Soledad O’Brien is a three-time Emmy award-winning TV news anchor who has traveled through opioid dens in San Francisco to the hurricane-ravaged streets of New Orleans. I had the chance to talk to O’Brien recently for my interview series on IconicVoices.tv about television business and reporting in the age of Trump and Twitter, the #MeToo movement, and her former co-anchor, Matt Lauer.
When you first got into the TV business, you were asked to change your name?
Soledad O’Brien: When I started on television, somebody asked, “Would you be willing to change your name? Soledad will be too hard to pronounce.” My full name is Maria de la Soledad Theresa Marquette O’Brien, which is the Blessed Virgin Mary. I thought changing the Virgin Mary’s name was bad karma.
Did you drop out of Harvard to take that job?
Soledad O’Brien: I was a pre-med major, but I wasn’t convinced I wanted to go to medical school. My sister and I had taken some classes together, and she went on to be a surgeon. My medical background was helpful because HIV/AIDS was a huge story and required a solid foundation in science and medicine.
How has the news business changed since you began reporting?
Soledad O’Brien: The way news organizations tell stories is a faster news cycle for a much shorter attention span. News programs are not saying to themselves: “So we’re covering this story and we thought we’d sit down and tell you why and how did we think about framing it? There are five different ways to look at it. We decided to do this, and here’s why.”
No one ever does that, ever.
We don’t explain the stories. We jump in. We try to keep the sound bites no more than eight seconds because we’re going to lose the audience and then move off. Then move on, “we won’t be revisiting this important story anytime soon.”
Your former colleague, Matt Lauer, has been a target of the #MeToo movement. Why have television celebrities played such a significant role?
Soledad O’Brien: I worked with Matt. He was on the Today Show, and I was on the Weekend Today Show. Nobody was more surprised than me. When you’re talking about people on TV, they’re more famous, but I guarantee you it happens in law firms, and we know it happens in hospitals and banks. I’ve interviewed maids in hotels who talk about being sexually harassed by the people in the hotel and told me the awful stories.
Do you have a recommendation for how to deal with this issue in the business world?
Soledad O’Brien: We need to figure out how we treat women in the workplace. Full stop. The stories are everywhere. I’m hopeful that the #Metoo movement has made people recognize your bottom line is at risk if you do not ferret out these problems. It’s no longer laugh and, “Well, that’s so-and-so, and it doesn’t matter.” That will come back and bite you.
What is it like to be a reporter in the age of Trump and Twitter?
Soledad O’Brien: The President has a big audience, and the way to handle him is not to chase the President’s tweets. A lot of media hasn’t figured that out.
One of the nice things is that we’re a pre-taped show. We never have to say, “Good morning, the President has just tweeted.” Ever. Thank God. Because we’re not going to be dragged off because of some crazy-ass thing the President of the United States has just tweeted.
Mike Wallace is calling
In the deep recesses of my memory is a ‘mind chalet’ with different rooms for different purposes. The one I occasionally visit, like going to church on holidays, is where I keep the significant things that somehow got lost in the shuffle.
One of the big moments in that storehouse of lost dreams was a collaboration with 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace.
I first met Wallace at an award dinner I threw for Morley Safer, his 60 Minutes co-host.
Morley Safer, a correspondent for 60 Minutes
Wallace was the emcee, and he gave what you would expect, a sharp, funny, warm, and sentimental hug of an introduction with a few jabs to Safer’s ribs. He started by observing Safer liked to think of himself as ‘everyman’ but with a wink, he added, it took a great leap of faith to drive around New York in a Rolls Royce and wear Turnbull and Asser ties and still see yourself as an ordinary guy. At the end of the evening, Safer had a few more laugh lines, and over drinks, we agreed he was lucky to have such a lousy friend as Wallace.
Then Mike asked me about my work at Forbes, and I talked about his work at 60 Minutes and how we were doing similar investigative journalism stories. He said, “Jeff, why don’t we do something together, you publish it and we film it?” He said when he returned from some travel. He’d like me to come over to CBS.
Most of us don’t think about celebrities on TV having real offices. We think they work in a studio where staplers and water jugs get filled magically.
That is how I found myself waiting for Wallace to bring me back to his office overlooking the Hudson River off 9th avenue.
Wallace greeted me in the waiting room without a jacket, in an open-collared shirt. He held court in a midsized room you might expect of a vice president at an office supply company. Most of the big shots he took down on 60 Minutes would be shocked to see how vulnerable he seemed behind a simple desk placed across from the window with two visitor chairs in front. This was the man about whom it was said, “the most fear-inspiring four words in journalism are ‘Mike Wallace is calling.’”
Then Morley Safer and Don Hewitt, the famed producer of 60 Minutes, poked their heads in, asking us if we wanted coffee. Morley looked at me and said, “just because you gave me an award doesn’t mean I get you coffee, but I’ll make an exception.” I thought, who is going to believe that Morley Safer fetched me a cup of java?
Safer brought back coffee mugs and sat down on Wallace’s credenza. The two looked like hard-working, shirtsleeves journalists, except for a few extra zeros next to their salaries. Finally, we got around to our collaboration and came up with a plan that was as pristine as it was daring. Forbes would write a story and get it to 60 Minutes the week before it came out to air on Sunday, and we would publish the following Monday. It had never been tried on TV or in publishing. Much could go wrong, but a lot could go very right.
I brought the deal back to Forbes Magazine, where my editor was as lukewarm as if I suggested publishing on cheesecloth instead of glossy paper. In the magazine world, a publisher and editor collaborate. They don’t tell each other what to do, a very healthy way to run a business. I even took him to meet Wallace to see if the charm would rub off and help to broker the deal, but no dice. The editor felt it could backfire, given 60 Minutes’ reputation for savagery. Some deals aren’t destined to happen, no matter how good they seem. In the end, I think I judged it right, but we will never know, and Wallace and Safer are gone now.
@David Wetherell, founder of CMGI and a brilliant boss, once told me, “time kills deals.” I didn’t close this deal and all the solid reasons in the world won’t change that fact.
The next time I get an idea this good, I’ll make sure to park it in the waiting room of the mind chalet.