several CNN executives, people said.

Lemon joined CNN in 2006 from a local NBC station in Chicago. In 2011, he caused a stir when he revealed in his memoir what many of his peers already knew: he is gay. At the time, few national television news anchors were in the public eye. Lemon has been open about what he described as the risk of coming out as a black man, sharing his concerns “that people might avoid me.”

“CNN This Morning” was a marquee initiative by Licht, a former morning show producer who succeeded Jeff Zucker as head of CNN in May 2022, and has grown on a mega scale since Warner Bros. Discovery acquired its parent company Medienfusion has overseen changes in the network. Dozens of CNN employees were laid off, and some major producers and anchors left the company.

CNN This Morning got off to a very slow start in ratings, struggling to keep up with its predecessor New Day. In an appearance last week at the Paley Center for Media, Licht said the morning hours on television are “the most competitive.”

“Starting a new show takes time,” Licht said. “And so it absolutely had growing pains and will absolutely evolve.” The program will now evolve without Lemon at the helm.

In a cheerful announcement in September, Lemon described the chance to host a new morning show as “a thrill” and praised Licht for picking it. “I was honestly floored when Chris Licht asked me to do this and I’m honored that he believes in me,” the presenter wrote at the time.

“Set your alarms guys,” Lemon added, “cause we’re going to have a blast.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Justin Scaccy

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