As a CNN anchor and special correspondent with her own documentary team, Soledad O’Brien is a successful, high-profile journalist in the prime of her career. A shelf-full of major broadcasting awards from her years at CNN and NBC line one wall of her office in Manhattan’s Time Warner Center, near large windows that frame stunning views of Central Park. Other wall space is covered by family photos and artwork by her four children: Sofia is 10, Cecilia is turning 9 this month and the twin boys, Jackson and Charlie, are 6.
With her husband, Brad Raymond, an investment banker, she juggles raising the children with maintaining a residence in Chelsea, a country house in Putnam County and a staggering travel schedule. She flew to New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina (a handsomely-mounted pistol, given to her by the sheriff of St. Bernard Parish in gratitude for her coverage there, is one of her more unusual souvenirs), to Thailand to cover the tsunami, to Washington, DC, for the inauguration of President Obama, to Haiti during its earthquake last year. London and Shanghai are on her horizon.
When O’Brien was growing up in St. James, however, she didn’t always feel as loved and accepted by everyone around her as she does now. As she writes in her recent memoir, The Next Big Story: My Journey Through the Land of Possibilities, she often found herself singled out or ostracized by fellow students at Smithtown High School East, from which she graduated in 1984, because of her mixed-race heritage. She countered, she writes, by being in “perpetual motion,” as in a dodgeball game: “When you move, you can’t get hit.”
The incongruity of her name reflects her heritage. Christened Maria de la Soledad O’Brien, she is the next to youngest of six children, all of whom went to Harvard. Her mother is black and Cuban, her father an Australian of Irish and Scottish descent. After meeting at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore—and driving to Washington to get married because Maryland didn’t allow interracial weddings—her parents moved to a large house in St. James. Her father was a professor of mechanical engineering at Stony Brook University and her mother taught Spanish and French in the Smithtown high schools. Horseback riding became one of young Soledad’s passions and she mucked stalls to pay for riding lessons. Most of her young life was idyllic. But, she writes in her book, she never dated in high school because she was considered “different.”
She dropped out of Harvard—where she took pre-med courses while majoring in English—in her senior year to take a production assistant job at WBZ-TV in Boston. She rose quickly and soon headed to NBC News in New York, then station KRON in San Francisco. She co-anchored NBC’s Weekend Today before moving to CNN in 2003. Two of her many CNN documentaries are Black in America and Latino in America. Jesse Jackson once complained to her about a lack of black anchors at CNN, she says in her book, and told her, “You don’t count.” Later, he claimed that “he had not known I was black!”
In her office and in the newsroom, O’Brien discussed growing up on Long Island, balancing career and parenting, returning to college as an adult, experiencing changes in journalism and finding ways to help students.
One thing I noticed about your book is that you use your experiences in Smithtown as a kind of touchstone.
Absolutely. I think that’s true for all of us, where you grew up is going to define the person you are going to become.
It sounded as though there were pressures, that it wasn’t all that happy, except within your family and a couple of friends.
It was fine, because I had my family, and I had a handful of friends who were great friends. If I had been looking for more than that, it would have been a problem, but I never did. We had a family that was very tight. It was fun. I did a lot. I had my riding, and my brothers and sisters. I think it was harder on the older ones. Some of them had more challenges than I did.
I see all your children’s artwork on a wall here.
The wall of art. And in the top left corner, there’s a note, “Dear Mom, I really want a cat. Love, Sofia.”
Did she get a cat?
Yes, she did.
So what do you have at home?
We have the cat, three guinea pigs, and, not at home, a pony. And two horses that are mine.
You must really love horses.
Growing up on Long Island, it was a great place for horseback riding. We lived next to a horse farm in St. James. My parents still have the same house and they have a place in Manhattan. They stay here for the winter. They’re in their 80s and can’t deal with the snow.
Did you have a lot of land in St. James?
A couple of acres. It was a great place. The neighbors would come over to play ball and my dad would pitch. It was a fantastic childhood. But there were moments when we were clearly reminded, your parents are not from here and you don’t belong here.
I’m surprised you encountered that, because—and I’m sure you’ve heard this before—you don’t come across as being black. Did you look different then, or was it just people knowing about your mother?
People knew my mom. She was a teacher in the school. She had an Afro, and I had an Afro.
You straighten your hair now?
Oh gosh yes. I also don’t sit out in the sun like I used to.
When you go back to St. James now, is it for a long time or just day trips?
Oh, not day trips, not with four kids. We go for two or three days.
Do you see changes in attitudes?
You certainly see changes in the diversity of the student body at the high school. There’s a lot more diversity now, more immigrants. Things have changed.
How did your experience on Long Island prepare you for life in New York?
My parents were really good at making us very aware of who we were, where we came from, what we had to be proud of, and not to worry so much about fitting in and blending in. That was not really the goal. There are lots of good things to get out of growing up on Long Island, and that’s what we were there for.
Did your father choose St. James because it had a good school system?
Oh, absolutely. My father had a very immigrant mentality: No matter what happens, no one can take away your education.
And you got into Harvard. I was slightly surprised that with all that drive for an education that you left before graduating. How did your parents react?
I think that they really got it. My parents were not ambitious for us to go to Harvard, as many parents are. My parents were ambitious for us to do as well as we possibly could in school, and to get an education and to do everything well. And I went right from school to working, so it wasn’t like I was sitting on the couch trying to decide what I was going to do with my life. I think that would have sent my parents into a tailspin. I really immediately liked my job and I think it helped them that I had not a moment of regret. The biggest challenge for me was how to step back when you’re doing well and say, “Now I’m going to go back to school.” The time was right in 2000 when I became pregnant.
You finished up college very quickly.
I didn’t have much to finish. And it was funny, once you’re in the workforce, you’re a much better student. You’re very organized. You’re not hanging out with people or going to keg parties. You’re on Amtrak, schlepping back and forth. And in those four hours, you’re reading books and writing papers. I was pregnant, so I was ragingly sick. That part was miserable. But I knew that if I didn’t do it, I would never do it.
You didn’t feel strange among the younger students?
My husband used to joke that he was dating a coed. But no: I didn’t wear makeup and I wore sweats like everybody else. I remember, that year I was named one of People magazine’s 50 most beautiful people. A professor said to me, “Hey, I saw you in People magazine.” I said, “Hey, you read People magazine?”
You travel a lot.
In a way it’s the hardest part of my job, but I love to travel.
How do you balance traveling with children?
It’s very hard. What we do pretty well is we spend a lot of time with them. We don’t have a lot of sitters. So we don’t have a lot of layers. I’m pretty hands on when I’m not traveling. The logistics can be pretty crazy in our house, but I think we try to juggle it as much as possible. Some days are chaotic, more chaotic than I’d like.
What about your husband?
He has long hours, but now he can do more work from home. He can be more flexible. What helps the kids a lot is that I take each child on a trip. They love to travel. They’ve now gone to Europe three times. My daughter went to Haiti with me, and she loved it. That gives them some perspective: Mom travels a lot but there are some cool things about her job. You don’t have a mom who does all the things that other moms do, but we do other things.
You take each one individually?
I took the twins together. That was fun but the problem is, you lose out on the time with one person. We do it every year for everybody, so four trips. My daughter wanted to swim with dolphins in California, so we did that. My boys wanted to go to Miami to swim in a hotel pool. That was so funny, because I kept thinking, we could drive to Jersey and they wouldn’t know the difference. The best parts are going out to dinner, hanging out. We take a Christmas trip with the whole family. We went to Barcelona this year.
What kind of advice do you have for students?
When I was entering television, everyone was telling me, “TV news is dead. Why would you want to go into TV news?” So whenever someone says, “I don’t know if I should go into TV news or into journalism,” I say, “Well, let me tell you what I was told in 1987.” I ask, “What’s your passion? Go and do your passion.”
Have things changed now with the Internet and new technology?
Not really. The basic tenets of journalism are the same. You have better cameras, and you can bring a laptop, and things are going faster, but truly at the end of the day, the kind of journalism I do is: And then I sat down with this person, and I asked him these questions. It’s great if I can go to Haiti and take a BGAN and pop it up and go live in 15 minutes.
What’s a BGAN?
It’s a laptop basically, and it comes with a little dish, and you just pop it up on your car. I can hook it up to my camera, pop it up, point it in the right direction and bounce it off a satellite. You can be by yourself and go live. [BGAN is short for Broadband Global Area Network.] In Haiti, I was taking pictures with my Blackberry and sending them to cnn.com. It was amazing. When there’s an aftershock and we’re running for our lives out of the hotel, I’m sending tweets about how we’re running for our lives out of the hotel. That’s reporting. And if you can get it out faster, great.
What are you working on now?
We’re doing a documentary about Muslims who are building a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee [to air March 27]. The title is Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door. The title comes from what happened to the members. They had a sign up about the mosque and someone spray-painted on it “Not Welcome.” I’m also working on a documentary about the royal wedding that will run in April and another Latino in America documentary that will run in September or October. We’re just starting one about miners in West Virginia. And then there’s a big documentary about education in America.
You and your husband have a foundation in that area?
It’s called the Soledad O’Brien and Brad Raymond Family Foundation. We’ve had it about a year, and now we’re hiring a director and will have a fundraiser March 31 in Donna Karan’s Urban Zen space in downtown Manhattan. We have about 10 kids we help and we’d like to make that many more. It started with a young woman named Nia Buckley, whom we met when I did Black in America. She’s a beautiful girl, and she had an 18-month-old son. She was 18, and I said to her, “You’re so smart, why are you not in college?” She said, “I have a kid. I don’t have anyone to watch him.” So after the documentary aired, I called her up and I said, “I’m going to make you a deal. I’m going to pay for your child’s day care if you go to school.” She’s now a junior at Fordham, and she’s doing great. Her son is 4. We see her all the time. Education is transforming her life. And we decided if we could contribute to helping young people transform their lives by getting them to college and through college, we would do that. All they need is a little bit of money and a little bit of a push.
Now what about the documentary?
We’re going to look at where the US stands in science and technology education. The news is bad, but we’re going to look at where we’re going and how we’re going to get to the place the president would like to see us get to. Is it possible, is it realistic, and who’s to blame? Is it the parents, is it the teachers, is it the culture, is it all of the above?
What do you see as the future for minorities and women in journalism?
The numbers are low for minorities. They have to get better. When it comes to women, look at the number of women in journalism school. The math alone will tell you that things will change. Not next year. But you can’t keep on pumping out graduates who are overwhelmingly female and not have a change. I’m always hopeful.
photo by Gary Lupton