Soledad O’Brien acknowledges that she seems to be doing “like 50 million jobs” at once. “But they’re all kind of connected,” she adds. O’Brien is, among many other things, a journalist, speaker, and author. Formerly a reporter and anchor at NBC and CNN, O’Brien launched her own production company in 2013. Now, in addition to making regular appearances on HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel and PBS Newshour, and to hosting a weekly magazine-style political program, Matter of Fact With Soledad O’Brien, the Emmy winner just wrapped a new project: To Be an American: Identity, Race, and Justice. And like any good media powerhouse, O’Brien maintains an active Twitter account — where she spent a good part of the past four years fact-checking media coverage of the Trump administration — with 1.3 million followers. She and her husband live in New York City and Florida. They have two college-age daughters, and twin sons who, during the pandemic, have helped her film a news show from her bedroom and record a podcast from her closet. Here’s how she gets it done.
On developing To Be an American
During the election process, and post-election, there were so many conversations around who gets to be a patriot. People are called patriots, but only certain people: Who is assumed to be an American, who is assumed to love this country? Who is assumed to be [from] here and who doesn’t get that benefit of the doubt? We wanted to dig into the history of that: What does it mean to belong here? Growing up in a very non-diverse community, I certainly got that sense [from other people] of, What are you, really? Where are you from, really?
Part of our conversation in last week’s episode was a look at the history of Asians in this country, and how for such a long time — I mean, look at the Chinese Exclusion Act — they were not considered to be Americans. It’s an interesting time to do a deep dive into this conversation: I just don’t know how anybody could be surprised by what happened [in Atlanta] when we have heard the rhetoric — the disgusting racist rhetoric — for so long. I don’t know how anyone could be surprised. you know something terrible is going to happen when you flog the idea that somehow Asians are the enemy in this country.
On striving for “objectivity” in journalism:
I think it’s always been somewhat false, right? [And lately], it’s as if there’s not a truth that is knowable. I find that to be frustrating, this idea that both sides get to weigh in on something, because to me, often, what you end up with are just lies. I think a really good example is Senator Ron Johnson saying, roughly, that he wasn’t afraid of the insurrectionists; they were law-abiding; they supported the police; they would never commit a crime. That literally, specifically, is not true! Over 300 people have been arrested for committing a crime. People beat a police officer. But he gets to elevate this conversation and it’s posed as both sides, whereas his side is just objectively wrong. So much of reporting has become stenography, but we don’t have to elevate lies uncritically. We can point out lies.
On Twitter tactics:
The singer Becky G told me how to do Twitter, and I actually think I have a good strategy. She said, “Anybody who follows you, you should follow them, until the day you feel like this is an inappropriate person to follow. But anybody who’s your fan, or who is interested in what you have to say, follow those people.” And interestingly, one of the biggest upsides of having a lot of followers and following a lot of people is that your feed rotates through very quickly. If someone’s mad at me for something, it hits my feed and it’s overwhelming, but if I can stay off my phone for maybe 12 to 24 hours, the next morning, there’s a whole new wave of different people having completely different conversations than the trolls who are attacking me. The conversation moves on. Sometimes you make a mistake and you’re like, oh, unfollow! But that’s the nature of the beast.
On switching off
Horseback riding has been very grounding for me. You can’t do anything else while you’re doing it. You can’t be on your phone, you can’t be talking to someone, you can’t be multitasking, you cannot be making lists in your head. You have to just sit and focus on where you’re going. You have to focus on your horse. That’s it. I feel like it gives my brain a break for an hour as opposed to juggling, Is this going well, is this not going well, what are we doing, what are we doing in a year, what are we doing in two years, what’s our five-year plan?
On her daily (pandemic) routine:
I actually operate like clockwork. I get up around 5:30, maybe 6 o’clock. I have coffee, I go horseback riding for about an hour, then I have my smoothie, and then I start my day. Sometimes I throw in a workout. But when I get up, the first thing I do is check Twitter to see what happened overnight, what’s breaking, what’s going on.
I’m also a big list maker, so I spend part of my morning getting my day together with a list: Here’s what today’s going to look like. It gives me a good take on how much time I have for everything, where I’ve gotta be. I also end my day with a list: Here’s what I’ve got to accomplish tomorrow, here are the phone calls that I’ve gotta make. I have a gin and tonic every single day, at the end of the day, as my wind-down. That’s new in the pandemic, I stole it from a girlfriend. And while I’m sitting there, it’s really an opportunity to get my schedule in order for the next day.
I’m sometimes an overbooker — especially when you’re freelance, you don’t want to say no to work. There’s this feeling like, Well, if I say no, then maybe I’m never getting a chance to do this again. As I get older, I realize that these things come back around. You do need to make sure that you’re scheduling breaks, like, I am not working on Thursday; I am going to run the ten errands that I need to run, but I’m not going to do any work. Carving out that time is very hard for freelancers. We tend to say yes to a lot of stuff, and learning how to say no, or learning how to say “not today because today is my off day,” is really important.
On building a team:
Have good people around you. Hire good people. Make sure you have a really good team around you and then treat them well. Because to me, my people are absolutely everything. They will help you get to where you want to be. Find great people and ask them for help.
My mom had a great saying: Everybody gets the same 24 hours. You just have to figure out how you want to spend yours. Often, with women, we talk about balance, or we talk about “can you have it all?” My mom would say those are irrelevant conversations. What do you want to do with the time that you get? Go decide. And then go do it. And if you change your mind a few years in, go do that. If you have that luxury, then make sure you’re doing it the way you want to do it. I always thought that that was a good way to look at it, as opposed to “you can have it all!” Or, “you can’t have it all!” Everybody’s all is different. I fucking hate to cook so I’m not going to cook, you know? And we’re going to get comforters, so I can make my bed in under ten seconds. Solved!