Don Lemon says Elon Musk canceled his deal with X after 'tense' interview

ByOliver Darcy, CNN, CNNWire
Wednesday, March 20, 2024
Takeaways from Don Lemon's interview with Elon Musk
Here are some of the more notable moments from Don Lemon's interview with Elon Musk.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Don Lemon said Wednesday that his partnership with Elon Musk went down in flames, hours after the former CNN anchor conducted an interview last week with the erratic billionaire for the debut episode of his new independent web-based show.

"Elon publicly encouraged me to join X with a new show, saying I would have his 'full support,'" Lemon said in a statement, adding that he took Musk at his word that he was "interested in working directly with diverse voices."

In an interview with CNN's Erin Burnett on Wednesday night, Lemon spoke about his exchange with Musk and shared video excerpts from the 90-minute sit-down, in which Lemon asked Musk questions on an array of topics.

Lemon said he pressed Musk about the rise in hate speech on X since the billionaire took over the social media platform last year, asking him if he believed that he and the company had a responsibility to moderate hateful content.

"I don't have to answer questions from reporters, Don," Musk replied. "The only reason I'm doing this interview is because you're on the X platform and you asked for it. Otherwise, I would not do this interview."

Lemon also asked Musk about a recent meeting he held with former President Donald Trump. CNN previously confirmed the meeting with Musk, one of several Trump held with donors in Palm Beach in recent weeks as he seeks to raise more money for his financially strained campaign.

"I was at a breakfast at a friend's place and Donald Trump came by. That's it," Musk said, adding that Trump did "most of the talking."

Musk said Trump, who is facing more than a half a billion dollars in civil judgments and multiple criminal cases playing out in the courts, did not ask him for money. Musk said he was "not paying his legal bills in any way shape or form."

Lemon also brought up Musk's open use of the drug ketamine, asking the SpaceX founder if he believed it posed a problem for his government security clearance. Musk, Lemon said, answered no because he has a prescription for the drug.

In his statement on social media, Lemon said the sit-down he conducted with Musk for the first episode of "The Don Lemon Show," which will be released Monday on social media platforms including X and YouTube, was "respectful and wide ranging" and that "there were no restrictions on the interview that he willingly agreed to."

"His commitment to a global town square where all questions can be asked and all ideas can be shared seems not to include questions of him from people like me," Lemon added.

Free speech absolutist?

In a video posted on his social media Wednesday, Lemon took further aim at Musk's claim to be a "free speech absolutist."

"Throughout our conversation, I kept reiterating to him, although it was tense at times, I thought it was good for people to see our exchange," Lemon said. "But apparently free speech absolutism doesn't apply when it comes to questions about him from people like me."

While the interview is not yet public, a person familiar with the matter said Musk was miffed when Lemon questioned him on his use of the drug ketamine, his government security clearance, and the issue of antisemitism.

In a statement, X defended Musk's decision to pull the plug on its agreement with Lemon.

"The Don Lemon Show is welcome to publish its content on X, without censorship, as we believe in providing a platform for creators to scale their work and connect with new communities," the company said in a statement. "However, like any enterprise, we reserve the right to make decisions about our business partnerships, and after careful consideration, X decided not to enter into a commercial partnership with the show."

Asked by a user on X what led to the decision, Musk attacked Lemon and CNN, which is not involved in Lemon's new venture.

"His approach was basically just 'CNN, but on social media', which doesn't work, as evidenced by the fact that CNN is dying," Musk wrote. "And, instead of it being the real Don Lemon, it was really just [former CNN chief] Jeff Zucker talking through Don, so lacked authenticity."

But a spokesperson for Lemon told CNN that the media personality expects Musk to honor the financial terms of the agreement.

"Don has a deal with X and expects to be paid for it," the spokesperson said. "If we have to go to court we will."

Lemon technically had not inked a contract with X, people familiar with the matter told CNN. But contracts do not necessarily have to be signed to be legally binding, particularly if it is clear each side had arrived at a mutual understanding. And according to the people close to the matter, Lemon's camp is confident that a deal had effectively been struck, as evidenced by the fact that X had touted the deal in public announcements earlier this year. Moreover, Musk himself appeared to acknowledge that there had been a deal, texting Jay Sures, the UTA power agent who represents Lemon, "contract is canceled," according to people familiar with the matter.

Recruited by Musk

The deal's implosion comes after Musk urged Lemon to launch a show on his platform, writing last year on X: "It'd be great to have [MSNBC host] Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon & others on the left put their shows on this platform. No exclusivity or legal docs required! You will receive our full support. The digital town square is for all."

In another post, Musk directly appealed to Lemon: "Have you considered doing your show on this platform? Maybe worth a try. Audience is much bigger."

Musk has claimed to believe in free speech absolutism, but he has repeatedly taken steps to limit the speech of critics. The billionaire has at times suspended journalists from his platform and filed lawsuits against watchdogs for publishing reports critical of X.

While Musk frequently launches ugly attacks on journalists and traditional news organizations, he has simultaneously elevated conspiracy theories and extremist rhetoric.

Last year, Musk endorsed an antisemitic conspiracy theory, which resulted in droves of advertisers fleeing X. Only then, days afterward, did Musk publicly express remorse for his actions.

Lemon was ousted from CNN last year, in a decision that the longtime anchor said left him "stunned." No specific reason was given by CNN for Lemon's dismissal, but it came after he was widely criticized for making sexist comments about then-GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley. Lemon apologized for the remarks at the time, saying, "When I make a mistake, I own it. And I own this one as well."

(The-CNN-Wire & 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.)