Soledad O'Brien's philosophy has always been that it's about the news, not her. But the high-profile CNN journalist was getting a lot of questions about the documentaries she was working on 2008's Black in America and 2009's Latino in America. "People would ask, 'Why are you doing that?'" says O'Brien. "'Why is that interesting to you?' And the answer is not a one- or two-word answer." In fact, the answer is a compelling new book, The Next Big Story: My Journey Through the Land of Possibilities. O'Brien spoke with TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs about growing up with racial prejudice and falling in love with the television business.
So, why were you doing in-depth stories about ethnicity?
As a reporter, I thought they were interesting and partly because my mom's black, my dad's white. They were personally interesting for me to explore. I thought I was good at the interviews because I've been very good at pushing people on these kinds of questions and topics.
Not only are you claimed by the black community, but also by the Irish community and the Latino community.
Yes, yes, everybody. I remember once my uncle was watching one of my shows, and he said, "Oh, you look so Australian with all of those freckles. You look Australian." [O'Brien's father was born in Australia.] I was like, really? Which is nice. I love it. Usually if you're being claimed, it's a good thing because you're doing something right.
I was surprised reading your book how difficult it was for you growing up.
I remember once when I was in college we were in a class on African-American studies and somebody was talking about the tragic mulatto. At some point it dawned on me, they were talking about me. I was the tragic mulatto. In some ways it was a very regular, fun, normal, middle-class Long Island existence. We had beaches, we had pets, we had a big yard. But there was always this sort of undercurrent of not blending in, of not fitting in and of people not necessarily wanting you there. It was very, very difficult for my parents.
Your parents were not legally allowed to get married because of their different races.
Students gasp [when they hear that]. I tell that story a lot when I speak to college students, and I think it helps provide a framework for them on how far we've come, and also what other people have had to overcome.
Do you find a sense of identification with President Obama's ethnic background?
It never really dawned on me until I was watching his inauguration that we do have a very similar background. All those conversations about "Is Barack Obama black? What is he?" Those to me were fascinating. Partly because I thought it took our country in a new direction in talking about race, and then partly, of course, because personally for me, that's something that anybody who's got a black parent and a white parent is always answering their whole life. "What are you?" is what people would always ask me. "What are you?"
It's amazing that all six siblings in your family went to Harvard, including you. But you dropped out of Harvard early.
It sometimes was a struggle because I didn't feel super comfortable there. I just didn't know what I wanted to do once I decided I wasn't going to go to medical school. I always thought as a kid that's what I was going to do. I was a candy striper; I worked in a nursing home. And I went to work at this TV station, WBZ-TV, and I loved it. I knew the minute I walked in I was going to work at a TV station in some capacity for the rest of my life because it was so electric and interesting and challenging and exciting, and I wasn't even doing anything! I literally was the coffee fetcher for another department. I had just wandered down to the newsroom to go run an errand.
You've covered a lot of disasters, like the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Do you ever worry about your safety?
Very rarely. I'm not a big thrill seeker. I never go to war zones. I really don't go into unsafe places. I have small children. I like my life, and I have no interest in being injured or incapacitated. I think that if you're going to get a story, you have to get a certain closeness. I tend to do aftermath. When a disaster happens, I come in afterward. Sometimes that brings a little bit of danger with it aftershocks or people shooting at you but I've never had any real thing that I thought was a serious risk.
You mentioned your children. How in the world have you done what you've done with four children?
Oh, God, some days not very well. My kids are getting old enough to be very engaged in my job. When I go to Haiti, my kids love that because it's something that's big and that everyone in school is talking about. My daughter can print out the e-mails that I'm sending and read them to her classmates, and I e-mail her pictures and she feels very engaged and involved. That's because she's now 10.
People always are asking how to get into journalism. What's your advice for somebody who wants to have your career?
Tell them to hurry up, 'cause I am ready to retire. There's so much room for great young people to enter journalism. My staff is young. We have really interesting, diverse people who are passionate about projects. For young people, it's a great time to be in journalism. There are some real challenges, obviously, but for people who are really passionate about it, the technology is so great. When I was in Haiti, I was running around taking stills on my BlackBerry and uploading them to CNN.com. The technology fits in your pocket. That's very different from what I had access to when I was starting out. So I think you have to, as I did when I was younger, just not listen to the naysayers who say journalism is dead. It's not dead. 60 Minutes that's long form. My documentaries, we win. That's long form. At Nightline, they win. That's long form. Those are serious journalism-based shows and they do well. So in my mind, journalism is doing just fine and there's definitely room for young people. They just have to really want it.