Soledad O'Brien – CNN Anchor
Behind the Scenes: PINK conference panelist Soledad O’Brien talks about covering race in America, being inspired by a woman head of state and loving her unbalanced life.
By Taylor Mallory
Born to immigrant parents – a black Cuban mother and an Irish-Australian father – Soledad O’Brien is a member of both the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. So it comes as no surprise that race in America is one of the subjects she’s passionate about – a passion that has produced some of the most memorable work in recent broadcast journalism. As an anchor and special correspondent for CNN’s Special Investigations Unit, she reports hour-long documentaries and files in-depth series on ongoing and breaking news stories, including a recent initiative “Children of the Storm,” which provided video cameras to young Hurricane Katrina survivors so they could tell their own stories of trial and triumph. O’Brien, who joined CNN in 2003, gained national visibility as co-anchor of the network’s flagship early show, American Morning.
Here she talks to PINK about covering issues of race, being inspired by a woman president and loving her unbalanced life.
PINK: What drives you to work and travel as often as you do?
Soledad O’Brien: Every time someone pitches an interesting story and I think, “Ooh, I need to be part of that.” I was in Mexico City working on Black in America – a documentary that will air in April. Then I went to Mexico to shoot something for Anderson Cooper about U.S. crackdowns on immigration and the effects they’re seeing [there]. And today I’m in Atlanta, because Women in Cable Television asked me to come here, and it is such an amazing organization, so when they call and ask you to do something, you say, “Absolutely. Jump? How high? Yes, ma’am, I can do this.” So that’s how I make my decisions. Some weeks I take the kids to school and then we hang out. And other weeks I travel. But as long as [a story is] intellectually challenging and meaningful to me, I’m happy to get on a plane and stay up all night to make it happen.
PINK: Tell us about Black in America.
S.O.: It looks at opportunities and obstacles for African-Americans in America 40 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He held so much promise and hope not just for black people, but for everybody. What’s been accomplished since his death? How do blacks fit in? What have been the highlights and brave moments? What’s been most interesting is discovering that conservatives and liberals agree on what’s most important – responsibility for their future and that of their children. And everybody wants the same things for themselves and their families – a better life for our children, safety, security and access to the American dream. If you go to any community in the U.S. – or even to Mexico – people want those things.
PINK: What is your professional success secret?
S.O.: The most important thing I did was decide to work behind the scenes when I started in TV news. I had a number of friends who started as reporters, but I was much more interested in production. So I did at least 10 years behind the camera before I started reporting, and I still reap the benefits of that. Because I did every job – from fetching coffee to rolling out cable to helping with the lights. So when we were covering the tsunami or Hurricane Katrina and there was no assistant director or lighting guy helping – it was just me and a photographer – I could do it.
PINK: How is your Life/Work balance?
S.O.: Balance is a crock. I don’t know any working mothers who have it, because as soon as you get balanced, someone is sick or needs stitches. I’ve told my children, “There is no way I can go to the ER today. Stop doing that dangerous thing.” And my mother told me nobody wants a martyr. In our family, everybody gets to be happy – including me. Mom does the thing Mom loves – which happens to be my job. And my husband plays golf. And the kids get to do the things they like. I’m not going to feel guilty about that. It is possible to do it all. You just have to decide how to spend each 24 hours you get. And my BlackBerry helps. I can do a conference call in the park. My kids sometimes complain about it, and I say, “Well, here’s the other option. I can go back to the office.”
PINK: Who inspires you?
S.O.: I interviewed the president of Liberia, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson. She’s a grandmother with an almost impossible task – reinventing Liberia. And dealing with all these lost children who’ve been fighting wars. How do you save them – and change things without a whole heck of a lot of money? At her inauguration, the outgoing ministers had destroyed the entire place. They stripped the walls and uprooted things screwed to the floor. So she held her inauguration party in the garden – and it was a beautiful day. Now that woman can make lemonade. And that’s what Liberia requires, not someone who wrings her hands and says, “Can you believe how bad this is?” When I compare her perspective to my itty-bitty, teeny-weeny problems, I think, “This is nothing! No one’s asking me to clean up Liberia. I just have to get my twins to sleep through the night.”
PINK: Morehouse School of Medicine just introduced the Soledad O’Brien Freedom Award. How did you react to that?
S.O.: I was very calm and professional on the phone, then called my husband freaking out. I’m still completely overwhelmed. It’s because of my work on Hurricane Katrina, which of course isn’t just my work. I get to be the first recipient next April and will help pick the next recipients – people mid-career who have stood for something and called for changes. They want people who are young and mid-career (which means I’ll be working until I’m 80). But they don’t want people to have to wait that long to get recognized for good work.
PINK: As you celebrate Thanksgiving this month, what are you most grateful for?
S.O.: My health, great friends, a husband who is the most important person in my life and four healthy children. And I get to do what I like. I’m just thankful for everything.
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