By Allison J. Waldman
Special to TelevisionWeek
Soledad O’Brien, anchor of CNN’s “American Morning,” is an award-winning news reporter, an accomplished interviewer, the mother of four-including twin 2-year-olds-and the very embodiment of the National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications. She is multi-ethnicity in communications, the child of an Australian Irishman and a black Latina, Ms. O’Brien said. “It’s not just that I can check every box when it comes to ethnicity,” she said. “I’m also the perfect example of what happens when people take aggressive approaches to make sure that they are working hard to have diversity in their newsroom.”
At this week’s annual NAMIC Conference in New York, Ms. O’Brien will be honored by the organization with the Mickey Leland Humanitarian Award in recognition of her reporting during the past year that included covering the tsunami in Phuket, Thailand, and being one of the leads on the ground in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck. “I’m thrilled to be receiving the award, especially after the year we’ve had,” she said. “People thought the tsunami was the biggest devastation we had covered in a long, long time. And it continues to be. Then last year we covered the London terror bombings.”
But it was the catastrophe created by Hurricane Katrina that affected Ms. O’Brien most deeply. “It’s hard to compare tragedies, but I would say that the one thing that was so different in the tsunami was that everybody was working to fix it, and we got on the ground there very quickly. It was a terrible thing to have happened, but they were working to make it better. What sticks in the craw about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is that a lot hasn’t changed. There is no plan; there’s just this mess. It’s frightening that there is no plan about how we’re going to fix it-and this is New Orleans, a major American city.”
The CNN news team, including Ms. O’Brien, was given a Peabody Award for its work in the Gulf Coast. One of the most memorable moments in that coverage was Ms. O’Brien’s stark interview with then-FEMA director Michael Brown. “The idea that [Mr. Brown] would say they weren’t aware that there were people at the convention center when we were showing aerial pictures of people, which a guy on the ground with the National Guard-not just some random person-is estimating the crowd at 45,000. How could he not know?” she said. “It wasn’t just frustrating, it was surprising, and that translated to everyone watching. There was complete double-speak. You can’t hear them say how they care about the people while there are people in the street begging for water.”
In little more than a decade, Ms. O’Brien has established herself as one of America’s leading news professionals. She started in local news at WBZ-TV in Boston and KRON-TV in San Francisco, where she paid her dues and learned her craft. However, she had never planned on a career in journalism; she was a pre-med major at Harvard University in 1987.
“I decided not to go to medical school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I loved writing,” Ms. O’Brien said. She landed an internship at a TV station and found her calling. “I loved it. I didn’t even work in the newsroom at first, but just the chaos of it all and the sense of purpose, people sprinting down the hall with tapes. I remember thinking, `This is the most exciting thing.”‘
“I made sure my next internship was in the newsroom,” she said. “I feel very grateful because young people often struggle with what’s a good fit, and the minute I walked into a newsroom, I knew that my career would be there in some way, shape or form. There were things I was really good at, there were things I was less good at, but I was given opportunities to grow. I just loved being around people doing the news.”
With so many local stations, cable channels and networks seeking ways to incorporate diversity into the newsroom, Ms. O’Brien was the right person at the right time. Still, she wishes diversity were more prevalent today. “I hope it’s getting better,” she said. “It’s certainly better than when I started in TV news in 1989, where oftentimes I was the lone face of color in cities that had major minority populations. So it’s definitely better than it was 20 years ago.”
Ms. O’Brien, though, has taken advantage of the opportunities she was given. “The truth is the way I came up and the way I was trained and the way I learned and got promoted, at NBC first and then certainly at CNN, was because there was an aggressive approach taken, saying, `We want minorities to succeed. We’re going to make sure we promote them, move them along, follow them, track them, and we’re going to be aggressive about it.’ I’m a good example of that.”
Ms. O’Brien also believes in the power of mentoring, a key asset offered to NAMIC members. “I think mentoring is a two-way street. You can’t ask people for help and then not follow up on it,” she said. When she recalls her own mentors, two names stand out: Jeanne Blake and Robert Bazell.
“Jeanne Blake was a mentor,” she said. Ms. Blake, a science reporter at WBZ, encouraged Ms. O’Brien to go out into the field and develop her interviewing skills. “She was very aggressive with me, giving me a chance to do what we call grabbing sound. She’d be working on a piece and she might need a sound bite from the mayor or someone, and I became the person who could run out and do that. I started doing that, not just for Jeanne but for other people, too, and after six months I had a list of 150 sound grabs. I went to the news director and said, `I’ve done this work and I would like to be promoted.’ He said OK and started moving me along.”
Ms. O’Brien learned more than how to do TV news from Ms. Blake. She learned about mentoring, too. “It was a combination of her giving me the opportunities and I felt like I worked very hard to follow through on them,” she said. “I knew she was putting her neck out for me.”
Mr. Bazell, chief science and health correspondent for NBC News, took Ms. O’Brien under his wing when she worked at the network. “He’s so smart. Working for him was literally like going to college,” said Ms. O’Brien. “He would say, `We have so many stories to do, I would like you to go out in the field.’ That’s when I started traveling. It was a great opportunity. I would do pieces as if I was doing the story myself. I would shoot a stand-up if I had the time, and then I would have Bob look at my stuff and he’d give me feedback.”
No matter what she did or with whom she worked, Ms. O’Brien always gave it her all. “I made it clear to him-and everybody I’ve ever worked for-I was going to work my butt off for them. But I had ambition to move on to other things, too. I think when you work that way, people are happy to support you because they know they’re going to get 150 percent out of you. They want to see you succeed, too.”
Dedication has characterized Ms. O’Brien’s professional life from the start. “I wasn’t necessarily the smartest, or the best immediately, but I would outwork anybody. And I think that’s true to this day,” she said. “I’m a big believer in that I can research more, I can learn more, I can study more, I can study longer, and I can hit the books. A lot of it is plodding through, doing your homework, asking the question that might stick out even if it’s not the most brilliant question.”
In addition to her full-time job on “American Morning,” Ms. O’Brien has another full-time job at home. She’s the mother of two young girls and twin boys who just turned 2. How does she balance work and family? “It’s really, really hard, and I always resent people who act as if it’s really, really easy. It’s not,” said Ms. O’Brien. “My husband [Brad Raymond] is an investment banker, so we’re fortunate that we can afford really good child care. But it’s hard.”
While reporting from New Orleans, for instance, Ms. O’Brien had to cope with a harrowing story to cover, as well as the fact that her boys were still not sleeping through the night. “I was sleeping in an RV with 14 other people, and I remember calling my husband and i
t turned out that I was sleeping better than he was,” she said.