Soledad O’Brien sheds light on media

For Soledad O’Brien, news is about people and their individual stories.

O’Brien, a CNN news anchor and special correspondent, spoke for an hour Tuesday afternoon at a packed Calhoun Master’s Tea, for which the audience of 65 was chosen by lottery. Drawing from more than 20 years of experience in broadcasting, O’Brien described the progression of her career, the challenges of multiple channels and online media for the news industry and her desire to tell stories with a cause.

CNN special correspondent Soledad O’Brien speaks to an audience of 65, chosen by lottery, at a Calhoun College Master’s Tea Tuesday.
Grace Patuwo
CNN special correspondent Soledad O’Brien speaks to an audience of 65, chosen by lottery, at a Calhoun College Master’s Tea Tuesday.

“I’m fascinated by people,” she explained. “Who is that person? What do they believe? What formed those values? I try to tell that story.”

O’Brien began her television career working for free at a local television station in Boston.

“It was the most exciting and riveting thing,” she said, describing the women she saw running around the studio without their high heels when news broke.

While an undergraduate at Harvard, she initially followed a pre-med track but soon realized television was the place for her, she said, when she started working at the station.

“For me it was, ‘I love this,’ ” she said. O’Brien explained that the fast-pace and chaos of television studio allowed her to rise quickly.

From local stations to NBC to CNN, O’Brien has been involved with a variety of shows and projects. She covered breaking news, such as the2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, racking up “a million” frequent flyer miles last year, she said. More recently, she filmed a series of documentaries on life in modern America, including “Black in America” and “Latino in America.” She expects to continue the series, she said, focusing on the subjects of poverty, women and challenges facing Native Americans. She is driven to tell these particular stories, she added, because they are “under-told and under-covered in the news.”

The process of developing a documentary that resonates with viewers can be difficult, however, O’Brien noted. Finding characters that not only tell compelling stories but also have personalities that translate on-screen can be a challenge, O’Brien said.

“If someone’s story is riveting, you just know,” she said. “And other times they just don’t sing on camera and the plot just dies.”

The search for good characters also involves many arguments in the editing process of choosing which people and which moments to highlight, she said.

In terms of her interviewing skills, O’Brien admitted that it has been a learning process in which her technique went from “awful” at the outset of her career to “quite good.”

Listening actively and doing your homework beforehand are crucial steps to keeping control of the interview, she added. But an interviewer should not rush.

“I love having awkward conversations,” she commented. “In interviewing, the beauty is in the silence; 99 out of 100 times, they will say something surprising.”

The future of media does not appear bleak to O’Brien. She cited developments in technology, like her ability to take photographs that are automatically transferred to the CNN photo server, as ways the industry is evolving to cope with the faster influx of information. While the media is shifting, the basic tenets of journalism have not changed, she said.

“In 1988 my boss said, ‘the evening news is dead.’ But people watched CNN last night,” she said. “People make dire predictions about where the industry is going, but I am nauseatingly optimistic.”

At the same time, O’Brien admits that there is a battle for viewers going on between networks, and the different niche news markets served by Web outlets and other cable channels challenge the primacy of major networks like CNN.

Off-screen, O’Brien she is a mother of four young children and a wife as well.

“My life as a mother is insane,” she said. “It’s a real challenge, and I have to learn how to balance it better.”

Calhoun Master Jonathan Holloway, who met O’Brien at an event in New York earlier this year, said that hosting speakers who are used to the storytelling and question-and-answer sessions of Master’s Teas can be “instructive.”

Four students interviewed after the talk said they admired O’Brien’s charisma and drive.

“The thing that struck me most was how obvious her intelligence was,” Ford Stevens ’10 said.

Farzana Faisal ’10 said that she was inspired by O’Brien because she had overcome racial barriers throughout her career. O’Brien is Afro-Cuban and Irish.

“When Master Holloway called the Tea to a close, I honestly couldn’t believe that a full hour had already passed — she was that interesting,” added Liza Starr ’13.


  • Recent Alum

    Definitely an interesting Master’s Tea. I wish I could have asked her how she feels about CNN’s declining ratings and how much lower the ratings will need to fall before the station considers actually reporting the news fairly instead of regurgitating Democratic Party talking points and ignoring anything that could hurt the White House.

  • ’97

    O’Brien is biased and not very bright. More embarassing than anything else. What are we doing inviting such a mediocrity?

  • Tanner

    Ivy Schools seem to be a refuge for Newspeople who ignored Fox then tried to dismiss Fox and know chat to small groups about their dreams of their golden age of news .i.e BFN

  • John

    Soladad O’Brien is a poor journalist, a hypocrite, she is a racist and doesn’t speak the truth. In an appearance on Anderson Cooper, the night or so before CNN’s “the moment of truth” with Henry Gates, she appeared enraged that it was a racial profile against Gates. She said that she got calls from her FRIENDS saying it was all about Gates being black. She went on that show with the purpose, at all costs, to destroy the credibility of the white police officer and throw him under the bus. When Cooper was talking she wanted to make the point that Gates said “Thank you” to the police officers. By mentioning that she was purposely misrepresenting the truth, by playing down Gates’ belligerence and racial remarks, which she didn’t even mention. Even Gates’ attorney and friend, said to the media that he used very strong language. And, Colon Powell and President Obama both said he should take blame in the incident. I have seen this in many occasions with her, where she doesn’t speak the truth and hides the true facts. During the convention coverage on CNN in an interview with Congressman John Boehner, she asked a question about Sarah Palin’s credibility. While he was starting to answer her question she SHOUTED out at him “answer the question” and again “answer the question.” (His answer to the question was “She’s a better person than I am.”) The point is, once again her questioning style was completely different with a white person than it was with a black person. With Gates, she just went along with his lies! There are many other examples I could give of her racial bias and dishonesty. I have seen several comments on various websites about her racism. In interviews and in public speaking she doesn’t speak of, or praise her husband in any way, it’s as if she’s ashamed of him. John, Las Vegas

  • CNN is no longer news

    Nor is Fox, for that matter. MSNBC is also out of the question.

    What remains now that the news sources have sunk to the level of the bloggers?

  • Recent Alum

    #5, Fox News contains both news segments and opinion shows, but there is a bright line between the two. Unlike Soledad O’Brien, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck do not purport to be objectively reporting the news. And Shepard Smith and the other Fox News anchors are not really biased in favor of a particular agenda like the Fox opinion guys.


    How come Soladad O’Brien did not do White in American.

  • Grum

    It’s worth noting that all of Fox’s opinion guys are on the right. Also, their “straight news” also leans heavily to the right. Maybe it just doesn’t look that way when placed next to the wacko paranoid rantings of Beck, but with the exception of Shepard Smith, it’s really biased.

  • Y’13

    Umm, the master’s tea was really interesting.

    The “in America” series is not up to her discretion but up to others, so stop badgering her for something that is out of her control. White in America would be 20 hours long, and unnecessary.

    Fox is far from objective. Unless, of course, you are a crazy conservative person.

  • Tanner

    Every non bias research poll has shown Fox is the most even handedness in its coverage. They invite a contrast of oopinions on all their opinion shows. Its just that the left is not use to have their opinions challanged. College is suppose to teach but I guess its easier to go along with the teacher.

  • Y’12

    I agree with #9

    Soledad O’Brien is such an inspiration!