Soledad O'Brien Talks Survivors, Immigrants, and Taking News Personally

CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien has told a lot of stories--from tragedies like Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Southeast Asia, and the earthquake in Haiti to the experiences of everyday people in Black in America, Latino in America, and Gay in America. Now, she's telling her own story in her book, The Next Big Story. The daughter of an Afro-Cuban mother and Irish-Australian father, O'Brien got her start at 21 after dropping out of Harvard to write and produce news (she later finished her degree while simultaneously working at NBC).

This Sunday, she'll be hosting a reading at Books & Books. We spoke to the reporter-turned-author about why Americans don't suck, the stories that get left out of the media, and what it's really like behind the scenes of a major tragedy. 

New Times: What motivated you to write The Next Big Story?

Soledad O'Brien: People often asked me about the documentaries we were working on -- "Black in America," "Latino in America" -- why those? And the answer to that question is long and complicated. Some of it is just that as a reporter, there are stories that I want to tell, and some of it is framed and shaped by where I come from, and where I grew up -- my parent's story coming to this country as immigrants, one black and one white. It's a more complicated story than just a one line answer, and I wanted to take a stab at answering thoroughly and thoughtfully.

And the other part of it is that I think so many books from reporters in the media are about people just sort of shouting about what America should be, and how angry people should be. In all of the stories that I've done, from Katrina to the Tsunami to what's happening in Haiti, a large portion of the people that I covered were doing amazing things--rescuing people, putting themselves out there, and making a difference in lives. Those are the two things that I wanted to cover in my book.

Does it ever become difficult to separate your professional duty from the emotions of witnessing such tragic events?

During the tsunami, I remember watching people on the air on the Larry King show, and I was just crying. They were coming live from Phuket where I was. I was sitting next to them, but to hear them tell their story, it was just so sad. I think there are a lot of times where you just get overwhelmed. But I get to write about me in my book. The story on TV is never about me. You take all of that, and you process it, and you do a good job of telling that story to your viewers.

What is the greatest challenge of being a reporter?

I think it's finding a great story to tell. The good news, in the work that I do, is there are lots of great stories to tell that are under-told. Many times the media swarms on the story of the day, the big story that becomes the headline. But for the most part, I feel like my job is to find the person who is not sticking out, find the story that's not over-told--going the opposite direction of the rest of the crowd.

It does seem like there's not enough nuanced reporting on a lot of communities. But isn't it impossible trying to define an experience like being "Latino in America" in a few episodes of a series? I know there's been some criticism from people who felt like their experiences weren't reflected.

You know, you cannot possibly tell the story of 51 million people, it is just not doable. And I think it's a mistake to try. I think it's about finding stories that speak to people --not necessarily saying okay, we've covered Peruvians, check. Now, whats next? Okay, Cubans, here we go. It's ridiculous. So what I wanted to try to do was start tackling stories about people who never get coverage. Part of the problem is the media is behind. We haven't done these stories. And so we have a lot to catch up. I think over time, people will find that their stories are reflected.

My mom's black, my dad's white. My mother came from Cuba and my dad came from Australia. People have said to me, "Oh my God, my story is exactly the same as you...My parents came from Italy." And it's like, well, that's very different than my story. But what they're saying is the idea of coming to this country, being a first generation America with parents who are strict--there is an overlap; we can understand each other even if our stories are obviously different. What we've been doing the past year or so is telling a single story.

In Black in America: Almighty Debt we told the story of one church, one pastor. Gay in America: Gary and Tony have a Baby was just the story of Gary and Tony having a baby. And I think it resonates with people, it still impacts people, they still see themselves reflected in the story.

Soledad O'Brien will be at Books & Books (265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables) this Sunday at 2 p.m. The event is free and The Next Big Story costs $24.95. Call 305-442-4408 or visit
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Gabriela Garcia