When Failure is Not an Option
Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.
Soledad O’Brien: Journalism’s ‘Tough Love’ Critic
“I just think somebody has to be able to call out when the media is failing… We're not going in with a scalpel and doing brain surgery. We're just trying to bring information to people. So I say it really loving news and loving journalism and loving storytelling, but there's just a lot of crap out there.” - Soledad O’Brien
Award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien talks about the current news landscape, what success means in journalism, and her flexibility and optimism in seizing new opportunities.
Soledad is the CEO of Starfish Media Group and host of Matter of Fact, airing Sundays on the Hearst network. You can learn more about her work at soledadobrienproductions.com and follow her on Twitter at @SoledadOBrien.
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Soledad O’Brien: I just think somebody has to be able to call out when the media is failing. We're not going in with a scalpel and doing brain surgery. We're just trying to bring information to people. So I say it really loving news and loving journalism and loving storytelling, but there's just a lot of crap out there.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
Today I sat down with Soledad O’Brien, award-winning journalist, CEO of Starfish Media Group, and the host of Hearst Media’s Matter of Fact. Here at Burn the Boats, we’ve shifted entirely to remote interviews due to the COVID-19 crisis, so Soledad joined me over the phone from her home.
Soledad O'Brien is an award-winning journalist, the host of Matter of Fact on the Hearst Network, an incisive critic of the establishment media, I'm putting that in air quotes. And long with her five siblings, a graduate of Harvard University, which she initially dropped out of, as I understand it, to begin interning at a local TV station. And I got to add this little bit of trivia that I gleaned from the internet, in the O'Brien family growing up, Yale was your backup school. I won't take that personally, but welcome to Burn the Boats, Soledad. It's great to have you.
SO: Thank you so much. Everyone who goes to Harvard says that, so it doesn't necessarily have to be true. It's just what is said.
KH: I know. Well, I would love to hear about your path from really a scion of the media establishment to now one of its most vocal critics. How did that happen? And why do you think it is so important as someone who held such a rarefied position in that club to be one of its fiercest critics now?
SO: It's interesting. I don't think what I'm doing now is any different. I don't feel like, hey, I was doing this and then now I've become a critic. I think even when I worked for major organizations, I was inside saying, "Hey, I think the coverage should be this." In an organization, it feels like you're slamming your head against a wall, it feels like you're arguing for coverage or you're trying to get a series done or a show done or get a point of view across, or you're begging someone, "Put me on a plane so I can go cover the Haiti earthquake," or whatever it is. I think it's all been part of the same exact path, which is, I love journalism and I love news, and I work for Hearst and I produce content for HBO. So I work with a lot of big giant media companies. I just think somebody has to be able to call out when the media is failing. I think when you work for yourself, technically I run a production company, you're in a position to be able to say this thing is not okay. It's sometimes very disappointing. I actually think often people in local news do a very good job working in their own backyards, trying to serve their populations. Then you get to cable news, sometimes the network news, and it feels like they lost the plot of what the job is. I think the job is serving the people who are your viewers and how do you think about serving them with accurate information? We're not going in with a scalpel and doing brain surgery. We're just trying to bring information to people. I say it really loving news and loving journalism and loving storytelling, but there's just a lot of crap out there.
KH: Often when you do call that out, when you take your shots, I get the sense and sometimes you're overt about it, that you are attacking the lack of journalistic ethics in the organizations or the individuals you are going after. While I certainly think that's part of it, I'm wondering if there's not something more structural at work, which is just the misalignment of incentives. You talk about local journalists and their commitment to service. On those larger stages, CNN, etc. it just seems like it's become more show business than journalism, more performance than service. Is that fair?
SO: I think it's often performance, and I don't know that I ever attack people's ethics. I'd say you have to understand the business model at hand to understand why people do what they do. It's frustrating, I think, in any organization to see hypocrisy, which is on one hand saying, “You know what? The truth is important to us”. Then on the other hand, seeing people who don't really have a regard for elevating truth in the most basic of ways. So I think I'm more motivated by just saying like, let's point out the hypocrisy, that feeling that you're having in the pit of your stomach, that's a feeling when someone is being completely hypocritical about a scenario. I think that that's happening a lot because there is this business model that's not just an entertainment model. It's a model that says you have to keep the narrative going. So, you can both claim journalism is very important and we're all about educating people with the truth, but also, we should cover a presser live when we know it's full of mistruths. You have to figure out how do you juggle those things together. Brian Stelter, who's a media correspondent, he said something like “Donald Trump is a great storyteller”. Well, he really isn't, he really objectively is not. There's no one who says, you know what? You listen to him on the stage or on that podium talking about what's happening in this crisis and you're riveted because he's an amazing storyteller.
The president is not. But for some reason, cable needs to describe him as this major storyteller. Again, this is the guy who's the media critic. It's a weird thing for him to say that's so bizarrely off. I often try to say like, “that's just wrong”. That is just inaccurate, incorrect for a person whose job is to actually be assessing the quality of the work of his own organization, which he rarely does. I get it. You want to keep work coming. You want to get paid. I totally understand. I don't even fault you for that. I just wish that it wasn't presented as we're trying to do something objectively when frequently I think the quality is not there.
KH: But the flaws in the business model go much deeper than the inertia of needing to carry forth a continuous narrative. Doesn't your critique also implicate the importance of ownership? I don't mean corporate ownership, I mean ownership of the story you are crafting, of the product you are providing. You frame that in the context of local news as serving the community. But in a lot of the critiques you offer, I read this subtext of a lack of ownership and pride, I think, in the product. This idea that you're really just phoning in it.
SO: No, I disagree. I think actually, most journalists are very hardworking. I think it's more of what you're judging quality on is not what they're being judged on. How many clicks did it get? How many views did it get? It's always a crazy thing when you do a show and it's an amazing show that doesn't rate well, and you're like, "Wow, that was an amazing show. It was beautiful. It was emotional." Everyone's like, "Meh". Then sometimes you do something that you're like, "We slammed that together, oh my God, I can't believe it got on the air," and it rates huge. I think it's a little bit of that. What people are being judged on is not, is the entertainment element of it. Was it good TV? That well predates Donald Trump's presidency. Was it good TV? If someone rips off their mic and storms out of the interview, on one hand you could judge that as a fail. Like, "Wow, we got no information from this guy. We talked for two minutes and then he got pissed off and ripped off his mic."
Or you could say, "Are you kidding me?" From an entertainment perspective, that was a home run. You see, it's like, how are you being judged? I think today, certainly TV news is being judged on this entertainment scale. Did something go viral? Did it get clicks? Did it become part of a conversation, versus did it give people factual information? Because if you were judging on that, it'd be very clear. This is obviously accurate and true, we should elevate it. This not, it's a mess. We should not elevate it, or we should pick through it and pick out the true things and elevate those things. I think it's been a real problem for reporters. One, they have a lot of time to fill. There's less reporting and more punditry around the clock. But also, this idea of like, what are you being judged on really? You're really being judged on did your article, conversation, whatever, go viral? That's a different kind of value.
KH: When you talk about the business model as having failed, it's really about the incentive structure isn't there to reward truth telling as much as some performance that gets you those clicks.
SO: It's not truth telling, it's just straightforward information versus something that has a dramatic clicky headline. If I did a headline that said, "Oh my God, Naked Pictures of Whatever," I'm sure that that would get a lot more clicks than if I said something that's a little more straightforward. People have realized if you shape it in a certain way, then you get more traction. Again, you're being judged on the traction, you're being judged on what's the talker. For a long time and for as long as I've worked in TV news, people have tried to figure out how do we capture what the talker is, what's that story that's going to, not just the meat and potatoes of what you need to know, but what's the thing that's going to get us the buzz that gets people to come back?
That's - I think lot of reality TV is that, right? People quickly learned that if you were the person who'd rip the weave out of someone's head or get drunk and throw a glass of wine on someone's face, literally you get paid more because people understand that there's an over the top narrative. The reason more people do more crazy stuff is that they recognize that there's a value versus the person who is there straightforwardly trying to play their role. They will not do well. They will not come back for season two. There is some of that I think in the media coverage, which is the people ... What Brian was tweeting about the president being a good story, he really meant, when you're bombastic and you're over the top, there's something that's riveting about that. That's not good storytelling.
But there's something that is riveting about the school bully taking out somebody, and there's something that's riveting about a car crash that's just a mess in front of you and you don't know what's going to happen. That's what he's talking about. That's not good storytelling. That is what everybody often wants to see when the president does something, it's like, what's going to happen next?
KH: Is impartiality passe? It used to be something you prided yourself on, at least you offered a vigorous defense when you were accused of being partial, but I'd submit that the landscape might've changed so much that the pretense of impartiality is itself now a conceit. It's impossible to maintain.
SO: I think it was always a conceit. I'm less interested in people who are impartial than having people who are experts having something to talk about. Understanding their point of view. I'm much more interested in someone saying, "You want me to tell you about food stamps? I grew up on food stamps. Let me tell you what it's like, and here's my reporting on it that's heavily fact based, but also, here's my point of view because I was a kid who was on food stamps." It gives you insight into what they're telling you. I don't feel necessarily like, oh, this information is wrong because this person has a personal connection to it. What used to happen is people just wouldn't talk about it. They would just pretend as if they had no position. I think we all know that rarely do people have no position on something. If I said, "Hey, we could get either have steak or we could have chili tonight." You'd have an opinion on it. If I made you go and write an article on either of those things, you'd have some kind of an opinion and no one would hold it against you. But we would want to understand where you're coming from. You would want to say, "Hey, this is my point of view on this. Now I'm going to tell you what I'm doing." My point of view was always, on this story, it's not about me. No one should care what my opinion is. I spent a lot of time as a local reporter in San Francisco and I used to take BART, the public transportation back and forth a lot. I have a very good working knowledge about BART, but also, I might like BART or I might hate BART. It's irrelevant for my story. However, I do know enough to add value to people. If I were to say to you, I have no opinion on BART, that would not be accurate. I do have an opinion. I think it's irrelevant for this, so I don't have to share it, but I think that's more of the correct analogy. People had opinions. They just didn't think it had a place in what they were talking about.
KH: But the failure to acknowledge the inherent bias in just what stories you choose to cover, it might not just be whether or not you have a strong opinion about the stories you are covering. The very nature of 24 hours in a day and only so much that you can give your attention to forces you to be biased, if not your reporting, in what you choose to report on and I think we forget that.
SO: Completely. Oh yeah, there's a bias in whose voices you include in a conversation and who you don't. My last pitch when I was at CNN, so that was in 2013, was to propose doing a doc series called Poverty in America. I remember my boss at the time said to me, "Ugh, who wants to see that?" I remember thinking like, wow, his take on what poverty is, is very different than what mine is. A lot of the work that I had been doing made it really clear that very "regular looking people" were living paycheck to paycheck, that there were lots of people who had perfectly solid jobs. They went into a job every day and they weren't picking fruit or vegetables in the field, like they were going into sometimes the halls of Congress to work somewhere.
They were in poverty and they were living, in some cases, in their cars. Poverty didn't have this face of a hobo with a stick riding the rails. He was the guy who made the decision about coverage. He had a bias. He certainly wouldn't have said, "I am biased against poor people," but he had a sense of what was worthy of being on TV and what was not and he was in charge of it. I think he would have said, "I don't think poor people are interesting." Since he deemed it unworthy, it would not get coverage. I think you're right. I think there's a ton of bias around what people feel is worth covering and also how you even cover a story.
KH: Well, you are now in a position as the founder and CEO of a media company to pick and choose, to elevate stories, or I'm sure more often than not, you have to decide not to cover something. How does that experience, having worked your way up from intern all the way to CEO inform your decisions about the voices you choose to include?
SO: Yeah. Listen, I think the onus is on me if I'm picking a story. I think that the landscape has gotten much easier now. I think a lot of people are looking for stories that are different, that come from a different point of view because they've seen tremendous success. I think the onus is on me to make it interesting. I remember people used to say, political stories are boring. I'm like, they're really not. Politics underlies everything. You've got a pothole in your street and it's driving you freaking insane, guess what? There's some political story behind that thing being filled, not being filled, the argument around it being filled. If we can't make politics interesting to people, we have failed. It's not that politics is uninteresting, it's that we have failed to tell a good story to make people understand how relevant it is.
We get a lot of stories that come our way. We pick and choose the ones we're interested in. Some are better written stories than visual stories. There's obviously lots of things that you have to say, yeah, this won't work, this won't work, this won't work, or I can't find funding for it. But sometimes you have to just say, this is going to be really good. I'll give you a good example. I was shooting a documentary about homeless people in Seattle, about public health, when coronavirus broke out. Suddenly, my documentary of public health in Seattle, around homeless people became coronavirus documentary in Seattle. It's something very interesting right now about public health. I think the onus is on the reporters to say, "I have a good story," because it's not a lecture on public health, it’s people's lives being opened up, they're willing to share. That's my job, right? Get them to say, "I'm going to tell you my story and it's a really good story." I don't think that there are some things that are just irrelevant and that shouldn't be on. You just haven't figured out how to tell them well.
KH: As the leader now of your own media company, you're not just able to pick and choose the stories you cover and the voices you elevate, you're trying to turn the business model on its head. We spoke briefly about ownership before, but this idea that you're empowering your storytellers to promote their own stories and own their own product, can you talk a little bit about what Starfish is doing and why it's important and whether it's succeeding?
SO: Yeah. I don't know that we're trying to turn the model on its head. We look for funders. We try to figure out how to tell good stories. I think those are all kind of a standard production company’s strategies. We're a little bit different because we do a lot of journalism and journalism has become very valuable in terms of producing. The stories that CNN would have done before they went to pundits at MSNBC around the clock, now are stories that I think HBO and all the other networks are interested in digging into in the entertainment space. It has worked for us. We were really lucky because when I left CNN, they became my first client, which meant I had a deal immediately. In fact, two immediately. One of my biggest mistakes was saying yes, which started the clock on a dock when I didn't have an office. I had all my stuff on my dining room table.
I was like, oh, next time say yes, but we start the clock in six months. Things you learn. Yeah, I think what you can do though, and certainly what has been different for me has been to say: I don't have to do the things I don't want to do, and I don't have to work with people I don't want to work with, and I don't have to work on things I don't want to work on. That ends up making life really great because you can pick projects by your interest rather than, I'm being sent to go do a live shot around JonBenet Ramsey 10-year anniversary. Which, anybody who's worked in cable news has-
KH: Did you do that?
SO: Of course, we all did. Anybody who's worked in cable news has done it. That's what the gig is. Sometimes the gig is interesting and sometimes the gig is not interesting. When you run your own thing, you get to say, 'I like this project and I don't want to do this project and I want to work with these people and I'm interested in exploring these kinds of stories." Now listen, realistically you have to have buyers. It's been a very good time, I think for people who are trying to sell diverse stories and interesting and different kinds of stories rather than the same knockoff over and over again. I think it's been a good time for that.
KH: So you may not be reinventing the business model, but you are realigning the incentives because I got to believe you're not taking stuff on that isn't fulfilling in some way, that doesn't come to you as a story you want to chase or that your team wants to choose.
SO: Yeah. Can you do a good job on it? That's really, to me, what it's all about. Is it interesting? I think for me, certainly a lot of stories that are interesting are about race and class and elevating stories about poverty because I think those kinds of stories don't get a lot of coverage. People who are doing incredible things who I think are often overlooked. For example, I remember years ago, I was doing a show for The Morning Show on CNN, and Juanes, the singer, had sold out Madison Square Garden for the third day in a row. I remember saying like, "Oh, this is so interesting. Juanes down the street has sold out the Garden," and five or six people on my team were like, b”ut who cares? I've never heard of him”, versus what I would have said like, “well, how the hell did someone I've never heard of sell out the Garden. That's crazy. Shouldn't I know who that is?”
It's trying to get everybody, myself included, to make that turn. To not say, "Well, I don't care because I haven't heard of him." But instead say, "I do care because I haven't heard of him." I think you're now seeing those stories getting elevated and getting airtime across a number of platforms. Yes, you get to work with the people you like and you get to work on interesting projects, and hopefully, you get to make money in the meanwhile, but sometimes you don't. Sometimes you take on projects that are just important to do. I think that that has actually worked out pretty well for us, but the time even has changed over the last few years.
KH: You are successful in a way that suggests to me that you know how to learn from failure. One of the, I imagine, the toughest things about a profession like yours is that everything is out there in the open. When you make it big, when you have to move on, when a CEO says we're going in a different direction, but at every turn, you have taken those opportunities and just blown them up.
SO: Only because I don't talk about the ones that didn't work out.
KH: Well, that's what I wanted to ask. What are the failures that most informed ...
SO: None. I've got none, zero. Not a one. I don't even know what you're talking about. No, listen, I think at the end of the day, it is exactly about that. One thing that's been fun about getting older is that you start to recognize that something gets royally screwed up, it doesn't define you, unless you let it define you. I used to tell people, young people, all the time, there's nothing worse when you get fired off a show. Often what happens is the New York Times prints it first before your bosses even tell you, and then you're anchoring a show, but the front page of the media section is all about how you're being fired and you're on TV, on the show that no one has told you about. It's super awful and awkward and embarrassing, humiliating. By the way, you're going to anchor that show for two more weeks because they actually haven't officially signed that person and they're not starting.
It's the most horrible thing. I always tell young people, this is a pretty freaking miserable experience to literally be there. But then, you remember why you do it and you do a good show, not just for your bosses, but because you have an audience and because you work with a team of people and you get to be the face of a show that's actually 25 people and not just you. So you do a good job because you've got these other people whose jobs and careers and paychecks rely on you. You put on a brave face and you suck it up and you go out there and you deliver because that's what you do.
KH: That's not just a metaphor. Can you transport us to that seat behind the anchor's desk the morning after you've realized you're not going to be sitting there much longer? How the heck do you pull that off?
SO: For me, what happened was I was taken off The Morning Show, but given a doc unit basically, and I just remember, you have to put in prompt the teleprompter like, “so this is my last week and I just want to thank everybody”. I remember being like, oh, this is going to be easy to write because I liked the gig and I liked the people. It wasn't a terrible ... it just was embarrassing to have to sit there. It's almost like when everybody knows you've broken up with your boyfriend and they're like, "Are you going to cry? Are you okay? You're going to cry?” It's so embarrassing.
What I think I'm very good at actually is, I'm very flexible, like if plan A doesn't work, I move on to plan B, and pretty fast. It's a very good skill in a reporter because usually, especially if you travel a lot like I do, you land in a place and everything you thought you were doing, you're not doing. Being able to be like, oh, that's not happening. Or oh, this person I thought was good is not good, or oh, the story that I thought was this is not this, you need to be able to turn immediately to be like, okay, well here's what we do have. I've always been very good at it. It's what made me good at doing a lot of live TV and a lot of breaking news coverage around events, was I can turn on a dime very easily and refocus.
So behind the desk, it was embarrassing as this old thing was, as I was reading my, “and I want to thank our team, who for the last four years, have helped us, blah, blah, blah”, I was literally thinking, okay, so docs. I'm going to travel, what kinds of things we'll be doing, what should we call it? What's our look? What are the stories I could push to do? Just move on to the next thing.
KH: As you're reading the teleprompter behind the desk, that's great.
SO: Oh 100%, that’s an easy skill. Well, I just moved on. I think I've done that with a lot of things. Like, you're trying to buy a house you think it's done and it falls through. That's happened to me and everybody else who's ever tried to buy a house. I'm very good at like, that's not for us then. It was not willed to be. I'm moving on. I think that when you do that, you look for opportunities in the next thing. I'm very optimistic. I just move into plan B pretty easily. It's just embarrassing to sit there while everybody is watching you, trying to see, are you going to cry? Are you going to break down? What's going to happen? When you're just trying to do a good job. For me, the focus was always, how do I not embarrass the team? I worked with a woman once on a show that was ending and I remember we brought her a cake. She was leaving, and she took off her ID, we had these tags you have to wear around your neck, and she smashed them into the center of the cake. I was like, wow. That's just something I never would have done because, partly I just wouldn't get that mad. I'd already be onto the next gig. I would make a nice speech. I'd thank all the janitors and thank everybody who came in early and stayed late. It never would occur to me to smash a cake someone has bothered to get me because I wouldn't care that much. I'd move on.
KH: Where did you get that from? I'll call it, gosh, a sense of optimism, a positive ambition that the next opportunity is going to be better than the last one. It's almost an instinct.
SO: I don't know. I think it is a kind of optimism and I think it's also a little bit being distracted by the next new shiny thing over here. It's like, “oh, I can go and plan that”. It's really just how I've always been, but it's a learnable trait. It's about applying yourself to the next thing. This thing is done. It's dead. It's not happening. Move on. I've really tried to work on ... we have a foundation, we send girls to school and they often hit roadblocks. Some shit just goes bad, right? It's like, that doesn't mean it's all going bad. That just means that this thing has gone bad. You can fail statistics, and not only can you fail and graduate, you can graduate with a good degree, with a good grade into a great job.
You have just failed statistics. You probably shouldn't be a statistician, period. That's all it says. I think it's a learnable thing of not over-reading into something about what it means. Some stuff is just like, yep, that happened. We're moving on.
KH: I either read this quote from you or saw it, reflecting on some of the lessons your mom taught you, chief among them this idea that you need to be able to carry something with you that people can't take away. Whether that's a degree or a sensibility about opportunity and the idea that it's yours to seize. I don't know. Maybe there's some credit to offer there.
SO: Yeah, I think that's really true. I think it's a very immigrant thing, which is for people who've left their homeland, the things that mattered, the things that made them who they were, they usually lose them. I remember a guy who was Polish. He was the super in my friend's building. I used to ask him about his life in Poland, and he's like, "Oh, I was a doctor." He literally was ... I met him, it had flooded, actually during Hurricane Sandy and he was bailing out the basement. You're stripped of all these things that gave you your clout and your status. And he's just a really great super living in the basement and it's flooded post Hurricane Sandy.
I think my mom was an immigrant from Cuba, and I think a lot of her thinking was that you need to hang onto those things that no one can come and grab. They can take your nice coat, they can't take your degree, they can't take what you've learned, they can't take your expertise, they cannot take these other things. I think that's really true. So you try to move on to the next thing, keeping with you your skillset and your flexibility and your enthusiasm and your positivity and your ability to argue with people and your lack of fear and all those things. They get to come with you. You don't have to give them up.
KH: As a child of immigrants, as a woman of color, you've spoken about the added burden you feel for representing those communities as best you can. The idea that it's not just your reputation on the line, it's millions of others.
SO: Yeah, but in a good way.
KH: I find that incredibly unfair though. That is a pretty tough bar for anyone to have to meet, to carry the reputations of entire communities on their shoulders.
SO: No, and I don't think it's that. I think that's overly dramatic. I think it's more of, you've been given a good opportunity. It's the same thing I tell my children who were given even more opportunity than I had. My parents were very solidly middle class and I grew up in a very nice safe neighborhood with two working parents who were happily married, literally until they died.
KH: You went to an okay school, not Yale.
SO: I went to a great college, yeah, Harvard- but I went to a perfectly fine public school. Because where my parents were able to put us, there were good public schools. It was a very boring middle-class existence in suburban Long Island. My kids have had every opportunity, that opportunity times 10. I say the same thing to them. You've been given every opportunity. The onus is on you to stand up for a thing. It doesn't have to necessarily be a race thing or an ethnicity thing or a gender thing. Sometimes you have to just stand up for what's right. I'll give you a good example. With this coronavirus stuff, I remember saying to my husband like, how do you fire someone in the middle of a pandemic? We're just not going to fire anybody. We can't let anybody go. We have to figure it out. I think it's just like, what are your values? Make sure when you're given the opportunity to live your values that you do. I think that's for everybody. I don't think it's as dramatic as you have the weight of your race or your ethnicity or whatever on your shoulders. It's just, well, holy hell, you've been given some good opportunities. If you can't speak up, then who's going to do it?
KH: Does a lot of that depend on you having achieved that position of authority and prominence and that proverbial seat at the table? Did you find yourself, along the way, having to hold your tongue knowing that one day you would have the power, but as a child of immigrants, as a woman of color, you had to hedge in the moment?
SO: Yeah, of course. I think it's more of being younger. Nobody wants to hear from a young member of the team advising them, but I was good at making sure that the people who were my mentors understood. I'll tell you a great story. Years ago, when I worked at NBC, I worked with a photographer. It was very inappropriate, unpleasant. A million years ago. I probably was literally 20 years old, and I remember my boss sticking up for me. I told him that I was having this issue with a person who had been at the company far longer than I had and I was brand new and I just remember feeling very backed up by a person who had a ton of seniority, who could have said, "Soledad, shush. I don't want to hear it." He didn't. He was like, "You don't have to work in an environment where someone's being unpleasant and unprofessional with you, and so whatever you decide to do, I'm 100% behind you." Just that, that was it. It was a 20-minute conversation, was incredibly supportive and helpful. So, when I grew into my position where my voice can make something happen or stop something from happening, I feel like the onus is on people in that position to do that.
KH: The importance of allies, right?
KH: What is your biggest fear about the state of the media landscape going into what I would argue is the most consequential election of our lifetimes?
SO: I don't know that I have a huge fear. I feel badly. People sometimes ask me, what can the media do to regain credibility? Because I think a lot of institutions, and this has been proven in a bazillion different ways, have lost credibility. I often say it's the same thing that people have to do. If you have someone who's let you down, the only thing they can do is just be an honest person. All you can do is do your job. When we were covering Hurricane Katrina, I was shooting in New Orleans, but you had to fly in and out of Baton Rouge airport. People gave us a standing ovation at the airport. I just remember thinking like, so this is what it's like when people feel like you're serving them. They recognized, we appreciate. It's how I feel about the people at my local grocery store, even though I know they're scared. One, they need the money, but also for a lot of them, they recognize someone's got to do this and we need to keep this going. You just have to appreciate them. I think it's like that. It's just about you can't talk your way into being valued and you can't convince someone you're trustworthy. You just have to go be trustworthy. I think a lot of these organizations when they do these tricks and efforts to try to get viewers or go viral or seem a certain way, you lose your credibility. It doesn't happen overnight, but just gets chipped away at. Just slowly, slowly chipped away at.
KH: Is there still enough porosity between the media channels that the truth from one source might actually make its way into Fox News viewers living room or? I just wonder if what you experienced in Baton Rouge after Katrina could happen today given how stove piped people's new sources have become.
SO: Yeah. Again, probably not if you're just looking at stories in terms of political point of view. One thing I've always liked about doing Matter of Fact, which is a show that I co-produce with Hearst, and it varies on the Hearst stations and about 93% of the country. Pretty early on, because we tape the show, we realized like I can't be part of the daily talking head conversation. We will never ever start the show with, "Good morning everybody. Here's what President Trump tweeted last night." And I remember thinking, oh, this feels terrible because we're not in the news loop, but maybe it could be an advantage. It's not a bug. It's a feature that we will never ever do the play by play. Instead, we're going to talk to people about things with context. We're going to talk about the housing crisis, we're going to talk about immigration, we're going to do shows from the locations, we get to camp out and talk to the people there.
Our best shows, which have had a couple of million viewers, one was on bringing solar power to Puerto Rico post Hurricane Maria. The other one was, what was it like really on the border in Texas, the El Paso border. If I had gone into someone's office and said, "Listen, I have a pitch to you. I'm confident I can get you 2 million viewers, solar power in Puerto Rico." They would have been like, "You should leave my office now." But it just proves to me that people are interested in information. So yes, you're never going to find ... if you're going to talk about political talking heads, people have taken a side. But if you're talking about the housing crisis generally, which affects everybody, and by the way, the stories that I do, a lot of times I have no idea what someone's political leanings are. They're utterly irrelevant.
We did a story on a guy living in San Diego, but couldn't afford his housing, so he moved to Mexico and he commutes from Mexico over the border into his job in San Diego because housing has gotten so out of control. I couldn't tell you what his politics are. You're utterly irrelevant to the story, and most of the things we do are like that. It's just, how do you figure out this process of how somebody who's working a full-time job can't afford housing in the city they're in? That's a national problem.
KH: Well, Soledad it has been wonderful having you on the show. We end every episode of Burn the Boats with the same question. What is your bravest decision you've ever had to make in the course of your personal life or career?
SO: It never really felt brave. I remember when I was at Harvard, an undergrad, I was premed. Everything I had done in my life was to go to med school. I'd been a candy striper, worked in a nursing home, worked in a pharmacy, really I had done all these steps from the time I was probably 15. Growing up in Long Island in the '60s and '70s and '80s, like the doctor. Long Island doctor, come on. It's a stereotype. I remember deciding when I was taking organic chemistry with my sister who's now a surgeon, I didn't want to go to med school and I left school. I think looking back it was quite a brave thing to do because I just felt again, like okay, plan B, let's go into this new thing.
I didn't feel like it was brave at the time. I just felt like I listened to my gut and I really, really, really did not want to be a doctor. And I think ultimately that turned out to be a brave thing, but on analysis, it wasn't brave. It was just listening to what your gut was saying. “I shouldn't go do this, I don't want to do this”, and having parents around me who were like, “okay, well, obviously you can't stay home and sit on the couch and eat Cheetos, but what do you want to do? Go do that.” Those two things were really helpful.
KH: Well, that led directly to the career path you chose because you very quickly found yourself interning at a local TV station. Thank you so much for coming on Burn the Boats.
SO: The pleasure was mine. Thank you for having me.
KH: Thanks again to Soledad for joining me. Watch her on Matter on Fact airing on Sundays across the Hearst network and follow her on Twitter at @SoledadOBrien.
Soledad talked about her flexibility and sense of optimism in seizing new opportunities. In the spirit of our conversation and given what is happening in the world right now, we wanted to hear from you. We asked you to tell us about a time when you had to adapt to a new situation.
Isabel Robertson: Hi, I’m Isabel, the producer of Burn the Boats. Everyone around the world right now is figuring out how to adapt to a new situation, whether you’re in healthcare working on the front lines, a podcast adapting to remote recordings, a student graduating in a virtual ceremony, or like one Facebook commenter, a professor adapting to a new style of teaching.
Heidi wrote to us that after a million years teaching in a classroom, she had to do a sharp turn and learn how to teach remotely. Zoom screen sharing, annotation, digital white boards, break-out rooms. I learned a lot, she said, and I think it worked out OK. Necessity insisted on flexibility, but sometimes when flexibility is demanded, it turns out to be not so bad.
Thanks for sharing and thank you to everyone out there learning to be flexible in this new reality.
You can join our conversation online by finding Ken Harbaugh on Facebook or following him on Twitter at @Team_Harbaugh.
KH: Next time on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Mansoor Shams - founder of MuslimMarine.org. He talks about both his good and bad experiences as a Muslim in the US Marine Corps, about patriotism in today’s America, and about making his life’s mission opening the minds of others.
And we want you to join our discussion. Tell us how you approach changing someone’s mind. Send a comment on social media, leave a message at 216-245-5461 or send a voice memo to [email protected].
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Our theme music is Climbing to Greatness by Cody Martin.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.