THE NEWS Behind the Newsmaker
Former NBC and CNN anchor, author, Starfish Media Group CEO Soledad O'Brien — best known for the Black in America series — caught up with SO scribe Gorgette Beckford last week. The multiple-Emmy award-winning journalist has recently forged new partnerships with Al Jazeera America, HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, in addition to a documentary-production arrangement with CNN. O'Brien, who was in transit, navigated security, and a coffee pit stop for a Q & A.
Gorgette Beckford (GB): What is your full name? What does it mean?
Soledad O'Brien (S O'B:) María de la Soledad Teresa O'Brien. It means the Virgin Mary of solitude, it's very catholic.
GB: Why did you choose to use Soledad?
S O'B: It's a very typical Latino thing, to take the middle name. María is for the Virgin Mary, so my sister is María Consuelo, another is María Cecilia. It's very typical. My parents really chose it, I didn't. That's just the way it works.
GB: You've been to Jamaica before. What was the purpose of your visit?
S O'B: Yes, [I have been there] twice: Once for a report, to track down information on the [Washington] DC sniper Lee Boyd Malvo and once on vacation, such a long time ago, I think it was somewhere called Eight Mile beach.
GB: What drew you to Al Jazeera America? The parent Al Jazeera is often viewed as a "supporter of terrorists". What's your take?
SO'B: Al Jazeera was starting a new American network and I was impressed by the kinds of stories they wanted to cover. I don't think there is any opinion they are terrorist supporters. The network has been commended for their reports about the Middle East. My thought process was what kind of stories they want to tell and are our agendas similar -- telling stories of people that are not often told? Al Jazeera has a fresh approach to journalism.
The demographic is not only international but they are young -- millennial. Most networks have older viewers, Al Jazeera is interested in reaching young people; those are the stories I am interested in doing. The networks are not telling the stories that young people have indicated they are interested in. I recently did a piece on Baby Doc, as well as where the money is gone in Haiti. I will follow up with a story on the NGOs that are doing good work in Haiti. Networks don't push people in interviews, Al Jazeera is interested [in doing that]. But also, networks have to prove themselves, have to prove there is no bias, etc. Al Jazeera, like everybody, has to show they are interested in quality journalism.
GB: What is your specific role at Al Jazeera? Producing or anchoring?
S O'B: I produce pieces for Al Jazeera, no anchoring.
GB: How did the Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel connection come about?
S O'B: The producers at Real Sports had liked some of the work that I had done when I was at CNN and they asked me to come in and chat with them. And I obviously had seen Real Sports and one of the things I liked about that show is that it's not really about sport, it's sort of a prism of storytelling, and I thought that it was a pretty good match and we could do something interesting together.
GB: How long have you been a journalist?
S O'B: Twenty-seven years. I went to local, then network, then cable, then network again, and cable again; I worked on all fronts.
GB: What's been your best/worst moment as a journalist?
S O'B: I think sometimes the worst and the best are tied to each other. Some of the work I've done on disasters are horrible -- like covering the tsunami in 2004/2005 was terrible to see children who drowned, but you are working so you could not cry all the time. At the same time, most of the reporting that I did was pretty good. We [CNN] won awards for our reporting, so sometimes the worst and the best are connected.
GB: Did you always want to be a journalist?
S O'B: No, I was pre-med in college. I decided I didn't want to go to medical school and wasn't sure what to do [so] I started working at a TV station. I loved it and I was good at it.
GB: How long has Starfish Media Group existed? What does the group do?
S O'B: I started the group to explore other options while maintaining the core principles of journalism. I wanted to tell the stories I wanted to tell and form partnerships with people I wanted to work with while creating content that I owned.
GB: Share details about the Soledad O'Brien + Brad Raymond Foundation.
S O'B: The Foundation is a collaborative effort of Soledad and her husband Brad Raymond. It is specifically aimed at helping young women. There are 25 girls who we're sending to and through college. Officially, we are going on our fourth year but unofficially we started right after [Hurricane] Katrina, when we started giving people money for college.
GB: Are you actively involved with other charity organisations?
S O' B: Yes, I do a lot of work with other people's charities. A friend runs a charity for women who are abused mums -- I try to do a lot. It's a smart thing to do.
GB: How are you received, as the producer of the Black In America series? Do you you get a lot of flak?
S O'B: Of course I do. Every story I do I get flak for; I don't think I've ever done a story where I haven't got flak. Across the board, whether we're talking politics, we're talking race, we're talking class. I think that, for me, the most important thing [as a journalist] is to be profound; that people thought 'it was great journalism' versus 'I didn't really care beyond that'. Anytime you tackle anything that is important, it is imperative that you are accurate and you improve people's experience.
GB: Caribbean people have not been a part of the series?
S O'B: No. I have done individuals who are of Caribbean descent but never an entire piece. My mother is Cuban, Afro-Cuban; she used to say 'oh, your own people didn't make it into Black America' -- but we didn't do any Afro-Latinos. I didn't do any Caribbean people at all, actually. I did two hours of Martin Luther King; the assassination tapes -- I think it's interesting -- but she's absolutely right. My whole theory is that we keep issuing these documentaries and build the franchise. We have a great opportunity to tell more and then those stories would be told also.
GB: What's your opinion of President Obama?
S O' B: Really, the opinion that matters is the opinion of history and it's gonna come later. It's gonna depend on how it all ends -- his career. So, I don't think my opinion of him is either relevant or interesting. History judges presidents and that's really what I am interested in.
GB:I notice you love horses. Is it solely recreational?
S O'B: It is mostly recreational. I have ridden since I was a little kid; I love it. I do a lot of thoroughbred adoption. I like working with animals. People adopt them and don't treat them well.
GB: Do you have any [other] hobbies?
S O'B: No, I don't have other hobbies because I am pressed for time. I work.
I like reporting, I like travelling. Besides that, I don't really do much.
GB: Is there anything we don't know about you that you'd like to share?
S O' B: I don't think so. I think with Twitter I am an open book. I've been pretty good about sharing with everybody the things that I like and the things I don't like.
GB: What would you say you are most passionate about?
S O' B: My family, and then the stories I get to do. I think they are related. I'd like my kids to understand the world, to know that the world is not bigger than they are. They have a relationship with things that are happening around the globe. Young people are going to live in a world that is more interconnected than the one we are living in and news organisations cover international stories less frequently than they should. They [young people] need to understand what is happening in the world.
GB: Would you say this is the impetus for your travels?
S O' B: I travel a lot because I like to report -- the only way to report effectively is to actually go and view. There is no real way to report than being on the ground telling the stories.
GB: You are on Twitter a lot.
S O'B: I'm on Twitter a lot. I like social media. I like being able to respond to people and chat with the people I'm interested in chatting with.
GB: How beneficial is social media to you?
S O'B: First of all, your average young person today is not watching TV news in the morning. [When] I roll out of bed, the first thing I do is read Twitter, because I understand the stories that people are talking about are on Twitter. So, I think it's a great way to understand what people are interested in talking about, and if you follow the right people you get access to a lot of different articles, a lot of different information. You get to hear a lot of different perspectives. I enjoy it incredibly.
GB: How much of Soledad O'Brien the public persona is Soledad the private persona?
S O'B: Everyone who knows me knows I'm exactly the same person. So that's why I have to do my own tweeting and stuff because I'm really not good at letting other people speak for me. I have been very lucky to have had many interesting persons mentoring me along the way.
GB: What are some of the accolades you've received?
S O'B: I have had great opportunities. I have three Emmys -- a special on kids and race, election and Hurricane Katrina coverage. We've won lots of awards but I don't think of my career in terms of awards. I think of it in terms of opportunities -- on and off the job. All that is very important.