SOLEDAD O’BRIEN on TV in the Age of Trump and Matt Lauer

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 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 in 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 are telling 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 most 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 some crazy-ass thing the President of the United States has just tweeted.

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award; ex-publisher Forbes

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