SEVEN Lessons I Learned From Hearing CNN’s Don Lemon Speak at University of Alabama

CNN Anchor Don Lemon provided several valuable lessons about life, your career and journalism during a February 21 visit to the University of Alabama campus.

For me, this particular week will be most remembered as one where I had a golden opportunity to hear THREE journalists speak here at the University of Alabama– CNN Anchor Don Lemon, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post and WIAT-TV CBS 42’s Jim Dunaway.

Don Lemon’s talk was the one that provided me, a mid-career journalist who’s now teaching full-time, with some lessons I can apply immediately.

Despite my antics in an earlier post about Mr. Lemon’s name and his book TRANSPARENT,   I think a more serious tone can be taken with the SEVEN takeaways from his visit with my graduate and undergraduate students here at the The University of Alabama this past Thursday.

Don Lemon addressed students in the University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences during a February 21 visit to the Tuscaloosa campus. He also did a campuswide lecture to a standing-room only crowd at the Ferguson Center Theater.

1. You can make it big even if you’re not a good student in college.
Lemon was very frank and open about his story of not being an honors student at either Louisiana State University where took classes in the Manship School of Journalism and Mass Communication or Brooklyn College,  where he eventually finished his degree.

If you consider working on NBC’s “Today Show” or anchoring at CNN “making it big,” then Lemon definitely demonstrates it doesn’t matter where you start, but how you finish.   (And, he’s clearly not finished)

2. You can do a LIVE REPORT from a gay bar in Alabama.

Perhaps the most memorable television news war story was Don Lemon’s account of how he localized the 1997 murder of Italian Fashion Designer Gianni Versace, a virtual unknown to Lemon’s co-workers in the WBRC-TV Fox 6 newsroom, where he worked for 11 months.

Lemon recalled the opening line of his story, which he presented live from a gay bar in the Birmingham area (Versace was openly gay.)


Couched in this story was an important lesson about diversity in the television newsroom, a key focus for my Communication and Diversity course.

“You have to be bold.  You cannot be afraid,” Lemon told the University of Alabama students.

His journey from Birmingham to St. Louis to Philadelphia and then to networks of NBC has been filled with opportunities to offer a perspective the newsrooms where he worked lacked.

3. You can be transformed by writing your story.
As he began his talk, Lemon told the students how telling story in his 2011 book, TRANSPARENT,  transformed him.   He’s finding himself doing a lot more speaking engagements like the one he had this week on our campus here in Tuscaloosa.  This reminds me that I need to finish my own first book.

The words “TRANSFORMED BY BEING TRANSPARENT” seem to be applicable here.

4. You can be inspired by Jean West
Apparently I’m not the only one who was inspired to get in broadcast journalism by those who blazed the trail before me.   In college in the early 1990s, I had posters of former NBC Today Show anchor Bryant Gumbel all over the wall of my dorm room.   I wanted to be the next Bryant Gumbel.

For Don Lemon, a former Baton Rouge anchorwoman, who now works in the Louisville television market, Jean West, was his role model.    Today, West is apparently still showing there’s life after two decades as a local television anchor.  She’s producing Jean West’s Medical Digest and Jean West’s Medical Daily via her own company, Faces West Productions.

Since Lemon’s visit on Thursday,  I’m inspired by just reading about her work.

Lemon talked extensively about his television career, including his 11 months working in the Birmingham (Ala) market at WBRC-TV.

5. The journey to “THE TOP” is better than the destination.

“The top is not that exciting,” Lemon said.  “What’s exciting is the journey and you didn’t realize it.”

I couldn’t have said it better.   Actually, those were almost my exact words ten years ago when I gave the student commencement address at the University of Georgia when I completed by Ph.D. degree in mass communication.

But, rather than  my eight-year television news career, I was talking about the three-and-a-half year journey to obtaining a doctoral degree.

I suppose Lemon’s advice applies to any major effort we pursue in life.

It really is the EXPERIENCE going through the process toward our destination or the  journey to our goal that is most rewarding.

6. The path for diverse newsroom perspectives has already been blazed
While noting that racism hasn’t ended, Lemon urged students to not worry about those challenges now, as the stage for diverse newsrooms has already been set.

“You worry about being excellent,” he said.  “Just be excellent.”

7. Reporters still have to cry (and GET ANGRY) sometimes

I have a new case study for the unit I do each summer on “Journalists and Trauma” in my basic news reporting class.

Having been trained in Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and its link to news reporting by reporters and editors who covered the Oklahoma City Bombing, I had not heard of specific cases of trauma for reporters covering the December massacre in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

Lemon told his story of crying on-air while covering the tragedy in Newtown, CT last year.    He says he’s still going through counseling for PTSD.

But, he also stepped out of the role of “objective” journalist to take his own stand.  His statement about assault weapons has been archived on YouTube.

“I was not a reporter in Newtown,” Lemon told the UA students this week.   I was just  a human being talking to you.”

Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

One thought on “SEVEN Lessons I Learned From Hearing CNN’s Don Lemon Speak at University of Alabama”

  1. What inspired me the most about hearing Mr. Lemon speak was the journey to the Top of his profession and how he was discouraged by a professor in the Journalism department at LSU. The journey to the top is something I will reflect on one day. I will appreciate the long hours and dedication to be the best journalist I can be. I mean LSU who!! as most UA students will say. I would not appreciate a professor telling me I am not capable of making a career out of journalism. Actually, this would make me even more ambitious and hungry to prove him/her wrong one day. Having positive role models in your life like Mr. Lemon had makes your drive to success all the more meaningful. Those days when you feel like you want to give up, you can have a shoulder to lean on to provide motivational words of wisdom. From a journalism standpoint I realize that it is important that you deliver a message with as most information that you can fit into a min to a min in a half package, but its the quality of your work and how emotional it is to viewers that really draws a persons attention. I’ve been told a few times by my parents that, “You have to visualize what you want and its all in the way you think that controls your future”. When Mr. Lemon said a similar statement, it really registered in my head. It was a pleasure to meet a prominent figure in the public eye and broadcast media. I’m grateful to say I had the opportunity to speak with him because he gave me more of an inspiration to become the trendsetter for the next generation of students.

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