By John Harvey
Emmy and Peabody award winning journalist Soledad O’Brien has made a career out of telling the stories of people from around the globe as a filmmaker, documentarian and entrepreneur of her own multi-media company, Starfish Media Group.
The tables were turned on her last week as O’Brien told her story to a group of approximately 450 Randolph-Macon College students and faculty Thursday, Oct. 5 at Blackwell Auditorium.
“I think there’s something really nice when you’re a journalist and being a bit of an outsider to a story, but knowing enough that you’re an insider to the story,” O’Brien said. “You’re interested and you care about the stories, but you also are willing to push and try to really figure out the truth of the story. You’re not afraid to dig in, because you know some of those experiences.”
O’Brien’s appearance was part of R-MC’s Watkins Lecture Series. The annual lecture series, named in honor of the parents of Marion Watkins Hegert and Dr. George D. Watkins, who and owned and operated the Herald-Progress, and brings together the Town of Ashland the R-MC communities. Previous speakers have included Garrison Keillor, Ari Shapiro, Nina Totenberg, James Carville, Julian Bond, Bob Woodward, David Gergen and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
The hour-long discussion included a lecture by O’Brien on the role diversity plays on television, behind the scenes and in everyday lives. She talked about the importance of storytelling from all perspective and emphasized the value of responsible journalism, hard work and integrity.
“We’re at a conversation about race in this country that is a bit awkward, and I think there’s a lot to talk about diversity and how you work with people and how you pull back from a media perspective,” O’Brien said. “There are so many things the media does so poorly and I’m going to talk about ways that we’ve failed and I, personally have failed, and ways my bosses were not trying to elevate diverse voices.
O’Brien showed a clip from a documentary she did about the Women of Ground Zero, in which they focused on six women first responders, including two firefighters, three EMT personnel and a national security expert.
“You would think that sounds amazing, right?,” O’Brien said. “It was so controversial. We would do screenings and people would stand up and say, ‘Are you saying that women are braver than men? It was so out of control.”
O’Brien admitted her own bias as well. When she was first approached about the story by a group of women, she was skeptical since she was one of the reporters that covered the aftermath of that faithful day. After checking the data she realized there was a story to be told.
“They were completely right,” O’Brien said. “The women, as rescuers weren’t covered at all. Women as victims and those that were rescued were actually covered a lot. My own bias was I thought I knew and I had credibility in knowing because I covered the story and spent a lot of time on it and I was wrong. I went with my gut, and I was wrong.”
O’Brien’s accomplishments speak for themselves. She has appeared as a television anchor with MSNBC and CNN. From 2003-07 she co-hosted CNN’s American Morning and was he anchor of CNN’s Starting Point from 2012-13.
She served as a special correspondent for Al Jazeera America in 2013 on the show, America tonight. That same year, she became a correspondent on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, which she called, “The Best Show on television.”
In 2013, she and launched her own multi-media company, called Starfish Media Group. Not bad for someone that went to school to be a doctor.
“The real reason I got into journalism is I decided to not go to medical school,” O’Brien said. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do and I started working at a TV station. What really made me stay in journalism and get a job in journalism was that I just loved it.”
O’Brien saw a need to have people’s voices heard.
“I felt, pretty quickly, there was a good opportunity to influence a lot of people,” she said. “You learn it’s a game of influence. What voices can you elevate? What stories can you bring out? The things that you care about and are passionate about, if you get some leverage, you can actually start bringing those topics to discussion. You get to elevate people’s narratives. There’s a fair amount of power and opportunity and I really felt like there were a lot of stories that weren’t being told that I could have some influence on.”
In this day and age of 24-hour news cycles, O’Brien noted that “breaking news” is never-ending. Gone are the days when news would break in time for the 6 p.m. news and that’s when families would wait to get their information.
“I think we’re at a time where there’s such a fast turnaround,” she said. “Now we have a timeline that never ends, so everybody’s rushing on to the next thing that’s breaking. It just seems like the timelines are collapsed and I think that’s really problematic. It doesn’t lead to thoughtful investigation, the slowdown exploration that I think most stories require.”
Another issue, O’Brien said, is the push to have more entertainment than information with news coverage.
“I think the news and certainly cable news has gotten to the point where you’ve just got a lot of people screaming at each other,” O’Brien said. “There’s 20 people on TV at one time. That’s insane, and I’ve anchored those and it’s really hard to do well. I think there’s a real risk to doing a show, but not actually informing people. I’ve always liked my projects to be informative. I think they do need to be entertaining in some way, but they really do need to be informing people. I think there’s always that pull.”
During her first job at WBZ-TV in Boston, O’Brien said they had just two live trucks and there were only two reporters on staff that knew how to do live shots. The growth of technology and social media and has allowed anyone with a phone to generate their own news.
“We are live all the time,” she said. “You’re live, even if you’re not a reporter. I think it’s much more of how culture has changed how we think about information and access to information and that compressed timeline and I think that’s really different.”
Following O’Brien’s talk, sociology and anthropology Professor Sarah Cribb led a question and answer period from members of the audience and concluded with a book signing.
“Her lecture was excellent,” said Anne Marie Laurazon, director of marketing and communications at Randolph-Macon College. “She talked about the importance of responsibly telling your story and after she finished, she received a standing ovation from the audience. We were honored to have her on campus.”