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Soledad O’Brien – Bringing the human experience to life on CNN

September 2, 2011 by  
Filed under Cover Story, Feature

by Kimberly Bailey-Tureaud

One of today’s most respected and globally recognized television journalists — and the married mother of four children — Soledad O’Brien brings the human experience to life on CNN. She recently granted an exclusive interview to Las Vegas Black Image Magazine, sharing thoughts on her work and following one’s passion.

You are so respected in the field of journalism. What is your back story?
Well, my mother is black and Cuban and my dad is white … Australian. They actually met in this country, and I am in the first (American) generation of my family. They began their courtship in the late 1950s when interracial dating was frowned upon — and illegal in Maryland, where they lived, and also in other U.S. states. My parents got married because they drove to Washington, D.C., and then back to live in Baltimore, illegally, as a married couple. I think that has framed a lot of the stories I like to cover, as they relate to race, opportunity, fairness and justice.

How do you balance being a wife and mother of four with your career at CNN?
I don’t think you do. I think you aim for the best. Balance is really not a word that is a part of the vocabulary. It is about not dropping important things and focusing on the things as they come. It is about the big picture and about life and making sure everyone in the family is happy. You can’t be so concerned about balance and work that you forget that your life is supposed to be fun, and enjoying everything. If you are working all the time just to get stuff, what’s the point? We consistently reset our lives. My husband is a great partner and we see eye to eye on the kind of things we buy and how to raise our kids. We both agree on how we spend our time, and that helps a lot because he doesn’t want things that I don’t want. We both like to spend time with our children —not always doing a heck of a lot — but just spending special time together and talking. We focus on important things in life. Not on things like where someone lives and how much stuff people have.

What do you say to your critics about your CNN documentary series, “Black in America,” not giving equal time to stories of black wealth?
I think the challenging thing in doing documentaries like “Black in America” or … “Latino in America” is that everyone is expecting every image. In a way, the titles promise this. For “Black in America,” we picked stories that featured some successful or middle-class people, and people who are struggling. Frankly, that is the black experience in this country. Did we tell everybody’s story? Obviously not, because there are many millions of black people with stories to be told and we could only select a handful of those heartfelt stories of success, and some people who failed. And guess what? Sometimes people fail in our communities, regardless of race or gender. Some people just fail in life. I think sometimes in those stories you have to explore what is happening in a nation and in a community. I think you will really be doing a disservice to tell only the successful stories. There are so many issues, not just in the black community, but in every community. Some of those issues are in education. I could do a story and show a young black man going to Harvard — and it would be true. But I could also show a lot of young black people who are also in poverty and undereducated — and this will also be true. What is the true face of “Black in America”? Both of these faces exist, and the range of all the faces in the black community cannot be told in a four-hour documentary. You hope over time you will be able to tell a lot of different stories. Absolutely, people’s criticisms are correct, yet that was not the goal to tell 13 million stories in a half-hour. The goal is to take a look at some stories and tell them well.

What are your thoughts on the recent controversy surrounding the lack of black anchors on national media outlets?
I think that is really true. There aren’t any. I don’t manage companies or hire people. I can only speak on my perspective as an employee, because I am always working on my résumé and always making sure my work is good. So when my company needs me to step in, I am available, ready and prepared. Whenever someone needs me to do something, I will do it with happiness and joy. Being prepared is very important, because no one wants a job just because they are black. But you want the opportunity and you want to succeed in that opportunity. My life goal has always been — whether I was working in local news, or with CNN or NBC — to work hard on the quality of my work, so that if I am needed somewhere else, my work is good. When there is a time when somebody needs me to do something else, I want to make sure I am ready and prepared to do it.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was recently unveiled in Washington, D.C. Which of his words stood out in your mind when you did your documentary on him, “Words That Changed a Nation”?
One of the things I found most interesting when I was doing my research on Dr. King is that some people would say, “He was Jesus who came down from heaven.” I would say no. Dr. King was a human being, and that was his power. He inspires us all to think about what we can do. Imagine if we really moved forward and tried to be unafraid. Imagine if we really believed that there was opportunity for everybody and fought for it. Imagine if we really stood up for things that we believed in — even if we were afraid. Imagine what we could do, because that is what he did. He was an ordinary human being. He really was a guy who took a moment in history and ran with it. He became the voice of one of the most powerful movements — not only in civil rights history, but in history, period. A moment where today in Libya, people quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — and that is what is most powerful.

What is our present-day civil rights struggle?
Oh gosh, I think it is education — because education is the way in which you can level the playing field and make things fair for people. I think public education in this country is very inconsistent. I went to a really great public school, and there are some really terrible public schools. It seems unfair because it really should be consistent. There are a lot of people involved in trying to figure out how you make a quality education consistent for all children.

What can you share with us about President Obama?
One of the things I feel that is most interesting about President Obama is his secret weapon — his wife, Michelle Obama. As much as I have enjoyed interviewing the president, I think the first lady is such an interesting person to watch, and watching them as a couple. It is very interesting to see her embrace military families, healthy eating and her personal style in fashion. I am looking forward to see how they are going to leverage the first lady in the upcoming 2012 election and her participation in the campaign.

What are your words of advice to others who are interested in a career in television reporting?
Going into any job, it is about sticking it out. Television is certainly a competitive field, but lots of jobs are competitive. Ultimately, it is about finding something that you are passionate about, because that is going to make it easier to stick it out through the difficult times.

Congratulations on your book, “The Next Big Story.” What do you foresee as the next big story in our country?
Literally, the next big story will probably be about the presidential election. We do a lot of breaking news stories, so this is something I can’t predict. Also, the next big story will be about the human experience. I am working on a documentary about miners in West Virginia. Also, I am doing a documentary on the women rescuers who worked at Ground Zero and a new “Latinos in America,” and a young woman who will be boxing in the Olympics in 2012 — the first time women will be allowed to box in the Olympics. Also, we are working on another “Black in America” documentary, focusing on African-Americans in Silicon Valley.

We hope you consider doing a story on blacks in Las Vegas. We have stories that have positively changed the nation.
Yes, I love Las Vegas, and enjoyed my time there.


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