Minneapolis is the focus of Soledad O’Brien’s next “Black in America” documentary series scheduled to debut in October.
“We are looking specifically at charter schools and public schools and how they educate black boys, especially boys in poverty. In a lot of ways I think Minneapolis is a tale of two cities,” O’Brien told me last week when she was here giving a keynote address at the inaugural North By Midwest Summit. The event was hosted by advertising company Olson. The founder of MTV, the founder and CEO of the Huffington Post, a BuzzFeed official and many other media players spoke at the daylong event.
Speaking in her capacity as the CEO of Starfish Media Group, the production company she founded after parting ways with CNN, O’Brien talked about her passion for doing stories of interest to her that matter; things that she would let her four children watch. She was very clear about how uninterested she is in the Kardashians and Jodi Arias.
She’s a colleague with whom I’ve become friendly, first via e-mail and more lately Twitter, for whom I have great admiration because of her accomplishments in front of the camera and her endeavors away, which include a foundation she and her husband started to help girls faced with obstacles to get beyond them. I like her because she is the same person on camera as off, as you’ll see in my startribune.com/video, in which she’s helping haul my camera equipment dressed in a sexy dress and heels.
Q What do you say to people who roll their eyes when they hear you are working for Al Jazeera America?
A The same thing I say to people who say HBO Sports? What do you know about sports? CNN? You’re working for CNN? People who think I am working exclusively for anybody don’t really understand the philosophy behind Starfish Media Group, my new company. The entire philosophy is to be able to take the things that I like doing, long-form pieces about people whose stories are undertold, digging into stories doing sort of aggressive interviews about issues that matter, and doing them across many platforms. We have CNN, HBO, Al Jazeera, National Geographic and a number of other partners we’re going to be announcing over the next couple of weeks. And they’re big. I think those are just people who don’t understand what I’m doing. I think there’s a new model of media, honestly. I feel like I’m a little bit at the cutting edge of that. We’re creating something very different as the model is changing very dramatically.
Q Why Starfish?
A There’s a myth that lots of evangelicals use. I heard the story when I was in Haiti doing a documentary, “Rescue,” about Haiti’s orphans. The earthquake had just happened; we were covering children dying. It was horrible, and Haiti was bad before the earthquake, but after it was horrific. I would say, “Why are you here? You have a passport?” The woman had 56 orphans in her care in a sea of 450,000 orphans and she said to me, “You know the starfish story. A boy is walking along the beach, tides gone out, all these starfish had been beached. So he starts picking up starfish and chucking them back in. A man comes up and says, ‘What are you doing? This beach goes on for miles. There are literally a million starfish on this beach. You’re wasting your time.’ And the kid picks up a starfish and says, ‘Well, I guess it matters to this one,’ and chucks it in.” It became a theme for our documentary about Haiti’s orphans. Her philosophy was, someone’s going to have to lead Haiti in a new era, and it could be one of her 56. For me it was: These stories do matter. You feel like you’re out slogging away at these stories that are untold. I don’t run into other [news] people doing those stories. [She laughs.] They are the stories about the American fabric. I thought it was a really good analogy for what I was trying to do. Starfish always regenerate. There’s not much you can do to kill that starfish.
Q What’s up with you and Jeff Zucker? You left him for CNN when you were co-anchoring on NBC, where you worked with the late David Bloom, the Edina native. Then Zucker comes to CNN and you exit.
A [Laughter] I like Jeff Zucker. Jeff Zucker is great, and I worked with him a long time ago at the “Today Show,” so it was never really about Jeff Zucker. People thought I was crazy to leave the “Today Show” and go to do work that was great journalism. Over the last 10 years I’ve been able to do that. I’ve never been afraid to jump at a new opportunity. If I could pick strengths of mine, I feel I am very flexible. When something changes, I am ready to change, unafraid to say, “I believe I do these things well. I’m going to go do them.”
Q Your CNN interview with John Edwards’ mistress and mother to one of his kids, Rielle Hunter, was one of my favorites. She was irksome because of questions she wouldn’t answer, and you kept calling her on the nonsense.
A She was a tough one to interview because when you invite someone to do an interview, they are in your space, they come to your living room, essentially, and you cannot bring a guest on and then insult them. I try to treat everyone with tremendous respect. At the same time, you cannot lie to my face and you cannot give these half-assed answers. My 12-year-old daughter was rolling her eyes, and she didn’t even know the story. At some point you’re insulting my intelligence and everyone else’s around the table in that case. I read her book. I’m never one of those “Tell me what your books about?” I’m “Listen, let’s talk about chapter 5, paragraph 6.” You better know what you’re talking about; you better understand that I’m going to call you on the things I think are a little shaky. It’s hard to argue I want to be left alone by the press while I’m writing a tell-all book about my love affair.
Q When you were in the field covering the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary, you remarked on air that you’d called home to check on your kids, and one of your daughters asked, “How are you doing?” That was so moving, and I wondered what you’ve done right to raise a kid who is so aware.
A I hated that. I think it’s unnerving for a child to see their mom clearly about to lose it. I think that scares kids. They’re like, “My mom is this,” and they can see when you’re starting to fall apart a little bit. “It must be bad if Mom looks like she’s about to cry. Mom does not cry on TV very much.” I was crying through a lot of the interviews. My daughter is a 12-year-old girl, at that time 11. Those are the most emotional [times for kids]. They are very sensitive, which makes them fabulous and challenging, in the same breath often. I take my two daughters with me to Haiti every year. We volunteer at the same orphanage where we did our story. They are very aware of what’s going on in the world; we’ve kind of made them that way.
Q MSNBC’s Al Sharpton is the only person of color on cable in prime time. Why does there continue to be a lack of anchoring diversity in this time block?
A The numbers are the same from when I started in 1987 to today. I think, No. 1, people will change what they want to change. It’s like dating: He’s just not that into you. No matter how you want to spin it and chop it up, if diversity were a priority, we would see change. It clearly is not a priority. No. 2, I think you’re seeing a lot of other outlets. I feel like the model I’m trying to create now [working from a variety of platforms, means] you don’t have to play the game of “Oh boy, I hope someday someone taps me for that 7 o’clock slot.” I’m not playing the game. I don’t have to, I don’t want to. I want to take the things I do well and the things I’m not interested in — the Jodi Arias trial would be a great example — and not do it. I don’t want my kids to watch that. I want to do the stories I care about, and that to me is more important than saying, “So, do we have a black female in prime time, check.” That’s just not that interesting to me.
Q You and Roland Martin had great chemistry on your CNN morning show. Were I a network executive I would trot out a nightly show called “So&Ro.” You game?
A [Extended laughter] And this is why you are not a network executive, my love. “So & Ro”? There are so many other things they could do with that. I’m going to e-mail Roland and tell him that. One of the things I really like about working with Roland is, he always brings his A game. Very knowledgeable, always on top of the issues, has great background in covering news as a manager, reporter, commentator. He’s great. I know Roland and I are going to work together. We talk all the time. I like that you put me first.
Q You are still getting up real early, based on your Twitter activity. How many hours of sleep do you require?
A You know, I don’t require a lot, but I love to sleep. I just have a lot to do. If I get up at 5, 5:30, that is three hours later than I used to, so I’m doing really well. I was going to bed at 10 and getting up at 2. Not getting up those ridiculous hours has been very, very nice.
Q You and your husband, Bradford, have four kids. What would the kids say is the best dish mommy makes?
A Mommy cooks almost nothing at all. I’m more of a microwaver and a takeout person. They would probably say the only dish that Mommy makes is a very good lasagna with spicy sausage. I also make an excellent beef stew, but I’m one of six, so my mother only made food in massive pots. I only know how to cook giant portions.
Q Could you get Bradford on speaker phone so I could ask him what he thinks about all these men furiously flirting with you on Twitter?
A First off, he’s not on Twitter. He technically has joined Twitter, but he has no interest. He thinks it’s bizarre. He totally knows. I would say [serious but excited, breathless schoolgirl voice], “Maxwell tweeted me, oh my God!” He’s like “Great.” He likes Maxwell [the singer]. One thing that is really great about being married to someone you went to college with — we know each other so well; we are best friends. We know each other from when he was trying to live on $1 a day eating spaghetti; he lived in California because he was trying to build a business. He’s more perplexed by why someone would tweet what they had for breakfast. I think he’s much more concerned about that than the random people who tweet me.
C.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count. Attachments are not opened.