Most recently the anchor of CNN’s morning show Starting Point, journalist Soledad O’Brien spent ten years at CNN, reporting and anchoring from the scene of Hurricane Katrina and both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. She also spearheaded CNN’s Black in America documentary series, which expanded into various iterations chronicling the lives of minorities in America, including Latino in America and Gay in America. After leaving CNN at the end of March, she formed a production company, Starfish Media Group, where she will continue producing documentaries for CNN and other media outlets. On Tuesday, as the inaugural speaker for the University’s new diversity awareness campaign RISE (Reflect. Intervene. Speak. Engage.), O’Brien, whose father is white and whose mother is Afro-Cuban, spent the day on campus meeting with students to discuss issues of diversity and gave a keynote address at Rockefeller Chapel in the evening. Before the event, she sat down with the Maroon to discuss her coverage of diversity issues, what makes a great story, and how to have honest conversations in the age of 30-second sound bites.
Chicago Maroon: Why did you decide to participate in the RISE initiative and headline the first event?
Soledad O’Brien: I was invited, and I think a lot of the reason I am invited to be part of these conversations is because of the bulk of the work I’ve done. Whether it was Black in America, Latino in America, the Muslim in America documentary, or Gay in America, I think there was a sense that there was some insight into how do you both tell stories and live in a world that has become increasingly diverse. I probably would add to that list covering the election, when you look at who voted and all the demographic breakdowns, which really show a shift in this country. So I think there was a sense that since I’ve spent a lot of time studying diversity and really telling stories about individuals in diverse communities—their challenges, opportunities, successes, and failures—that I could sort of kick off this conversation, maybe with a big, 35-thousand-foot perspective on diversity as a whole.
CM: What motivated you to cover stories about diversity and go into communities and tell stories about, for instance, what it means to be black in America or Latino in America?
SO: We started [with] the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King. The president of CNN asked me, would I do a documentary on Dr. King and also take a look at where are we now. So that’s what kicked off our Black in America series, and it was so successful that we started doing Latino in America, and I think there was a real interest in these diverse communities that don’t really get covered. It’s interesting: You can take these communities that I think do get covered, like the white community as a whole gets a lot of news coverage. But then you drill into these subsets—we did a documentary on coal miners. They would say the same thing that the people interviewed for Black in America would say. You know, “no one ever wants to tell our story.” And it’s true, who ever does a story on coal miners and their disappearing way of life? Nobody. And when we did our documentary on women who were working as rescue workers at Ground Zero, they felt like they were being written out of history. If you start to notice the artwork and the history that had been written and painted and photographed about Ground Zero, and if you counted the women, there were very few, in some cases none at all…There has to be some effort to say who’s included in the history and who is not. And those who argue that it doesn’t matter usually have a pretty comfortable position in that history.
Once we started doing Black in America, it was so successful that it made me realize that there were lots of really interesting stories, even subsets within the subsets to tell stories on. It became so popular because there was obviously so little coverage. There are tons of stories for people who are white, if you’re looking at racial demographics in the news, if you were to do an actual breakdown. But if you look at African-Americans, there are probably, like, five types of stories; and for Latinos, probably three different stories, mostly immigration; and for Asians, one type of story: that they’re really really good at school. You know, everyone has that stereotype…I worked a lot in local news, and I think if you were to pick a town, you would find these stereotypical stories that each community gets, and that’s it. Why can’t there be 100 stories for everybody? Why can’t everybody feel like they have a nuanced take on what life is like?
CM: Your philosophy as a journalist has been very much finding these untold stories.
SO: As long as they’re good! I think sometimes you get, and this happened with Black in America, can’t you just tell the good stories? You know, there’s a town where there’s six black doctors, can’t you just do those? I don’t do P.R. I tell real stories. And some of those stories are really great and some of them will break your heart. And some of them are amazing, heroic people and some of them are terrible, awful people. And sometimes they’re all of the above, sometimes amazing people do terrible things, and the reverse. That’s what makes a good story. So I think it came down to, instead of saying, “Let’s do P.R., of the five stories we’re going to get, let’s have them all be good; let’s do 100, so we don’t have to worry about the P.R.” We’re just doing lots of real stories. And I think that’s kind of what you aim for. That’s always been my agenda.
CM: How do you find these stories?
SO: We knew Black in America was successful. People would come up to me in the airport and say, “Girl, I am black in America. You should tell my story.” And then I got a lot of angry Asians. “How come there’s been no Asian in America?” My photographer is Korean. “I am just furious that you guys have not done [Asian in America]. I have shot seven Black in Americas, and you have not done one Asian in America.” I mean, I pitched it…you have to get permission to do it. So it depends. It depends on what the story is, what the budget is, or is the shoot in New York or Minneapolis or California, etc. But you could tell we really hit a nerve when people were demanding—even when they were criticizing your work—demanding that they were in it too. I knew that somehow I had figured how to tell a story about people that really wasn’t being done.
I think there are good stories everywhere. I think that the idea that only certain communities have good stories is ridiculous. It’s really a matter of your time. It got really hard when I was anchoring because I didn’t have time to really go sit in a story and sit in someone’s life…To do a documentary, you really have to be knee-deep in it. Not everyone understands that. It takes a lot of wallowing around in these interesting stories and knowing actual people who are in these communities. If you want to do Asian in America, then have some Asian producers, of which we have almost none. You want to do Black in America, have some black producers. If you want to do Gay in America, have gay producers, who can say: “You know what’s a really interesting story in my community? I think we should dig into ‘x.’” A lot of it comes from just knowing people.
CM: Speaking of diversity in the media, Media Matters did a study recently about how the cable networks largely feature white male guests on their programs, and that number on CNN and Fox News has actually increased in the last five years. Why do you think this is happening, and what can the industry to do to combat it?
SO: I think it’s really not happening. It’s not really changing. The industry is as non-diverse as when I started working at WBZ-TV in Boston in 1987. We had our diversity meeting too, and it’s funny because we had the exact same conversations as we’re having 20-some years later. It’s like, oh my God, I already attended this meeting 20 years ago! Things only change when you measure, and an outside group had to go and record [those numbers]. Networks don’t keep track of that. If they get enough pressure, they might. But often when people don’t keep track, it’s because they don’t necessarily really want to make change. And I would argue that a lot of people don’t feel like they really need to make change. I’ve had the same conversation constantly—at every place I’ve worked.
CM: Why don’t people want to make change? Why don’t they see it as a problem?
SO: People who are in charge like to stay in charge. I think that’s typical. It’s a zero-sum game. If you look at the the number of women in journalism school, we should have many more women in leadership positions in newsrooms, and we do not. There have been more women in journalism school [than men] for the last 15 years, I would guess. Simple math would tell you that we should be overrepresented, then, in positions of leadership. Tell me why we’re not. Because there are people in those positions with no intention of saying, “Let’s open it up to everyone.” I think it’s as simple as that. I just think it’s hard to assume that people really care about diversity, which is ironic because I think there’s a very good business case for diversity…If CNN started doing Asian in America, there would be a large audience of Asians who would be like, “Wow, CNN is really interested in telling our stories. I’m going to start really watching CNN.” I don’t know how we do in Asian viewers. When we started doing Black in America, we had huge numbers among black viewers because people were like, “My stories are important and of interest.”
CM: On your last day as an anchor on CNN, you said that you hope people can have “tough and honest conversations.” How can you do that on television in the age of 30-second sound bites?
SO: I think you can do that better than ever on television because 30-second sound bites, maybe, but [they are] completely accessible by anyone at anytime on Google, or Twitter, or whatever you want to do. I mean, before, if someone said something, you would only have access to the eight seconds or 12 seconds of what was on the news. The rest of it, maybe the New York Times might print the transcript, but probably you wouldn’t know. Now, you can follow up on everything. You can see it in context, you can see it cut, you can see if someone makes a gif of it. And there’re jokes around it. So I think we’re better off than we were. And I think honest conversations are about calling people and stopping them. I think one thing we did really well on our morning show was to constantly say, “Let me just stop you there for a minute.” We’re not just going to run through things, and I’m going to challenge people. And I might not even be right; challenging someone doesn’t mean that you’re right or they’re wrong. It just means: “Let’s dig into that a little deeper.” It’s just matter of saying, “You’ve slid a lot into that quick answer. I want to go back and dig through all the elements of that.”
CM: You started your own production company. What other stories are you looking to work on?
SO: I own the distribution rights to Black in America and Latino in America, so they’ll air elsewhere. And we’re going to continue to shoot them—we’ll air another Black in America in August, and another one the year after that. We usually do one a year. And then, I’m producing content for CNN; I’ll keep doing docs for them and others as well.
Honestly, I’m really trying to do nothing this summer. I have travelled so much, certainly at CNN, for the last 10 years. So this summer, I’m going to hang out with my kids at the pool—just be around. And we’re talking to different partners, too, about what kind of projects to work on. The nice thing has been, for me, is to see, can you have a production company where you just do the work you want to do. I don’t have to do the missing cat story. I can just do the stories that are of interest to me. But probably not until September.