CNN’s Lemon Regrets Comment About Women’s “Prime” Age

From a Washington Post story by Jeremy Barr and Sarah Ellison headlined “CNN’s Don Lemon says he regrets comment about women’s ‘prime’ age”:

In the latest setback for CNN’s struggling new morning show, Don Lemon said he regretted his “inartful and irrelevant” comment on Thursday’s show about when women are “in their prime” that drew a quick backlash from colleagues and viewers.

Lemon, who left a prime-time perch to co-host the new program, made the comment in response to Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley’s call for “mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old” — a veiled reference, many assumed, to President Biden, 80, and former president Donald Trump, 76.

“This whole talk about age makes me uncomfortable,” Lemon, 56, told his co-hosts, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins. “I think it is 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.”

Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is 51.

Harlow challenged Lemon, asking whether he was referring to the “prime” ages for bearing children. “Don’t shoot the messenger,” Lemon replied. “I’m just saying what the facts are. Google it, everybody at home. … I’m just saying Nikki Haley should be careful about saying that politicians are not in their prime, and they need to be in their prime when they serve. Because she wouldn’t be in her prime, according to Google or whatever it is.”

The backlash quickly lit up social media. “This is sexism, and completely offensive,” tweeted Kate Bennett, a former CNN White House correspondent.
Haley got in her own shot, sharing the clip and writing that “it’s always the liberals who are the most sexist.”

On Thursday afternoon, Lemon backtracked. “The reference I made to a woman’s ‘prime’ this morning was inartful and irrelevant, as colleagues and loved ones have pointed out, and I regret it,” he wrote. “A woman’s age doesn’t define her either personally or professionally. I have countless women in my life who prove that every day.”

Lemon left his solo show as host of “Don Lemon Tonight” last year to serve as one of the three hosts of CNN’s new morning show, which launched in November. While the show is still new, “CNN This Morning” has struggled to gain a larger audience than its predecessor, which was called “New Day.” In January, the show attracted an average of 372,000 total viewers, according to Nielsen data, compared with 827,000 for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and 1.2 million viewers for ratings leader “Fox & Friends” on Fox News.

A CNN spokesperson countered reports about low ratings in an interview with the Wrap by saying the show “is off to a great start, seeing double-digit audience growth in just three months on air, which is quite an accomplishment for a young show.”

Ahead of the show’s launch, CNN chief executive Chris Licht told The Washington Post that the on-air dynamic between the three hosts would be its key differentiator. “The three of them have a genuine camaraderie that will translate perfectly to a morning show,” Licht said at the time. “That is the hardest thing to get, the personality and the chemistry.”

Licht said that Lemon, Harlow and Collins “all like each other and are genuine friends.”

But that chemistry has been tested over the show’s first three months, with the sometimes tense on-air relationship between Lemon and Collins a topic of regular tabloid interest.

In early December, Lemon raised eyebrows when he argued that it’s fair for the U.S. women’s national soccer team to earn less than the men’s team. “I know everyone’s going to hate me, but the men’s team makes more money. If they make more money, then they should get more money,” Lemon said. “The men’s team makes more money because people are more interested in the men.”

When Harlow pointed out a similar pay gap between NBA and WNBA players, Lemon countered that “there’s also more interest in the NBA.” He added, “If the women played the men, they wouldn’t be winning the way that they win.”

Some female staffers at CNN expressed displeasure with Lemon’s comments about women’s age ahead of his retraction.

“Every woman in her 40s watching that morning show is cheering for Poppy Harlow because we’ve all been in that seat next to our male colleague saying stupid things about women,” said one longtime CNN personality in her 40s, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly.

Another female on-air personality told The Washington Post that the situation on the morning show is “unsustainable” in its current form. “We keep asking ourselves: Does he want to get booted off the show and go back to prime time in the evenings?”

With Lemon off prime time, the network has also not yet settled on a permanent replacement for the 10 p.m.-to-midnight time slot he filled for many years, though the network has tapped Alisyn Camerota to focus on the 10 p.m. hour and Laura Coates to focus on the 11 p.m. hour. Licht has also yet to settle on a 9 p.m. host to permanently replace Chris Cuomo, who was fired more than a year ago.

Jeremy Barr covers the media industry for The Washington Post.

Sarah Ellison is a staff writer based in New York for The Washington Post. Previously, she wrote for Vanity Fair, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, where she started as a news assistant in Paris.

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