So I say to Don Lemon, I say, let's do it, Don Lemon, let's have dessert. We've been here awhile, eating lunch, and we're having a good time, so likable is Don Lemon, so open is he to my questions, so warm is his smile. And maybe he can be coaxed into it. We are at the restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art, and the portions are modern-art-sized, and he just had his photo shoot yesterday—he'd suspended all manner of salt and other bloateries in the days leading up to it and would love to cut loose a little. But he still needs persuading, since it is a known thing that dessert is one of the principal sacrifices of people who regularly appear on TV. But he relents, because Don Lemon is not the kind of guy who will make you eat dessert alone. The negotiation: He'll do it, but it'll have to be light. I look up and down the menu and suggest that the sorbet looks promising, given his totally understandable criteria.
He leans in, big warm smile, not wanting to correct me, but needing to: "Sorbette," he says, like a news anchor. "It's pronounced sorbette."
"Sorbette," I repeat, shaky. I smile, not quite understanding the joke.
"Sorbette," he says with the confidence of a man who informs hundreds of thousands of Americans each night about what is happening across this land as well as many others. "It's pronounced sorbette." Sorbette! Could he be right? I've been saying it like a French word for years, like a complete asshole. Have I, a native English speaker, a graduate of a four-year college, a frequent eater of frozen desserts, been mispronouncing it all this time?
Or we can leave room for the possibility that he is just plain wrong. This is Don Lemon, after all, the news anchor whose name has become associated with what might politely be called missteps,like asking an Islamic scholar if he supports the terrorist group ISIS, or declaring on the scene at Ferguson that there's the smell of marijuana in the air, "obviously." This is the guy who asked if a black hole could be responsible for the disappearance of Flight MH370; who asked one of Bill Cosby's alleged rape victims why she didn't stop the attack by, as he put it, "the using of the teeth."
Yes, we have to allow for the possibility that Don Lemon might be wrong.
And yet, and yet: When Don Lemon says this to me, I am sure that he is sure of it. And who can we turn to if not our news anchors?
But now here comes the waiter, and he asks if we've decided, and Don Lemon asks for the sorbette, and the waiter looks at Lemon like, Are you joking? I give the waiter the silent, wide-eyed micro head shake—No, he's serious, proceed with caution—but the waiter has guts that I don't, and so he says, "It's sor-bay, sir."
Because of course it's sor-bay. I am shaken from my stupor and remember that yes, for sure, absolutely, it is sor-bay. I am right. The man sitting across from me, smiling and confident—he is not right. And so I am relieved, but also nervous about what will happen next.
But Lemon is not embarrassed. "Oh," he says, and then nods, because you learn something new every day, and he doesn't look at me to say how embarrassed he is, he doesn't look with a gulp at the tape recorder, he doesn't attempt a joke to clean it all up. He just says, "That's what I'll have, then." And we move on. That he can say it, recover from it, and move on without needing to know what I think of it—this is sort of everything you need to know about Don Lemon: Don Lemon is human, and Don Lemon is not perfect, and Don Lemon is so much more fine with his humanity and his imperfection than anyone I've ever met.
···
True fact: After this photo shoot, Lemon asked GQ's photographer if he did nudes. 
Don Lemon has a fitness tracker that he wears on his wrist, and he uses it for sleep monitoring. He's a lifelong insomniac, and his work schedule—hosting CNN Tonight at 10 P.M.—doesn't make things easier. Also he's dating someone now, a lawyer who understands his schedule, and it's going well—they spent Valentine's Day at a concert by the gay country singer Steve Grand—and there aren't enough hours in the day, are there? He shows me the tracker's attendant iPhone app, and his sleep patterns are impressive in a bad way: three hours sixteen minutes here, four hours there, two hours just a couple of nights ago. And that's total sleep, not what the device calls "restful" sleep. In the weeks of data he shows me, the total never goes above six hours.
You wouldn't know it. Throughout our interview, Lemon, 49, is smiley and gregarious and energetic, alert but mostly expressionless, which probably comes from years of having to listen to people say crazy things on-air. He's an exceptional listener, my meandering questions returned in the complete sentences of a newsman who knows the power of a sound bite. He is focused when we talk, never strays for a minute; once, when I pivot away from a topic, he suggests that I might have ADD. This affable bluntness might help explain why he is so ascendant at CNN. His ratings are pretty close to Anderson Cooper's numbers at 8 P.M., and they have already eclipsed those of Piers Morgan, who was on at 9 P.M. until, mercifully, he wasn't.
As far as I can tell, the great Don Lemon gaffe-spotting fest that has become such an Internet phenomenon and journalistic pastime began on July 27, 2013, and it began not with a gaffe but with an unexpected rant about racial mores. He was anchoring the weekend desk, and he played a clip of that bastion of modernity and multicultural wisdom, Bill O'Reilly, explaining everything that's wrong in the black community. This was shortly after the George Zimmerman trial, and rather than lash out at O'Reilly, Lemon claimed that he hadn't gone far enough. He then addressed "black people" with his own list of solutions: (5) Pull up your pants. (4) Stop using the N-word. (3) Stop littering. ("I've lived in several predominantly white neighborhoods in my life. I rarely, if ever, witness people littering.") (2) Finish school. ("Stop telling kids they're acting white because they go to school or they speak proper English.") (1) "Just because you can have a baby, it doesn't mean you should."
You can bury that kind of lecture on a weekend afternoon, but a shitstorm will still ensue. Critics pounced on Lemon, accusing him of blaming blacks for institutional racism. Lemon was surprised; he was just giving his point of view as a black man. "I'm speaking to the people from where I came from," he explains to me. "I didn't think I was saying anything bad. Just: Always respect yourself. Go to school. I mean—" and here he laughs a little—"I think they're used to me just having a one-way conversation, just reading the prompter and going, 'Okay, what do you think? What do you think?' Maybe they were just sort of surprised that I actually have a point of view."
Soon his platform grew. In March 2014, Malaysian Flight MH370 disappeared. He got the call that network president Jeff Zucker wanted to use the 10 P.M. slot for a nightly one-hour special to discuss new theories about where the hell that plane went, and he wanted Don Lemon to host it. (Good cocktail-party trivia: Nightline began the same way—a nightly update on the 1979 Iran hostage crisis that became a TV-news institution.)
Here was his chance. Each night, he hosted a panel of aviation experts and theorists and gave updates on searches, but soon the searches were over, and so the updates gave way to just talking, and the hour became the sort of hour at which CNN specializes: long conversations that took the place of actual news, of which there was usually none. From a pure ratings perspective, it was a smart bet. Lemon immediately began crushing poor Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC (still does) and even regularly held his own against Sean Hannity (ditto).
But it came with costs. CNN had installed its CNN-iest talent to anchor an hour of television that came to embody all the things that people loathe about CNN—the empty news-like product: questions, but no answers. Who knew anything new by the end of those hours? CNN's Malaysian-flight coverage became a punch line of flood-the-zone cable-news excess, and Don Lemon was the face of it.
···
Don Lemon knew he was gay for as long as he could remember. He knew it when he was watching Tom Jones on TV with his grandmother in his hometown of Baton Rouge when he was 5 or 6, and he knew it when he would watch Robbie on My Three Sons or the guys on Emergency! But he also knew that it was information he should keep to himself, because that's what you did in Louisiana in the 1970s.
As a child, he was molested by a teenage boy who lived nearby. He didn't tell anyone until much later; in fact, he came out publicly as a survivor of sexual abuse spontaneously and casually live on CNN, while he was doing a segment on another sexual-abuse case. That afternoon his bosses called to see if he was okay. "Of course I am," he answered.
He didn't have many close friends in high school. The black kids didn't think he was great at being black, and the white kids didn't want to bring a black kid into their sphere. Still, he was elected senior-class president: accepted by none but liked by all.
Lemon knew he'd leave the South eventually, and he had always wanted to be a news anchor. His journalism teacher at Louisiana State told him he was aiming too high, that he'd never make it on-air, which Lemon interpreted as being put in the "black box"—his term for the limitations others place on people of color. It didn't stop him, though. He got hired at Fox and shuttled between affiliates in St. Louis and Chicago for a few years, then jumped to NBC stations in Philadelphia and Chicago. He picked up an Emmy for a report on the real estate market and an Edward R. Murrow award for coverage of the D.C. Sniper in 2002. (Yes, Don Lemon has an Edward R. Murrow award.) In 2006, he jumped to CNN.
He claims not to have a political affiliation—he voted for Barack Obama in the past two elections, but in college he was a Republican and he voted for Reagan once, before Reagan's treatment of the AIDS crisis disenchanted him. But that doesn't make him a Democrat. "People expect me to be liberal because I'm gay," he says. "And I'm not liberal." But over lunch, when I describe his values as conservative, he objects to that, too. "You keep saying I have conservative values. I don't. I think I have values that are important and realistic. And they're not necessarily spoon-fed by someone. I thought out what my values should be." He brings up the example of family: He was raised by a single mother, and he loves her, but he thinks a family should have two parents. “Even now my mom would say, 'I wish I had had some help.' "
Lemon has spent a lifetime so far out of sync with people's expectations of him that he seems unconcerned with them, sometimes even oblivious to them: of how a black man should act, how a gay man should act, how a survivor of sex abuse should act. All this—high school, the black box—made him into the man he is today. Someone who has learned that there are no guidebooks for a man as ambitious as he is, and who has no fucks left to give about what anyone thinks of him.
"Let me put it this way," says Jeff Zucker. "There's certainly a lot of interest in Don Lemon, and that's a good thing for Don and for CNN. You know, Don is a little bit of a lightning rod. Frankly, we needed a little bit of lightning."
Lemon's executive producer, Jonathan Wald, told me that "none of the alleged dings at Don's performance have hurt his credibility or his appeal." Lemon's gift, Wald says, is "having a conversation, and that's really the guts of this show." It's the mantra of all of CNN: Keep going, keep talking. People don't walk out on conversations.
"When you're a network-news anchor, you have a twenty-two-minute news hole, and you read not even five minutes of copy, if you read that much," Lemon tells me. "When you're a cable-news host, you're on for hours and hours and hours live. Right? Sometimes there's nothing in that box, no words."
I went and watched those clips again, and it turns out none of them are quite as dumb as advertised. The black-hole question wasn't actually Lemon's question; it was submitted by a viewer over Twitter, and he passed it along to an expert, calling it "preposterous." In Ferguson, when he said "obviously," he was just (he tells me) employing one of many of the filler words an anchor uses when he has to fill in dead air. His ISIS question was intended as a point of clarification: "His answer was so nebulous," Lemon says of the Muslim human-rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar, who, yes, if you watch the clip, is not completely clear. Given the context, Lemon's follow-up—"Do you support ISIS?"—was only moderately daffy: Iftikhar was trying to give a nuanced answer, and there's no room for nuance on CNN. CNN is a place for sound bites. When I ask Lemon about his interview with the alleged Cosby victim and why he asked about the "usage of the teeth," he gives me a long answer about how the incident started a conversation about sex abuse. But it didn't do that, I tell him—it started a conversation about people who say the wrong thing to victims of sexual abuse. And shouldn't he have known better? After all, he was a victim, too. He smiles and shrugs and eats his food. Later, after dessert, I ask him again, and finally I get the real answer: Lemon tells me that when he was a child and was being forced to perform oral sex on his abuser, he told that fucker that the next time, he'd bite his dick off, and that's when Don Lemon stopped getting molested.
···
There's a thing we do now in the digital age where once we turn on someone, we find fault in everything they do, and in Don Lemon's case it seems to come from a less noble place than his not insignificant imperfections. Sure, he's said some dopey things, but lots of cable-news anchors say lots of dopey things. Why him? There's also something going on, something almost impossible to wade into and untangle, about a black gay man breaking with the rules of both groups, and so it becomes okay to make fun of Don Lemon in a way that it is not currently okay to make fun of any other black or gay public figure in America right now.
And so here is maybe where I should confess to some sympathy. If you saw the transcripts of my interviews, you'd wonder if English was my first language. Many of us who tell stories to the world have the luxury not just of an editor but also of a fact-checker and a copy editor. And how about everyone else? Very few of us have our conversations laid bare every single night. Hardly any of us are being recorded for stupid-thing-we-said Vine posterity. Most of us get to sound more or less how we want to sound; most of us get to backpedal. Not so on live TV.
And remember, this is cable, not network news. Lemon's directive in many cases is to get up there and talk. On ratings-hungry CNN, there is virtually nothing you can say that is worse than silence.
One night, as I was writing this story, my Twitter feed came alive with two Don Lemon-related threads: first, that he had said, live on-air, "Two hundred and sixty-two people are being held by ISIS, many of them men, women, and children," and second, that he was interviewing a llama.
I turned on my taped version of the broadcast, and it was immediately clear that Lemon had just misspoken: He had already said the phrase "ISIS now holds more than 260 Christian hostages—men, women, children, and the elderly" during that hour—it was only the second time that he absently substituted the phrase "many of them." And for the record, he didn't interview the llama; he interviewed the llama's handler, because earlier that day the world had been captivated by an animal escape ("llama drama," in CNN parlance) in Arizona.
A memorable recent moment: Llemon scores an excllusive with a llama.
But look at the pictures of Lemon next to that llama. They're irresistible, both of them staring at the camera, both of them expressionless. They are begging for a hashtag. This is 2015, and we live in an age of tweets and GIFs designed to make jokes out of people, and Don Lemon seems custom-built for perpetuating what we've decided is his essential Don Lemonness. As he stood next to that llama, I detected something like regret or humiliation behind his eyes, but he'll never let us see more than a flicker, if that. No, Don Lemon isn't Murrow or Cronkite. He may not be the steady, infallible news anchor America needs right now. But he sure feels like the anchor we deserve.
We turn on who we turn on, I guess, and we delight in other people's mistakes, all the more so when there doesn't appear to be much contrition or self-awareness about their impact. And anyway, no one is perfect. Not him, not me with my flawless dessert pronunciation. That afternoon at the restaurant, Lemon checked out a couple of cute waiters, making aren't-you-delicious noises as they walked by, loudly enough for me to hear, still not giving a shit. Then he put his sorbet spoon down on his plate and smiled and said, “That was good," and that was that.