Can Don Lemon, Jim Acosta Survive in the New CNN?

Three high-profile CNN journalists—John Harwood, Brian Stelter and Jeffrey Toobin—have abruptly left the network since its shift away from its traditional liberal-leaning political identity under the new Warner Bros. leadership. Their exits have left many wondering whether Don Lemon and Jim Acosta, two of the network's biggest names and men who have been defined in recent years by their feuds with Republicans and the Trump administration, will be next.

The walk-outs have followed the network's shift rightwards, as the new leadership, led by chief executive Chris Licht, expressed its wish to give the news network a more neutral voice and ditch partisanship for a political center.

"We are truth-tellers, focused on informing, not alarming our viewers," Licht wrote in a memo to CNN employees back in June, adding that there "needs to be room for nuance" in the news network's coverage.

Don Lemon Jim Acosta
Several high-profile journalists walked out of CNN recently as the news network's new leadership made controversial editorial strategy changes. Don Lemon (L) and Jim Acosta (R) have remained silent so far through their colleagues' abrupt exits. STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images; MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

On another occasion, Licht reportedly told staff that they were not to call Trump's debunked stolen election claim the "big lie," as the words sounded like a Democrat slogan. CNN told Newsweek that Licht never actually gave such an order, but "he was asked in a meeting if he had a preference. And he answered that 'personally, he prefers to use direct and specific language.'"

A CNN spokesperson said Licht did not ban the phrase, he expressed a preference "because, in his opinion, it comes off as politically-charged and vague. He doesn't believe the average American knows what it means. He suggested using "Trump's Election Lies" or referencing the specific lie - because there are many. That's hardly a softer approach."

CNN chief executive David Zaslav has said that he wants a network for both Republicans and Democrats, while John Malone, a Warner Bros. Discovery shareholder, told CNBC in November 2021 that he wanted the network to "evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with."

This new reformist effort puts pressure on anchors and correspondents to adapt to the network's new focus on non-partisanship. But can anyone adapt? Both Lemon and Acosta are known to be harsh critics of Donald Trump and the more authoritarian wing of the Republican party.

In January 2021, Lemon called Trump's continued efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election with his debunked claim that the electoral process had been rigged and victory stolen an "attempted coup."

"I guess if you're going to lie, go big," he said.

In March of the same year, when Lemon was presenting his then-new book This Is the Fire: What I Say to My Friends about Racism, the journalist said Trump's election had led to positive changes in the way that it had shown exactly what kind of people Trump and his allies are. "With the election of a blatant white supremacist, the problem became palpable, impossible to ignore," he said, talking about racism in America.

In the case of Acosta, the journalist's turbulent history with the former president is well-known.

During the Trump administration, Acosta was CNN's chief White House correspondent. The journalist became known for his clashes with Trump during press conferences, which escalated to the point where Acosta's press pass was suspended in November 2018 and he was barred from entry onto the White House grounds. The network stood by Acosta at the time, calling the suspension of his pass "retaliation for his challenging questions."

His press credentials were restored with conditions by the end of the same month.

Acosta later wrote a book about his experience as a White House correspondent during the Trump administration, titled The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America.

It's unclear how the two journalists feel about the recent walk-outs of their colleagues, as both have been silent about the sudden exits of Toobin, Stelter and Harwood in recent weeks. While Acosta has also not expressed his opinion on the shift to the right of the network, Lemon has recently denied that this shift even exists.

During an appearance on Comedy Central's Hell of a Week with host Charlamagne tha God, Lemon said the shift was "a narrative that has been placed in the medium."

"I think what Chris [Licht] wants to do is to be able to have Republicans and Democrats and whatever your political stance is on CNN so that you can be accountable and that you can answer for it," he said.

"Yes, I will be able to do what I do on CNN—which is to tell the truth, which is to inform the American public and also the world, because we're an international news organization. So if I'm not allowed to do that, then I will go on and do it somewhere else," Lemon added.

CNN Walk-Outs: Toobin, Stelter, Harwood

CNN's new leadership's focus on non-partisanship has coincided with some of the network's most prominent and popular journalists leaving.

On August 12, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin announced he would have left the network after 20 years—though he did not explain the reasons behind his decision. His departure was marked by CNN with a statement expressing their gratefulness for Toobin's contribution to the network.

A few days later, CNN announced that host Brian Stelter would have left the company as a result of his show Reliable Sources being canceled by the network's leadership. The last run of the show, the network's longest-running program, was on August 21.

The walk-out of Stelter, a long-time critic of Donald Trump and the role of the conservative press in covering the former president, sparked calls on social media to boycott CNN.

Last Friday, John Harwood, the network's White House correspondent announced that he was leaving CNN, one day after calling Donald Trump a "dishonest demagogue" on the air. A few hours later, he wrote on Twitter that September 2 was his last day at CNN, though he didn't explain the reason why he was leaving.

The network didn't immediately comment on Harwood's abrupt exit, but said in an official statement: "We appreciate John's work covering the White House, and we wish him all the best."

Update 9/6/2022 10:00 a.m. ET: The article has been updated to add comments from CNN.