During a commencement address at Spelman College, Soledad O’Brien relayed a story about people in Maryland spitting on her parents in 1958 because they disapproved of the marriage between her mother, a Black Cuban, and father, a white Australian of Irish and Scottish heritage.
She said she asked her mom how the young couple could deal with such vile actions. “Oh, Lovely,” her mom replied, using a nickname for her daughter, “we knew America was better than that, and we knew we could be part of making it better.”
Her mother’s surprising response stuck with O’Brien, and she has often found herself drawing from it during her long, distinguished broadcast journalism career. O’Brien advised the 2014 Spelman class to also remember her mother’s words. “She knew that if you were knocked off your path any time someone spit on you — literally or metaphorically — you might not get where you’re trying to go. … Figure out your dream, and be brave enough to go and live it.”
O’Brien spent several years prepping for the medical profession. But she had no passion for it and quit college to take a job at a Boston television station. She built her career by taking on unpopular jobs that taught her new skills and by observing colleagues in positions she aspired to hold.
She’s won five Emmy and three Peabody awards and has contributed work to more than a dozen networks, including as an anchor on NBC, MSNBC and CNN. She covered Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the 2012 U.S. presidential election. She created the documentary series “Black in America” and “Latino in America” for CNN and was executive producer of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” for Peacock.
In the midst of a busy work life and growing family, O’Brien returned to college and earned a degree in English and American literature from Harvard.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Describe the aha moment when you knew you wanted to be a journalist.
The aha moment did not come for a long time. At first I was like, I want a job, a career that’s interesting. Something I think I’m good at. And I was in a little bit of a panic. My first job paid $11,000. I needed more money to live in Boston. If I became a writer, I could make $25,000 a year. So, I worked very hard to become a writer trainee. I went from that to being a writer to being an associate producer. I enjoy it. I’m good at this, but I’m actually gonna have to move to the next level in order to make more money.
I’m guessing that at some point the motivation was not chasing money but experiencing more exciting work and feeling professionally fulfilled.
What really cemented my future in journalism was always being very open to learning and trying new things. I was very much a “yes” person. What made me successful was what’s useful in reporting, which is you go out to do something and if it doesn’t work, you go to plan B. Oh, that didn’t work? You go to plan C pretty quickly and without a lot of drama. I was just very flexible and resilient and always trying to figure out the next thing.
As you grew in your career, you learned a lot about newsroom culture and politics. What was one of the lessons you learned as you were figuring out how things really work?
I became an [associate producer] on our morning show eventually, and the producer decided in an election year that she didn’t want me to be covering the election. It was a big deal for our Boston station because, obviously, New Hampshire was first in the nation to vote. It was a good opportunity, and someone just decided, “Nope, not for you.” I didn’t get to go. So, I was like, I actually need to be in a position where someone can’t make that decision for me.
I applaud you for adopting the mindset that you control your career and you won’t let others derail you.
I used to go to the guy who ran the New York bureau at NBC and say to him, “I really want to be a producer. I’m producing, I’m literally producing.” And he would say, “No, come back in six weeks. You know, we love you but blah, blah, blah.” I did that about three or four times before I realized, “Oh, this is not real.” It took me a minute. So, one day I went into him and he’s like, “Listen, we think you’re great. We’re just not ready to —” And I said to him, “Oh, no, no, I’m coming to quit. I’m leaving.” But it took me probably more times than it should have taken me.
I’ve heard others say that having that tenacity and willingness to do extra work early in your career is common among people who end up successful.
It also has a downside. There is a line between working harder and working smarter, and if you’re the person who’s always volunteering like, “Yes, I’ll go. I’ll do it. I’ll go,” sometimes it’s hard to break out of that mold and have people see you as valuable. And that’s why I ended up having to leave that local station in San Francisco, because they were like, “Oh, no, no. You’re the girl who goes on the overnight fires.” It’s just hard for people sometimes to see you grow. I do think there is a certain tenacity and resilience and just being willing to go. But there is a line where you have to stop doing it.
Let’s talk about the state of journalism today. What are your thoughts?
There are lots of bright lights, which keeps it from being wholly depressing. But what’s bad about it is that, first of all, misinformation and disinformation have really found a foothold in a lot of news. And something that’s been a little bit longer coming is the idea about news as entertainment. Since social media draws so many eyeballs, to cover stories you now have to be thinking like, “What’s most entertaining to the widest group of people versus how do we explain something that’s complicated to our audience?” I’m not saying don’t cover those [entertaining] stories. I’m saying sometimes I wish there was more fairness in how we think about what stories are important.
On “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien,” how do you try to address some of these issues?
One thing we tried to do is recognize that people need context, people need to understand things. We’re going to explain the First Amendment to you. We’re going to explain how the border works from people who are there. We’re going to cut out the middleman. We’re not going to have two debating Congresspeople yelling at each other. We are going to actually say, “So here’s the issue. Let’s talk about how we got here and exactly what it means.” And use people who know what they’re talking about. I think journalists can fight back against the death of expertise, which I do think is dying, right? Somebody is feeling very strongly that the earth is flat and he gets a similar platform to the guy from NASA. It’s crazy.
There are other news outlets doing things like that, but it certainly is not enough.
With the cutbacks on local news, some reporting and information gathering is really being hurt. But I’m very excited about all those organizations — Report for America is one — where they literally go in and say, “We’re going to put people in to cover the city hall meeting, we’re going to put people in so they can understand what’s happening at the school board because otherwise your coverage becomes piss-poor.”
Is this one of the bright lights you’re talking about?
Definitely. And there’s some really good reporting. I think everything being framed as politics is a disservice. Talking heads and cable TV news are not good. There’s no strategy of educating people when you do that. It’s a strategy of watching a fight. Anybody who says, “Well, actually my colleague here has a really good point. This is kind of a complicated and nuanced position,” they are never being invited back again as long as they live.
Politicians, in particular, exploit the cable news format.
One hundred percent. But also, media does it. We talk about who had the best debate, which comes down to who had the best zinger. This has happened for years. Who looked the best? It has nothing to do with content. It’s gotten so ridiculous, and we have so many better opportunities to serve the public.
You’ve been part of the reporting team for “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” on HBO for 10 years now. What’s kept you there so long?
It’s the best show on television. It’s so good and it’s so smart and it’s so well produced and it has such a clear identity. As a journalist, it’s so nice to be part of a show that really knows what it is. The thing that I’ve always liked about “Real Sports” is it’s actually not about sports. It is all about the essence of good storytelling and good journalism, and it’s about people’s stories and digging into them. The prism just happens to be sports, and sports is a really interesting lens to look through at people and experiences and stories. But you don’t have to know anything about sports to get it. And that’s what makes the show great. It’s about human beings and the challenges, opportunities, struggles, failures and successes they’re going through, and that’s just a human story.
You’ve done a lot of work on social issues. What led you to these kinds of stories?
It probably started at first — and I wasn’t very passionate about it — in local news because I was not the main reporter. I was new; I often got assigned to the D-block stories, you know, the bottom of the rundown. Invariably you were sent to Roxbury, where a community health center was opening. In the newsroom at that time, the Iraq war was a big deal. The good reporters were assigned to do that from a local perspective. I didn’t really get to do that at all.
While at CNN, you started the “Black in America” and “Latino in America” documentary series. I remember watching some of those and thinking they were so informative.
“Black in America” was exhausting because it was a lot of arguing and a lot of, in some ways, fighting. I remember calling my best friend, a VP at CNN. She really encouraged me to push back on the things I thought were not OK and figure out the story. She’s like, “Everyone’s going to think you did this, so you’re responsible for it. Literally, you are the face of it, and you are one of the few Black people working on it, so you are responsible for it.” They wanted to give “Black in America” to Christiane Amanpour, and I remember my boss asking if I would be willing to do it. Christiane was working on a big doc about religion. When I had to go to Haiti for the earthquake, I remember saying to them, “You have to have a person of color in Haiti” because they hadn’t sent any. The thinking was not that. The thinking was, “Who are the stars?” And stars got to go. This is where often newsrooms would really miss it. I think they’re getting better, but they miss it about race, right? Like the idea that just somebody good could go and do it, and probably they could. But I think it would be different. ,
Rod Hicks is director of ethics and diversity for the Society of Professional Journalists. Follow him @rodhicks.