Last night, Don Lemon took to his show, CNN Tonight, to host a discussion of, as he put it, The N-Word. It wasn't the first time he'd done so; nearly two years ago, he devoted an entire special to this topic. Famously, note cards were used, and the question of whether the words "cracker" and "nigger" hold the same weight was posed. Last night was every bit as fun.
That's because last night, Lemon convened a panel to debate the use of the word "nigger" in the aftermath of the University of Oklahoma's historically racist fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon getting caught being racist on video. There to help him work through it were rapper Trinidad James, whose "nigga"-laden song "All Gold Everything" was kind of parroted by SAE house mom Beauton Gilbow; Morehouse professor Marc Lamont Hill; and a conservative white fellow by the name of Ben Ferguson, who, it must be said, is a clown who really had no place in the conversation. Naturally, he stole the show.
Ferguson spent most of his talking time chiding and even yelling at his black co-panelists (and, more broadly, black people) for their use of the word "nigga." The GIF at the top of this post captures what took place right after Ferguson engaged James, saying, "I'll be honest with you. I think you know that we should probably get rid of the n-word, but in reality, I think many rappers are afraid they will lose out on money and sales and street cred if they don't stop using the word."
Ferguson then got to his main beef with the word. No one should be able to say "nigga," he says, because it is divisive, and because it's unfair to white people that blacks can say the word. Soon after, Ferguson accused James of making money off saying "nigga" in his songs, rather than the songs themselves.
"I'm making money off of doing music," a delightfully charismatic James retorted. "I'm making money off of doing music and being creative, sir. I'm not making money just because I use the n-word. Nobody goes to the store and buys albums because it's full of the n-word. No sir."
This was a fascinating moment, not least because in addition to everything else, Ferguson, by ignoring the existence of, say, dramatic context or irony, was completely discounting the idea that hip hop is legitimate in the way that country or folk or house are, or that it has inherent value as an art form. It's 2015! That's some heavy shit!
I can't do justice to how great Ferguson was. Here's a chunk of the interview:
By the time the four men parted, nothing was really solved. No news was broken. There were no breakthroughs. As a segment at a reputable news station, it was disgraceful. But here's what a producer had to say afterward.
Melanie Lefkowitz was pumped. And Melanie Lefkowitz was right! Because while as news, it was terrible, as television, it was astounding and outstanding, and the most fun I've had watching TV since, well, the last time I watched Don Lemon.
Lemon is perhaps the most hated anchor working in TV right now, and for good reason. America has looked on as this baby-faced 49-year-old, a staunch believer in and purveyor of respectability politics, has suggested that black people can't have nice things because black people sag their pants. A year ago, Lemon pondered if the lost Malaysian Airlines flight 370 had disappeared into a black hole. Last summer, Lemon asked if black people were responsible for Justin Bieber being caught on camera saying the word "nigga." Last November, Lemon asked one of Bill Cosby's many alleged rape victims why she didn't simply bite the comedian's dick off. Less than a week after that, while covering the protests in Ferguson, Mo., following the killing of unarmed black boy Michael Brown, Lemon said, "Obviously, there's a smell of marijuana," and got in an on-air argument with rapper Talib Kweli. Just after the New Year, Lemon asked an American human rights lawyer if he supports ISIS. Just three weeks ago, I saw Lemon spend a segment with a llama in New York, because this llama looked similar to another llama that was loose earlier that day in Arizona. A llama.
If Don Lemon were in fact a news anchor or any kind of journalist at all, Don Lemon would be among the worst to ever have taken a breath, and if we lived in a good and just world, he would be stepping on his dick out of the public eye, in another profession. He appears clueless; he's consistently unaware of basic facts and broad currents of opinion; and his quest to hear both sides of all issues, even when there is only one side to be heard, leads to things like this interview with a member of the Ku Klux Klan last Thursday. (It, too, made for phenomenal television.)
The thing is, though ... this is what Lemon is here for. He's not a news anchor at all, but a personality masquerading as one, a plant by cynical CNN executives whose purpose is to garner attention rather than enlighten or inform his audience. (Whether he's in on the joke or not is an interesting but ultimately irrelevant question.) Pierre the Celebrity Llama doesn't have the answers I need, the Imperial Kludd doesn't have necessary insight on race relations at this vital time in our country's history, and Ben Ferguson's takes on how black people are oppressing white people by reclaiming a racial slur are the least necessary things to make air maybe ever, but while all of this makes for cheap, trashy viewing, it is also, most importantly, must-see. You literally have no idea what this dude's gonna do, or who's going to show up, or how these parties will interact. Because of all this, Lemon is among the very best at his job.
American television has become more and more liberal since I was a kid. This may be because, as some will tell you, truth tends to skew to the left; others will tell you that this is symptomatic of a successful Jewish and/or elite plot to monopolize television, or just the inevitable endpoint of the pussification of America. In any case, TV has changed. It used to be a lot more fun. Think of Jerry Springer, or Ricki Lake, or the time Geraldo Rivera had a gang of white supremacists and a black man on stage at the same time, which led to a stage-wide brawl and Rivera himself breaking his nose. This doesn't happen anymore.
Can you imagine watching that live? I mean, can you imagine?
Lemon is a throwback to these days. He's no Anderson Cooper, nor any kind of reporter at all, and he shouldn't be judged as one. He's an entertainer whom many of us watch and hate-watch because we want to bear witness to the incredible train wreck his show can be at any time, or the cast of lunatics he thinks it's a good idea to book at any given point, or what he'll say about black folks. But it's good, and fun, and it's something to get used to, because this sideshow isn't going anywhere. Hateful viewers' money is just as green as that of the few who love him.