Soledad O’Brien on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

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Soledad O’Brien.Photo: Stephen Lovekin/2015 Getty Images

We’ve had this sudden shift in how society functions at a fundamental level.
I remember when I was a PA being invited to sit in on the morning news meeting. I finished running scripts, and when I walk in one of the producers said, “Oh, I bet you’re running on CP Time.” And I’m like, no, motherfucker, I just finished with a show!

A white person said that to you?
Of course! I was so mad for so many years. And I never saw him again. So whenever I give this speech to people, I always tell them I have to really not hold a grudge, because it took me many years to get over it. I was angry for so long! He said it, by the way, to the meeting.

You have to be pretty tone-deaf to say something so overtly racist.
I don’t even consider it overt racism. I think that’s just stupidity and arrogance and he was trying to be funny. You know, I think if you actually sat down and had a beer with that guy — again, I haven’t seen him since 1989 — I think you would not come away saying, “My God, that guy is a crazy racist.”

You’re vocal on Twitter about racial issues. Recently you tweeted the story of how a boss of yours once told you to stop talking about how black families teach their sons to act about the police. You said he told you: “That story is not true. That white parents tell their sons the same thing. To be respectful to the police.”
The irony — that guy who said that to me, he was the guy who came up with the idea for Black in America. The documentary series that went on for nine years! He wasn’t saying, “I’m trying to squelch your voice.” He was saying, “I think you’re wrong. That’s not been my experience.” I don’t think it was a directive from above not to speak the truth. I think he genuinely thought, No, I think you’re wrong, you shouldn’t say that, that’s wrong. People are blind to their own biases. 

I think there’s something even more subtle than bias, which is just not understanding someone’s experience — assuming that, well, we live in America, we’ve got a black president, I see Beyoncé on TV, I see black people all the time in a certain context, therefore I understand what the black experience is. Why is it important that there be more than 13 percent minorities in the newsroom? What are we missing, specifically, what is the media not reporting, what is not being part of the narrative, because those people aren’t in the newsroom, their voices are underrepresented in the media?
Listen, I think it’s access to interesting stories and perspective. I’ll give you another example. I did a story about kids and race. I think I won an Emmy for it. And so we were asking kids, probably around 8, 9 years old, about race as part of a sociological study that we were shooting. And at some point we interviewed a little black boy, and we liked some of his answers, so we went and booked his mom to come on — the parents would do the panel afterward. And a producer came running into my office and said, “Oh my God, that kid said he was black, but his mom is white!” Now, they’re talking to me — my dad is black and my mom is white. And they’re full-on panicked. I get it, because, remember, from the producer’s perspective, you set up a shot — you’re going to have this kid here, and the mom here, and we want to have the black dad next to this person, we’ve got to make sure that it looks, you know, like we’re trying to make sure that we’re capturing all the voices. But literally, you could tell from the conversation, it never occurred to him that a brown kid could have a white mom and be considered a black kid. You understand how terrifying that is for me in some of these situations, where you’re like, “Wow, and you’re the person who’s been handed the reins …” That’s a little dramatic; there were a handful of producers. But here’s someone who clearly doesn’t really understand the conversation that’s happening, and they’re going to pick the stories, they’re going to shape the narrative, they’re going to do all this stuff. My producer Rose is sitting across from me. She and I worked at CNN together for many years; we did a doc called Latino in America. And the very first screening of that doc, we got people in a room around a big table, and they spelled out what this doc would be about. I was the only Latino in the room. And they listed: Here are the stories we’re going to do in this doc. And I was like, “Actually, no. It doesn’t work like that. That’s not how I do docs.” They kept saying, “And then we’re going to talk about how ‘they’ do this, and then we’re going to talk about how ‘they’ do that.” And I’m like, “It’s not ‘they.’ It’s ‘me!’ ” One of the very first weeks of doing that doc, we had a big debate over whether Puerto Ricans were considered to be Latinos in America or were they considered foreigners. That matters, because when you’re doing the count, if we say there are 51 million Latinos in America, whether you’re counting Puerto Ricans or not would shift your numbers. We had a massive debate about that. Rose was added to the team after I complained, after the first day. And by then I had a fair amount of power, so I could sort of be like, “Nope, not doing it this way.” She came on. The two of us were the Latinas on the team. And there was a debate that lasted roughly a week about whether Puerto Ricans counted as American Latinos. While that was funny — I literally use that story as a punch line in speeches that I give — the more terrifying thing that Rose and I would talk about over drinks was: And these are the people who are picking stories. I’m the talent, I’m going to be the one doing the reporting; Rose is one of the producers, she’ll be assigned the topic, and she’ll go and produce it. Right? But your team that’s coming up with the overriding idea just clearly shows you that they don’t even understand the nuance in the conversation. That doesn’t mean they’re not great reporters, that doesn’t mean they’re not good producers. I think we do that a lot around race. [It’s something] — I could be wrong about this — we wouldn’t do around other topics. I would never say, “Listen, I’m pretty good at math, I think I get economics, here’s my theory.” You’d be like, “That is great, however, there’s an actual economist we could be talking to.” But I have to tell you, I think that’s a big shift. When I started producing, you started reporting from a position of, "I don’t know." You would love someone who said, "You know the untold story here?" That’s a been a big shift. Now, it’s "We’re doing a story on deadbeat dads, so here’s what I need you to say. Are you going to say this? If you’re not going to say this, then I’m going to move on and find someone else who will say this."

Maybe we could talk about stories or areas of coverage that aren’t being told, that the producers just aren’t aware of it.
The last Black in America I did, which was a year ago, was looking at policing. And what I thought was great about that doc was we took a look at two young men who were activists. One guy had been caught up in police beating, which they caught on tape; he was more like a slam poet, he was a slash-activist — I wouldn’t really call him an activist. The second kid had kind of grown into an activist because he kept getting stopped on his way to school, and he asked — really did a great interview — he said, “You know what it’s like to be stopped, pushed up against a wall, and your professors are walking by? And they’re going through your backpack and your classmates are walking by? You know how humiliating that is?” A really interesting perspective. And we had two black cops, one whose job was to tour me around, and his attitude was like, “Listen, criminals are criminals.” The other guy, really young, his dad had been a police officer, very idealistic, and he goes, “Listen, sometimes I’m stopped, and I answer the questions, and I haven’t done anything so I’m happy to help out. Police are human and sometimes they stop me and I just answer questions and I move on.” It was a very nuanced and complicated look. I think what you miss is the complication. This shit is very complicated. It’s really nuanced, right? What if you’re a black kid going to school and being frisked in front of your professors, what does that do to somebody? It’s not just, “Well, he didn’t have anything on him, so we let him go.” That’s not enough of an answer.

Let’s talk about this idea that there are narratives or simple building blocks of understanding that people have. In the Reagan era, the Soviet Union was this monolithic death machine. And people see everything through that lens. And anything that doesn’t fit through that lens just doesn’t get reported, doesn’t get talked about. 
I think that’s true. The first thing I tweeted was about every executive’s limited experience about Oakland. Most never spend any time in Oakland. The narrative in their head is that Oakland is scary and dangerous and awful and that if you made it out alive, you will survive, even if you were literally just a backup on the bridge. And so how do you not believe that’s going to impact the narrative that you’re going to craft when you sit in the morning meeting and dictate what’s going to be on the news that day? As an anchor, I’m not involved in the front part of that. The way it works is that there’s a group of people who decide what the assignment desk is going to cover that day. What is the narrative we’re crafting today? Are protesters good or bad? Is the president good or bad? Is this impending storm big or little? Is the government screwing up or are they amazing? Do we love this or do we hate this? That’s really what happens. And sometimes it’s both, we want to get both sides of it. And every so often they’d nod and do the counter-narrative story, right? “Oh, foster mom takes in 19 kids, she’s amazing.” But for the most part, and I bet you could actually do the math on it, you first stick to the overriding narrative being X, and then you do the exception to the narrative every so often. The idea that somehow you’re not a victim of your own narrative, and that doesn’t play a role in the stories that you cover, is silly.

In a nutshell, what is the narrative of black Americans that white assigning editors have?
Listen, I’ve seen this forever. I remember my very first job in Boston, we had to run out and find somebody, we’re doing something on somebody who’s on welfare. You’re going to be in the inner city somewhere, you’re not going to go out to Appalachia, you’re not going to go find the actual face of a person who’s on food stamps. It’s a white person. Because something like 40-some-odd percent of people on food stamps are white. The percentage is something like 25 percent for blacks. So if you were actually going to try to match the actual math and statistics, you could look them up pretty easily and say, “Gosh, the face of a person on food stamps is a white woman living in rural America with a job, usually, it’s somebody who’s working, and [has] a couple of kids.” But what we do is we run out and we find that thing that we believe in our heads to be true. That is why most of the time, when local media does something on someone on food stamps, it’s a black woman, and she’s got a bunch of kids, and she’s obese. That is not accidental. You’re just living out your own stereotypes. This is the bias that reporters bring to their job. For example, immigration now has reversed. There are more people leaving than are coming in.

This is a great example of a story that is not getting told because it doesn’t fit into the narrative that people have of “We’re besieged by brown people.” 
Right. The data points now show that that number is actually reversed. There are more people who are leaving than who are jumping over a border fence. [The number of illegal immigrants has] declined each year since 2008. It’s at its lowest level since 2003.

I think a lot of the narrative around race is about sports or about crime. You would think that there are literally zero middle-class black people. So for the first time since the 1940s, Mexican migrants have been leaving the U.S. at a greater rate than they’ve been arriving. Pugh says this. When you do a documentary, you find little interesting nuggets and you build a documentary out of these nuggets. But I think the news does this less often, and so they like to stick to the narrative.

What happens also is that the people who are minorities in the newsroom become a pain in the ass. Because you start having to go to people who are often your bosses, saying, “Listen, so I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, and I just thought I wanted to point out that we’re calling these people ‘illegal immigrants,’ but they haven’t been charged with a crime, and while I see them on this side of the fence and not that side, and they do certainly look Mexican, we don’t really know, because we haven’t interviewed them, which we really should be doing, and I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes, but I just want to point out that we’re calling them ‘illegal’ and we’re putting their faces on TV. If they were white people in America we probably wouldn’t do that so quickly.’ ” So you wind up couching everything, you’re very careful, you figure out when to keep your mouth shut, you figure out if you have enough power to push a little bit. But it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting. And guess what? No matter what, you are perceived to be a pain in the ass.

It’s interesting how strongly people resist the idea that narratives they’ve accepted are wrong. Can you think of an example that would be an equivalent in terms of African-American stories?
“There are more black people in prison than in college.” That statistic is just not true. It’s just factually not true. And listen, there are a huge number of Americans in prison. A large percentage of them are people of color. But the phrase that there are more black people in prison than in college is just not true. So in 2007, 28 percent of African-Americans had a two-year college degree. Now that number is 33 percent. You’ve seen, actually, a decent climb in college degrees. That story no one is doing. But there is a better number — from 1993 to 2013, the number of Latinos entering college rose by 201 percent. For blacks, it rose 78 percent. For whites, it’s 14 percent. Okay, there’s an interesting story!

This ties back to where we started, with the story about black families teaching their sons about the police. Could you tell me that story again?
I was at TCA, Black in America was launching, 2008. Basically you sit on a panel and there’s a little presentation and then the TV critics are able to ask you questions. So the typical questions are “How do you find the people who are in your docs?” and “When did you start shooting it?” At the time, of course, Obama was running for the presidency, but when we had started he wasn’t. So it was actually excellent timing for us. Happenstance. So we talked about that. And then they said, “What was your big takeaway?” Which is always a reporter question to a reporter. And I said, “The thing that I thought was interesting was about policing.” This idea — and we had interviewed D. L. Hughley in this — that every single person, regardless of their socioeconomic status, had almost a verbatim conversation with their son at the age of 12 or 13, which was, “If you are stopped by the cops, you should keep your mouth shut, don’t say anything, put your hands where they can see them, don’t make any sudden movements, don’t reach for your cell phone so that you can call, do nothing.” And the whole point was: I want you to survive this encounter. And so that was my takeaway. Afterward, I stepped off, and a bunch of executives, this was a big deal, had come to TCA, and one said, “White people tell their kids that, too.” And I said, “Well, not really.” Listen, I grew up in an all-white community in the North Shore of Long Island, pretty interesting experience about that. I said, “Not really, I think the difference is that white people tell their kids to respect police. But this is different, this is about how to survive the interaction. I feel very confident in saying that most white people are not teaching their children how to survive an interaction with a cop. They might be telling them, ‘Don’t be a jerk, keep your mouth shut and behave.’ ” And he said, “No, that’s just not true. You shouldn’t tell that story.” And so I didn’t tell that story anymore. And, by the way, keeping my mouth shut, I got to go on and do seven more Black in America documentaries. So, listen, I think that was certainly typical of my experience as a reporter, which is: You figure out which battles you’re going to fight, and you keep your mouth shut for some of the other battles. I would argue that’s typical for a black person in any kind of corporate environment. If you walk around and argue everything, you’re never going to move forward.

At the core of Black Lives Matter is a complaint: To say “Black lives matter” is to say, “Hey, here’s something incredibly obvious.” Every black person knows and has known for generations that this reality exists. And white people don’t. 
We did a Black in America tour; it’s almost embarrassing to have to say “Black lives matter.” It’s a sad thing for the state of America that you have to actually say out loud “Black lives matter.” Because people are somewhat unclear. The idea that when someone rejoins with “Well, all lives matter” …

All lives matter” is kind of the equivalent of what your boss was saying to you.
I see it as a sense of, “I have my perspective. And even though your perspective is based on two years of reporting, my perspective and what makes me comfortable is this.” And so I think it goes back to exactly what you’re saying, which is that people feel very uncomfortable when they’re peeling off of their narrative. It’s their unconscious bias. It is what they truly believe in their core and their heart. And so it’s a thing that affects everything. Your problem becomes when your narrative affects how you hire. Of course it does, because it’s your truth. You have to spend your life fighting against the narrative.

Just because you’re a black person in the newsroom doesn’t mean you want to single-handedly wage battle against white America’s preconceptions. So just hiring black people in itself isn’t even enough. There’s only so far you can push without risking your job.
And it’s also exhausting. By the way, you take your career in your hands every time you do it. I get it. I really understand why people don’t want to fight the narrative. Your career will end. I am telling you. You become a pain in the ass. Because you’re the one who says, “So, I just want to say …” And listen, I believe this happens in corporate America all the time. I’m sure there are a million executives who will tell you, right, you suck it up, and you suck it up, and then one day see something, and you’re like, “Okay, I’ve got to say something now,” and then you couch it very carefully. “So, I’m not criticizing anybody, and I’m sure this is just completely an oversight, I just might want to go back and maybe …” That’s what it’s about, and it’s exhausting to operate like that. And listen, the more that you have power — certainly I did when I was anchoring a show — you can say, “No, I’m not doing that. I’m not reading this.” But most people don’t have that opportunity. And even I don’t have that opportunity to a certain degree. I can do it to a certain level, but I certainly can’t do it all the time. You’re just always very careful. A person who pushes back against the narrative is a pain. That person is annoying. That person slows down the meeting. Even bosses who say, “I really want to make sure that there’s someone who’s comfortable telling me ‘No,’ ” they’re usually not. They usually do not like that person. Nobody likes that person. That person is a pain, I am telling you. So if you do that, you absolutely take your life and your career in your hands.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know