Don Lemon just can’t help himself.
When Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in violence on Nov. 24, reporters rushed to the scene. CNN sent Lemon to the riots in the small Midwestern city. While mobs raged behind him, the TV journalist talked live to his colleague Anderson Cooper, in New York City. Cooper asked Lemon to describe the rioting in the wake of the grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown earlier that day. But Lemon’s first observation wasn’t about the criminal justice system, the complex state of race relations in America, or even the buildings erupting in flames behind him.
No, it was this: “Obviously, there’s a smell of marijuana.”
That clumsy assessment went viral online – and became the latest flap that Lemon, 48, has found himself in during his roller-coaster stint at the cable news network.
Just a week earlier, the outspoken anchor made headlines after suggesting to alleged Bill Cosby sexual assault victim Joan Tarshis that she could’ve fought harder to prevent the incident. He’s since apologized.
Lemon was also at the center of a Twitter firestorm this time last year, when comments he made on a N.Y.C. radio show were taken as supportive of the city’s “Stop and Frisk” policy. “Would you rather be politically correct or safe and alive?” he said of a practice that many African Americans say targets young African American men for random police searches. He s adamant he was misinterpreted.
And that’s not all. Back in 2011, The Daily Show ran a segment titled “CNN Anchor Appears Not to Care for CNN,” which showed a mash-up of videos featuring Lemon rolling his eyes at questionable CNN reports such as “How Much Would Hogwarts Tuition Be in Real Life?”
But some say Lemon’s lack of tact is simply unflinching honesty. The reporter first made national headlines earlier in 2011, when during a televised interview with three young, alleged victims of accused child molester Bishop Eddie Long, he admitted that he “was a victim of a pedophile when [he] was a kid.”
Later that year, Lemon published his autobiography – aptly named Transparent – in which he became one of the few TV broadcasters to come out as a gay man. “I’m scared,” he told The New York Times at the time. “I’m talking about something that people might shun me for, ostracize me for.”
The autobiography also details hardships Lemon suffered as a child. Raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he grew up not knowing his father, and says he was molested at a young age by an older neighbor – a fact he kept hidden from his mother until the age of 30. After majoring in broadcast journalism at Brooklyn College and Louisiana State University, he dropped out before getting a degree to pursue a reporting career in New York. Lemon started from the bottom, bouncing around various news affiliates before finally landing a spot with CNN in 2006.
So why can’t he seem to extract his foot from his mouth?
Part of the answer probably lies in a commitment to honesty born from years of hiding his sexuality and abuse as a child. “I abhor hypocrisy,” Lemon told the Times in an interview. “I think if you’re going to be in the business of news, and telling people the truth, of trying to shed light in dark places, then you’ve got to be honest. You’ve got to have the same rules for yourself as you do for everyone else.”
But some of the blame also lies in the nature of 24-hour news, which pushes anchors to fill hours of live content without making a mistake.
“There is no such thing as live 24-hour television without gaffes,” a source close to Lemon tells PEOPLE. “But gaffes can make you more interesting.”
And it’s clear that whatever he’s saying, Lemon’s shoot-from-the-lip style is making him a household name.
Adds the source: “I think Don Lemon is doing just fine.”