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.
“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.