Book Review: “Transparent” by Don Lemon CNN Anchor

When CNN anchor Don Lemon released his autobiography “Transparent” several months ago the big news “peg” was that in the book he noted that in the book he announced that he was gay. This was the fact that seemed at the center of many new and old media stories about him and his book at the time. And then there was the racial component added to it: his experience of being gay and black which also generated stories. He was even on Joy Behar’s show as part of his transparency about not just his book, but his life.

But here is the REAL news about “Transparent.” Don Lemon has written a book that is must reading for anyone who ever had a dream, had personal ups and downs, and who encountered — as we all do — naysayers who try to steal their dream by pooh-poohing or downplaying the possibility that their dreams could actually come true. The naysayers always suggest we’re aiming too high, or that we will or most likely will fail, or that we need something to fall back on when we fail, or that there are limits to what we can do given the “realities.” But often these realities are perceptual realities in the minds of others, limits imposed on their thinking — that they often successfully shove into the minds of others.

To be sure, Lemon touches on his being gay but it’s almost in a peripheral sense. It’s only a very small part of the complex jigsaw puzzle that makes up Don Lemon: he acknowledges it but keeps in its proper place in the book’s narrative. The REAL NEWS about “Transparent” is its lessons about the concrete payoffs for hard work, fairness, and for trying to be honest in all aspects of your life. “Transparent” should be required reading for any young person dreaming of being a doctor, lawyer, nurse, actor, hotel owner — whoever has a dream. He details how we have to overcome obstacles, not avert our eyes from our lifes’ goal prize, and work to obliterate set backs to realize make dreams reality. And Lemon did just that. As a longtime reader and fan of motivational books, I suggest “Transparent” be placed on the same shelf as books by Napoleon Hill and Norman Vincent Peale. His motivational message is that compelling and memorable.

Much of his book is about triumphing over adversity: triumphing over being the victim of a pedophile as a child, triumphing over low expectations articulated for him and other African-Americans about how far they’d go, triumphing even over employers who said there was no budget for him to go to Africa to do a report on AIDS (so he financed it himself and went there and did it anyway). He also triumphed over what I call book hype: in discussing his book he was sharing information — a far cry from the kind of tiresome and grating hype we now see with the great writer and reporter Chris Matthews overhyping his excellent new book new book Jack Kennedy Elusive Hero (Matthews needs to rename his show “Kennedyball”). In fact, when Lemon had to discuss what was in his book on CNN, he was clearly nervous.

Another triumph: is Lemons adhereance to fact-based journalism and anchoring that tries to elicit information, not grandstand and create synthetic controversies to whip up ratings.

Here’s a key quote from his intro that illustrates how this book is valuable on several levels:

The word “no” really bothers me.

The surest way to get me to do something is to tell me that I can’t do it. Tell me “no,” and you’ve got a fight on your hands. A rebellion. A challenge.

He notes what he calls the “black box” of low expectations for black kids in the south and writes about how had a huge impact on his life:

“I’ve always been determined to live beyond it, but its very existence has shaped my life, both in front of the camera and behind it. I call the phenomenon the black box because it encompasses a list of expecations and beliefs about black Americans that is as limited as the four corners of a black box.”

And in journalism?

…I’m a huge believe in transparency. I don’t like communication with a hidden agenda, and I don’t like people who conceal things to make themselves look better. Transparency in the process of obtaining information is crucial. Without it, the “new” might as well be called the “spin” or the “opinions” because all bets about its accuracy and objectivity are off. Journalism isn’t supposed to be about spin or opinions. It’s supposed to be about balance and objectivity. It’s about finding the information and putting it out there for the viewer to decide. It’s “just the facts, ma’am,’ to quote the old line from “Dragnet,” a TV show that was already in reruns when I was a kid in the late sixties and early seventies.

If a fact is concealed or missing, you get a very different picture of a person or an event than you might have with full disclosure. That’s exactly why it matters that journalists tell the truth and present all the facts. If you don’t present the viewers with as complete a picture as you can draw, you skew the results. You fail to give the people what they need in order to be able to draw their own conclusions.

And he feels he therefore needs to face “questions regarding my own transparency” – which is why he disclosed that he’s gay.

Writing this book represents just one more way I can push the boundaries of “no” and “must not” and reach for the “anything.

His main bit of advice before he begins his tale is this: “No matter what happens, or what has happened, know that you are still the captain of your fate. If you choose to live your life as though “no” were not an answer, you might be amazed at where you end up.”

And how has Lemon ended up? He is a true descendent of the Walter Cronkite, Bob Schieffer serious, get-the-facts school of journalism — a school that believes journalists are not supposed to be covert or overt appendages of political parties. These reporters and anchors do exist at CNN, on broadcast networks — and yes there are some at Fox News. (Shepard Smith is among the most prominent). Unfortunately, in recent years as entertainment departments took over the once public-service minded news departments and as broadcast and cable news began to be influenced by the country’s talk radio political culture, finding thoughtful news people is not as easy as it once was. Segments of Lemon’s book that deal with his covering stories serve as important role-model sections for aspiring young journalists or those just starting out in the business. He can conduct tough interviews (such as in the famous interview with Rand Paul) but they never seem to be to whip up ratings — just demand the kinds of answers reporters are taught at journalism school that they need to demand if they want to be real, authentic reporters.

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Meanwhile, I had my own personal encounter (via headpiece) with Lemon. About a year after starting TMV in December 2003, I was invited on Ron Reagan Jr.’s old MSNBC show to do a wrap up of blogs. About two years later I got a call from CNN: someone had seen me on the show, knew I was an independent voter, and wanted me to be on a panel on a news show hosted by Rick Sanchez. I agreed. Before going on the producer told me Sanchez was “passionate” and that I should not be afraid to interrupt another speaker to jump in. It was a good experience: Sanchez was interested in issues, but he liked an almost continuous panel discussion. You had to interrupt most of the time.

Fast forward to 2009. CNN again called. This time Lemon sought an independent voter panel to supplement his critically well receiv series on “broken government.” I was asked if I would be interested in being on it. I was unsure if I would ever do ANYtalk radio or cable again after an experience a few months earlier with an Air America morning talk show host in Southern California.

This person — who I had listened to on another station for years when he seemed a moderate to conservative Democrat and before he joined the Air America station and became a fiery liberal — claimed he wanted me on to discuss my blog and a moderate’s point of view. That was a lie. Once I was on the air, he and his side-kick producer would ask me how anyone could be a moderate — and then talk over me as I started to answer. He noted that I had been a reporter on the San Diego Union newspaper — a paper that had a conservative editorial page (he KNEW BETTER: editorial pages are not written by reporters). He strongly implied that I was lying: I was really, he hinted a conservative Republican claiming to be a moderate. When he and his producer would ask me a question they would shout over me: “A moderate cup of coffee..a moderate case of cancer..” and they did this for a few minutes — then hung up on me. (I have to admit I happily smiled when I read months later that the station dumped its Air America format and him).

So when CNN called I had decided that I love writing and speaking and performing in my other in nonblogging incarnation — and had zero interest in being on talk shows run by ideologue (left or right) hosts or or on a cable show that could remotely turn into a synthetically manufactured political confrontation. We see those shows all the time: two guests (usually liberal and conservative or Democrat and Republican) are set up go at it and wind up yelling and insulting each other. The host smirks and says: “This was great! We’ll have to leave it here and have you back!!!” I asked the CNN person if this was for a serious discussion and not a panel with people set up to yell at each other. I was told it most certainly would be serious: that Don Lemon’s style was to talk to each person and get information and present a perspective. And that was an apt description: it was serious and thoughtful. In all, this three person independent panel did 7 appearances from 2009 through 2011.

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“Transparent” works well on several levels: as a biography including the news making revelation by an up and coming anchor (the fact this is still considered news means our society still has a way to go), as a world-class motivational book that will pump you up and remind you of what you can possibly do and not what you possibly cannot achieve and as an important biography that everyone in the news business (especially young people in journalism schools) needs to read.

On a TMV scale of one to five stars “Transparent” by Don Lemon gets Five Stars.

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