By Angela Villanueva
Soledad O’Brien, CNN anchor and special correspondent, shares her life story and behind-the-scenes career experiences in her book “The Next Big Story,” co-written with Rose Marie Arce.
The book, published by Celebra, begins with her childhood in Smithtown, Long Island (a predominantly white suburb of New York City) growing up as a biracial child — half Afro-Cuban and half Australian.
The daughter of a mechanical engineering professor and a French and English teacher, O’Brien, the fifth of sixth children, followed her siblings to Harvard. In the midst of her pre-med studies, O’Brien discovered journalism — and fell in love with it.
She took a semester off from school to intern her junior year at WBZ-TV. When she returned to Harvard, she switched her major to journalism and never looked back.
Yet, reflecting on her childhood growing up in a white suburb as a biracial child in the 1970s causes O’Brien to view life and approach her work from a different perspective.
For example, O’Brien confesses how her parents taught her to identify herself as “black.” As a result, she saw and experienced life as a black/Latina. It was a perspective that she felt compelled to share when she decided to take the “crazy mission to tell the story of what it is means to be Black in America” and decided to film a documentary about it along with a crew from CNN.
After releasing “Black in America,” O’Brien decided to make her next documentary “Latino in America” because, as she states, “We are the majority minority now. All minorities combined will comprise the majority in 2032.”
Being a reporter for a national news organization like CNN affords O’Brien the opportunity to travel across the country to cover stories destined to be in the history books. Hurricane Katrina was one of those stories.
According to O’Brien, when she arrived at New Orleans, four days had passed since Hurricane Katrina hit. Nothing looked as if it had been left untouched. O’Brien said she felt as if she was in another country. During her coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the city, O’Brien was troubled to see that New Orleans was receiving no help from the government.
Residents had to fix the damages to their homes with their own money, mainly because most of them didn’t have home insurance. This is what O’Brien had to say about that: “The situation in New Orleans is unacceptable, ridiculous. Every reporter is screaming that into microphones, yet no one seems to be listening. The city is nearly 70 percent African-American, and the images of chaos can’t be separated logically from the government response, yet class is the biggest divider around us.”
Though the massive earthquake in Haiti was the kind of story every journalist wanted to cover, CNN didn’t first assign O’Brien to it. Instead, her colleagues, medical journalist Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Anderson Cooper, were told to report from the ravaged island but O’Brien fought to be included on the assignment.
“I’m a journalist. I have a perspective on how to tell the human story that is unique,” O’Brien told her bosses. In the end, they relented and she posted several reports from the devastated island.
O’Brien’s journey as a journalist has had its twists and turns but it’s clear from her book that she has always and continues to keep the desire to use her voice — to tell the stories of people — in the forefront of a life that is in “perpetual motion” looking for the next big story.
Angela Villanueva is a journalism student and Latina Lista intern from the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas.