Journalist and Filmmaker Soledad O’Brien in Conversation with Jade Floyd of the Case Foundation
Journalist and filmmaker Soledad O’Brien kicked off ComNet15 with her keynote interview, conducted by the Case Foundation’s Jade Floyd. Touching on storytelling, failure, race, and more, Soledad shared tips on how to tell a story in a way that makes people listen and how to be authentic in doing so.
LaMonte Guillory: Good morning and welcome to ComNet15. Yes. My name is LaMonte Guillory and I am the communications director for the LOR Foundation. I’m really excited to spend the next 2 days learning from you and with you and making ideas move so we can ignite change in our communities, our nation, and our world. We at the LOR Foundation are very passionate about the communities of the inner mountain west. That includes Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. We believe in community-driven conservation.
To some of you that may be a new term but to us it means improving the quality of life and enhancing livability for these people in these 5 States. It means improved access to nature, cultural experiences, clean water, economic stability and transportation options. These towns in the inner mountain west are demonstrating every day that thoughtful community planning and open space conservation benefits both the communities in which they live but also the environment that we hold dear.
The LOR Foundation has been grant making for quite some time, but just this week, today in fact, we launched new strategic communications efforts to put a little special sauce behind the work we do. I invite all of you to visit our new website, yes, this is our very first website. Can you believe it? But don’t everybody rush all at once because we don’t want you to crash our newly designed website. We also launched today our Twitter handle @lorfoundation. Please go there, join us, reach out to us and I encourage you to learn more about what we do, why we do it and who we do it for.
My main mission this morning besides providing you with a background of the LOR Foundation is to introduce a woman who truly needs no introduction. Soledad O’Brien is an Emmy Award winning broadcast journalist, documentarian, philanthropist and business woman. She has covered the most important events of our time. From the rise of the internet economy to hurricane Katrina. At CNN Soledad developed 2 highly successful documentary series, Black in America and Latino in America. Her coverage of race in America won 2 Emmys and she earned a third for her coverage of the 2012 presidential election.
Today she continues to set a new standard for in depth storytelling. In 2013, Soledad launched Starfish Media Group, a multi platform media production and distribution company dedicated to a single idea, uncovering, empowering stories to help us better understand the lives of people, of different races, culture and economic backgrounds.
Whether she’s developing documentaries for CNN or Al Jazeera America, or hosting specials for the National Geographic Channel, Soledad knows how to touch hearts, change minds, improve lives and challenge perspectives. Please stand up and join me in welcoming the Soledad O’Brien with the conversation with Jade Floyd, director of communications at the Case Foundation.
Jade Floyd: Good morning everyone. Welcome. I’m really honored to be here on behalf of the Case Foundation and welcome Soledad to the stage.
Soledad O’Brien: Thank you. Thank you. My pleasure.
We have, you know, about 30 minutes. I want to have a conversation with Soledad and then I want to get to questions with all of you because I know you have some great thoughts and things that you’ve been thinking about that you’d like for her to explore. Last week you did a Reddit AMA.
This is your second I believe?
Someone asked you a question, they said, “What makes a great interview.” Your response, you said it in the first part, was, “Don’t ask the first question that you intend to ask.”
Yeah, I do. When I was doing a morning television show, I like to write down and really strategize about how I’m going to do an interview and then once I make my list, I always chop off the first one. Usually it’s some sort of weak question frankly like, “Oh so, you know, tell me about the book you wrote.” That’s not really a way to start a conversation, especially if you’re on TV and you have 4 minutes. You want to just dive in and you want to immediately unseat someone so that they are more authentic I think.
I think chopping off the first question is a really good strategy. Also really having your questions, for me laying them out and being very strategic, I don’t really wing things very well. I really like to have an arc in an interview where you know what you’re trying to get to; once I figure it out, it took a little while, it was a good strategy.
It was good advice because I eliminated my first question this morning.
I’m going to jump straight to the second question. I actually wanted to talk a little bit about your parents and your family. You parents, Cuban America, and Australian, and they raised 6 of you.
I hear that all 6 of you attended Harvard.
I think we’re still paying for it actually. I think I still have like … I pay $115 every month in loans. Yeah, my parents were both educators. My parents met in Baltimore in 1958 and they met because they used to go to daily mass and my dad basically hit on my mom and picked her up one day, and gave her a ride to church and then they made a date to go on a date, but every restaurant that they went to in Baltimore in 1958 wouldn’t sit them together because my mom is Afro-Cuban and my dad is white, he’s Australian.
My mom brought my dad back to her apartment and made him this … She’s an amazing cook of Cuban food. She used to tell us the story and her whole entire point was like, see girls, if you could cook you could get a man. Like, “Oh, huh, I can’t really cook.”
Can you cook?
No. I can make it happen is what I like to say. My parents were both educators. My dad was a professor who focused on mechanical engineering, my mom ended up being a Spanish and French teacher in my high school. I think that they just really valued education, especially my mom, when you leave Cuba and there’s a sense of everything can be taken from you or you might have to leave some place with nothing. She really was very obsessed with this idea.
But if you have an education, if you have an education, no one can ever strip that from you. You go anywhere, you have it still. They just really valued education. My parents, I grew up in the north shore of Long Island and there were not a lot of people of color. It was a very interesting education in how to navigate a world were demographics were changing very rapidly. My parents were actually asked by the ACLU to be the couple that would test the ban on interracial marriage and they declined, missing history. Because my dad is like, “No, I’m working on my PhD, no. Don’t think so.”
Nobody cares about numbers. Nobody cares about what we call the wide shot, the 35,000. They don’t.
They were busy.
I think that they always had this navigation around how do you think about issues of race and how do you also make sure they’re not derailing you so that you’re moving forward and you’re being optimistic but not being Pollyanna-ish about the real issues that exist. It was a very interesting way to grow up. Sometimes it was really challenging, I grew up in a town where there really were no people of color or very few and it was just an interesting way to think about race, and I think it affected how I would lead a report on race in class because I felt in a way I had a bit of an outsider status that allows you to engage and think about this issues from a bit of a distance.
Yeah, I think mostly we went off to Harvard for a couple of reasons. One, were a very tight family and we didn’t … There were a lot of people who would not play with people of color in our neighborhood, there were people who would not let their kids go out with you. There were people who used to picket at the bottom of our driveway when a black family would move in. My mother had a Chevette at the time, she’d be like beep! Beep! Get out of the way. I feel crazy thinking about that, that was 1980s.
I think we really were studious because we just spent a lot of time together and also because my parents focused on it. They really believed that education was a great opportunity and I think like a lot of immigrants they had this sense of, listen if you come somewhere and there’s a good opportunity, take it, take it.
Exactly. That guides a lot of the philanthropic work that you do today with your foundation.
Absolutely. Absolutely. My husband and I started Starfish Foundation right after Hurricane Katrina, we started it very unofficially I guess at first because we were frustrated. Because when I was covering Katrina, you would see as people would apply for funds for example, their business, the roof had blown off and they need $1000 to fix their roof and so they’d apply for funds and they’d get $873, which is a lot, but not quite enough to fix the roof and get back in business.
It was really frustrating as a reporter and I tend to be very pragmatic about these things and I started meeting young people who wanted to go to college but they lacked $2217 dollars. I was like, “Well shoot, I think I can raise that. Let’s, let’s get that person $2217. Kind of in an ad hoc way we started adding young women is where we focused and started sending them to school. Of course as we realized that they actually needed more, they needed mentors, so we stated giving each girl, assigning them a couple of mentors, and then they needed exactly frankly what my kids were getting.
They needed cheerleading, pushing, sometimes tutoring, sometimes interventions, they needed a lot and so we now have 25 girls that we sent to and through college. We focused a lot more of the through, not just, “Hey, hey you got in.” But now we’re going get you through and even now that you’re through, we need to help you transition into getting a job so we’ve been really successful on that front.
Yesterday one of our scholars got a job. I was so happy. It’s like your own child moving out of your house. You’re like “Yes Lord, you got a job!” Then we started doing these big conferences, learning what we were learning from our young women, who mostly are of color, who mostly are in poverty, who mostly don’t have parents who are helpful and sometimes have parents who are actually grabbing them by the ankle and sucking them under. They are maybe the most functional person in their family.
We started holding these PowHerful we call them, conferences. We do them in New Orleans and New York, we’ve been asked to bring it to Tampa and LA this year and Detroit so we’ll probably do 5 in 2016, where we invite community-based organizations to send us their young women, Girls Inc., Tyra Banks, Lower East Side Girl’s Club, any community-based organization we give them seats for a full day seminar where we literally walk through very pragmatic things. What I realized that a lot of these young women, they were getting killed on the soft skills. They’re getting killed on what to wear to apply for an internship.
They were getting killed on how to speak, how to respond after an internship ended … How to write a thank you note that was appropriate. They just didn’t know. What to wear was a huge problem. My kids have been dragged to the office right? They know what mom wears on an important thing, what mom wears to a black tie event, what mom wears to a casual breakfast meeting. These women if you said … And I have said, wear something dressy, people would come looking like they just rolled out of the club. I’m like, “Oh my god. First let me get you a jacket.” There is like, “Wow, wow, no.”
They had no idea. They had parents in many cases who had never held an office job. Who also had never had the discipline of going to a 9:00 to 5:00 so they really didn’t understand those things that I think a lot of use learn by osmosis, you just see it happen. We really stated doing this for a large number of young women, full day seminar, just for girls. 8:00 in the morning until 6:00 at night, we run them through very pragmatic things and we bring it big speakers.
This year Misty Copeland was our keynote and she sat down and talked to them about … We take successful women and deconstruct how they got there and often, they didn’t start off on the path to success and I think it’s really important to show these young women of color like there are plenty of people who started off like you, exactly like you so let’s analyze what she did right and let’s analyze where she screwed up. I think we’ve had such a great opportunity with our keynoters because they are very honest. We try to bring that too.
We’ve been doing about 300 girls at a time, our limiting factor is space because we do breakout sessions, we talk a lot about health, a lot about sex, having a baby can derail obviously your college experience so we’re very clear about those things and we talk a lot about STEM because they talk about STEM but they don’t know what STEM is so we bring in different women from different businesses to talk about what they do and the cool jobs that they have that STEM is not just sitting there with a lab coat on but STEM can be diving under water for oil exploration. There’s just so many interesting things.
I think ultimately, it’s what I try to do for my own kids. I have 4 kids. You try to expose them to stuff. You howl at them through Paris, “I don’t want to see the Eiffel tower!” Like, “You will see the Eiffel tower because we are exposing you to culture! Let’s go! And we will staff you with croissants so you don’t have meltdowns along …” But that’s why we do it right? Because we want our children to be exposed so that when they go places, they say, “I, I’ve been to … I’ve, I’ve seen that.”
Yeah. I went to Paris with my parents when I was 10, did not want to go. I had one of those click cameras that you take photos of and that you’re not supposed to take photos of the Mona Lisa. I snuck it of course.
My son Jackson who was about 4 at the time when we went to see the Picasso exhibit said, “Oh my god, this is just scribble scrabble.” “Yes, basically but still, pay attention.”
You’re mentoring many young girls across …
Not me personally. We connect them to mentors. I mentor everybody by text in terms of like, “Hey good for you. I hear you have an important test. Hey, what do you need?” Getting them to advocate for themselves is actually the biggest challenge. Getting them to say, “I’m afraid. I’m failing this class. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to wear.” Getting people to tell you upfront. I think that’s true with your own children. Getting them to tell you upfront because they’re down the road and it’s spiraling out of control. To tell you ahead of time.
I personally don’t mentor them. I’m emailing everybody and actually no young women email anymore they all text, so I text everybody. But each girl has her own mentors and so I check in with the mentors, there’s a lot of great computer programs now where you can really keep a great spreadsheet on what everybody is doing and how many interactions they are having so that’s been really helpful for us.
Obviously you have a storied career, from the production company which you’ve launched to an award winning anchor, a mother, a philanthropist, and I spent my last vacation reading your new book.
Oh thank you.
New is maybe …
A couple of years.
Few years but it’s called The Next Big Story: My Journey through the Land of Possibilities. As I was reading it and I went back over some of my notes last night, there was one piece that really jumped out to me …
It’s always horrifying when someone takes your books, words you’re written and they’ll like … I do this to people. They’ll like, “So let me ask you about page 74 paragraph 3.” You’re like, God, what did I write?
Well, on page 184, last paragraph, it says, “I want to show the face of the community where character counts. I know folks don’t only want to hear the stories that are sad but there’s much to learn from failure and there’s many lessons in those challenges.” Talk to me a little bit about a moment of failure in your life that you learned from and how you failed forward.
Oh gosh, there’ve been so many. Like a ton. I think that … I don’t know if it’s about failing forward, I think it’s about failing and learning lessons. A great example, when I was anchoring the Morning Show, I remember they decided that they would replace me and because it’s television news it’s always done horrifically. There’s like, replace? What? We’re not … What? No, never! Anyway, here’s the person who’s taking your job. She’s 10 years younger than you. It’s always like that. Truly, that is not even … That was not even exaggeration, that’s literally exactly how it went.
I remember sitting in the meeting with my boss and he called me in and I had an inkling that there was stuff changing because everyone would come to me and say, “Are you all right.” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m fine.” Like, “I’m good. Should I not be all right?’
This is before I stated doing documentaries for CNN. He called me into his office and I didn’t realize this that some offices have a button that can close the door from the desk. Right, he goes click, and the door magically closes. I was like, “Oh, oh, this can’t be … This cannot be good.” I knew something was coming up. He said, “Listen we’re going to take you off the morning show.” He had invited me to go have lunch and at the end of it I said, “Okay, like so are we still having lunch or was that…” Oh, “You’re not going to cry are you?” I said, “Should I cry? Everything you said sounds like you’re giving me an interesting opportunity here, why don’t we go to lunch and work it out?”
We sat down and because I had run through it in my head the nights before, we ended up having a really productive conversation that allowed me to both keep my title which was anchor, and that’s relevant because it’s correlated to how much you get paid. Depending on your title obviously and number 2, to curve out a really great career doing documentaries for CNN. By the time I left CNN I had done 40 documentaries and I was able to negotiate a deal where I would take all those documentaries with me. I’m one of the rare correspondents who owns all her content.
Thank you to my agents. Yes. I think what I learned was instead of freaking out about something really dramatic happening, I was able to be like, let’s keep this on track right? Let’s sit down and … In a way, he was so surprised that I wasn’t freaking out that he was willing to sit down and really work out like, “Okay, what’s your title going to be, what are you going to do?” I ended up being moved into a job that I think helped create the brand if you will or the reputation that I have today around the documentaries that we do. It ended up being an amazing thing.
Then I would go back to doing the morning show after that. Which I loved. Really I love doing interviews, I love TV but I think it was a really terrible thing that ended up becoming a really good thing. I constantly tell people, if this really terrible thing does happen to you sometimes, you’re not really positioned to take the next good thing that comes your way. It’s hard to think of that when it’s happening but I think most of us in this room would think about things that ended bady that opened the door for something interesting.
Absolutely, Steve Jobs fired from Apple, Michael Jordan cut from his basketball team, Oprah told she’s not fit for television.
I love the company you’re putting me in. Yes and Soledad O’Brien.
And Soledad O’Brien.
Yes. Thank you. Yes.
That next opportunity, what was next for you? You started Starfish.
Then I stayed at CNN probably for another 5 or 6 years and then, in the last two years when they were changing leadership and they wanted to change the direction of the morning show, I felt like I had built a reputation for the work that I wanted to do and I was ready to go do something else. Actually a couple of years before that, I’d created a production company, mostly in name only, trying to figure out, how do I do just what I want to do? When all those changes came we got a new executive to come in to lead CNN who had been my old boss actually at the Today Show years ago, years before. It just seemed like a good time to go.
I ended up leaving and started a company and it was fascinating. There were a couple of things that I really learned, one having never taken an accounting class ever, when it’s your own money you’re like, “Wait a minute. Well, wait. Wait back up. I want to study this again.” It was just fascinating. We were really fortunate. We were busy from the get go. At some point before we even had office space, we had lots and lots of orders for docs and productions and were on my dining room table and my husband would come home every day like, “Wow, that’s great. You’re not going to say here on the dining room table right? Like you’re … They’re going to move this off the dining room table at some point.”
Then we stated building a company and it’s been a really interesting experience. A really great experience and I think it gives you a lot of leverage to do the things that you want to do certainly in terms of the kind of stories that I wanted to do.
You’re most definitely a trusted news source and there was a Gallup poll that was actually released in the last day or so that said Americans have a distrust in the news and it’s an all-time low. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because in the news, what’s on the news is often not news. I think that people are at a time when we really could be having some interesting and blunt conversations about important issues. A lot of what’s airing is either this sort of yell fest back and forth. I’ll give you an example. You’re interviewing a senator and a congressman and you say … A lazy way of interviewing them is saying, “Senator Jones, thank you for being with us. So Congressman Smith called you a big fat liar, how do respond.” “I’m not a big fat liar, he’s a big fat liar.” Hang on, “Congressman Smith, Senator Jones, I think you just heard him. He said, no you’re the big fat liar. How do you respond? Okay. Thank you sir.”
You can fill 4 minutes with that but you don’t learn anything about anybody. It’s lazy interviewing. There’s a lot of that that’s just this chaotic kind of … Good interviews are hard to do. They require a ton of studying. They require you to understand policy. You have to understand what someone’s record on saying something is, you have to really spend a lot of time researching them. It’s really, really hard. It’s much easier to just have people kind of food fight in front of you and then say, “Oh we’re out of time. I want to thank you both for being with us today.” I think that’s one way in which people don’t feel like they’re getting anything out of the new.
Then of course the topics that are covered are often … I have learned more about Kim and Kanye’s second baby coming, and I think they’re a great couple I support them fully, I hope she has a healthy pregnancy. I’m really happy for her but I don’t really need that in news. I can get that on Twitter which is totally good. I think that I understand why people don’t trust the news because there’s a lot of non-news that’s being pitched as news and what ends up happening is you have this vicious cycle. You start chasing an audience and you stop covering things that are meaningful.
And making impact.
All of use in this room work for organizations and individuals who are making true impact across the globe and I think we have a tough time also when we have saved X number of lives or we’ve implemented XYZ program that is going to radically change the way medical research takes place but we’re fighting with the Kardashians of the world and others to really get our stories told. How can we as communicators be better story tellers?
I think that’s two different things because you’re talking a little bit about platforms. First, I would say the key is to figure out how to get the platforms that are interested in what you’re doing and there are platforms that are interested. You just have to figure out like, “Okay, how do we get on that platform?” A lot of the work that I’ve started doing with PBS and CNN still likes to do a lot of the stories that I think folks in this room are interested in. Then you get to storytelling, they have to be told in the right way. I’m doing for example a project with PBS around incarceration, a 5-part series that will look at incarceration in America.
It would be great to get organizations to come in and make that happen. We can easily do that and probably air sometime in the beginning of the year. There are tons of people I’m sure in this room who care about incarceration as an issue and want to make sure that they’re participating in some capacity. Then the storytelling part of it, I think often organizations do a really poor job of storytelling. Because in what you describe, nobody cares about numbers. Nobody cares about what we call the wide shot, the 35,000. They don’t.
The way you tell a story and we really learned this in our ‘Black in America’ and ‘Latino in America’ documentary series, you find one person and you tell the story though them. They don’t have to be a stand in for the rest of the world. I do remember someone in our Latino in America doc saying, “I didn’t see … I’m a Peruvian from San Antonio Texas and I didn’t see myself.” I’m like, “That’s right. You’re not in it. You’re not in this doc.” Like any storytelling, any time you try to do the big-wide picture it will be bad. It will be lame.
You have to tell stories through individual’s stories and make them relatable and so human that people say, “Oh my god. That girl’s story is not mine and yet I understand the human experience though that individual character.” You imbue them with god is in the details. Whoever said that was a genius. Because god is in the details. You want to understand what this character is going through.
I’ll give you a good example. When we did our black in America doc, I interviewed a guy named Butch Warren and he had grown up in Little Rock Arkansas and he was really distrustful of white people. He’d been beaten up at the Little Rock high school which had only recently when he was in, had been desegregated. His older cousin was one of the Little Rock 9. He really had this huge distrust.
We were talking about what it’s like to live in an impoverished neighborhood mostly minority and move to the nice neighborhood mostly white and what was gained and what lost in that. One of the things that we saw, I was having dinner with is family, did and interview, we sat down for dinner and he had 3 sons and each son had a white girlfriend. I was like, “Oh this is really interesting.” We set up the cameras again and I said, “How do you feel about that?” Here’s a guy who literally, hour and a half ago told me how he doesn’t trust white people even today and I said, “How do you feel about your sons having white wives or white girlfriend.” It was like, 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi, he said, “I’m good with it.”
It was really, to me that moment was about the arch of how we as Americans heal from racism right? You could see in his story, how do you move forward and leave behind people and move into a place … They live in white neighborhood, his sons are going to date white girls. They live in a white neighborhood, and just the challenges and the nuance to his story, which was such a great story. But you could only tell that through digging into his story. You don’t want to tell the story of the population movements over the last 15 years. That’s boring. You tell it through one guy and what it means to move ahead and leave things behind.
There’s lots of versions of that and I see it all the time in some of the storytelling that I see online where it’s generic children in a school, every year 62,000 children don’t go to school. Who’s that kid? Why don’t they go to school? What’s their story? Tell me that one story of that kid and let them be the placeholder for everybody and the only way to grab people’s hearts and really tell a story well, otherwise it’s just a lot of wide shots and I can’t really relate to it.
Can’t work with that. Tell us who are those story tellers out there or maybe those platforms that you think are doing it really well?
I think Al Jazeera America has actually done a really good job tackling some of the issues that people care about. They don’t have a huge viewership so that’s a problem and a problem they recognize and they have some issues on the digital side but I think that they are very interested in these kinds of stories. CNN absolutely, we’ll continue to produce Black in America for CNN, we’re doing our Latino in America tour now.
Just launched this May.
We just launched it and a lot of that was to say, “If you look at for 2013, 1% of the news stories were about Latinos.” 1% at a time when we’re about to come up on an election that is going to be hugely relevant to Latino population and most of that 1% was around immigration and illegal immigration. It’s like there’s so many other stories to tell. There’s so many other stories to tell. We took on this tour because we thought, could we have a conversation about the other bunch of stories that are out there that involve Latinos? It’s not just the same clichéd story that you see time and time and time again.
I think CNN, still CNN.com has a massive audience. CNN definitely has interest in that. MSNBC, they’re revamping their coverage and so I think we’re going to see over the next couple of months, the kinds of stories that they want to see, they’ve really shifted. Certainly the Guardian is a great organization. PBS has always been fantastic and has a great platform. I think that they’re a really good organization to work with round storytelling. I think there’s actually a lot. You’re not going to get on Entertainment tonight unless Kim Kardashian does come with you to your, whatever it is that you’re doing. But I don’t know that that’s where you want to be. I think that there’s actually a lot of organizations, tons of print, tons of blogs, tons of podcast. I think there’s a lot of opportunity actually, but you have to have a story.
Start with that person. I want to talk a little bit about the millennial generation. I am the last of the millennials.
Me too. I wish.
80 million strong and at the Case Foundation it’s a generation that we’ve explored and researched to understand how they give, connect, interact with philanthropy, non-profits and causes. They’ve often been labelled as lazy and narcissistic and a generation that’s quite selfish. We really feel that at the Case Foundation it’s the exact opposite.
I agree with you.
The way that they’re consuming news is quite different than the way our parent’s generation and our grandparent’s generation did. How are you as a storyteller, as a producer, as a journalist, adopting to this changing generation that’s consuming in 140 characters?
Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes not even. I think that the snap chat is really how they’re consuming news and sometimes for the older millennials, Facebook. I think you reach people where they are. I agree with your assessment. Millennial are the most interested in social issues. They absolutely are passionate and obsessed. I was hosting the Global Citizen Festival which focuses on Global Poverty and its eradication in 2030 and it was full of millennials who really are trying to figure out how can I be a voice for something that I believe in? They have a very honed sense of injustice and really want to personally make a difference. I’ve not found millennial to be lazy. I have found them easy to walk if they feel like this is not what I want to do. They don’t feel like they have to dive in and spend the next 10 years slogging away to get to the next level.
I think the way you reach them is where they are. It’s funny talking, my oldest daughter is 15 and then I have a 13 year-old daughter and 2 11-year-old twin boys. She just thinks that it’s just so bizarre that people watch TV at a certain time. She’s like, “You guys … You all would sit down to watch Seinfeld … Like so everybody would like run to the living room and watch the show? Like …”
And record it on the VCR?
She just thinks it’s the most amazing. “But like everybody would come together and you just sit there and together watch a show?” It’s just bizarre for her. She can’t imagine it. I think that the way that she gets her information is much different and the way I deal with her in information. I don’t leave her post-it notes around the house, we text all day, that’s how we communicate. It’s the same thing, you find the issues that matter. I think the great news is that millennials are very engaged in the issues that interest everybody in this room.
It’s because of that very finely honed sense of injustice. For example right, you see the photo of the Syrian man carrying his dead baby right? That was brutal, that was the one story that spoke for the entire issue. That moves young people in a way that I think older people are like, “Well that’s really sad. Click, let’s go on to the next thing.” How you manage that and how you engage that is to reach them where they are. To reach them where they are and not to put out things where they’re not and expect that somehow they’re going to be interested in what you’re doing.
Hashtags I feel millennials have obviously the Twitter force for good. Bring back our girls, Gaza under attack, there’s a number of hashtags that are mobilizing these movements that are raising awareness for issues across the globe. How do you feel about just the onslaught of hashtags? Are they good for the news or are they bad for it?
Yeah. I think to me that’s a way to search and issue and really hear the disparate voices. If anybody went into a thinking that somehow putting a hashtag in your Tweet was going to move mountains it’s just not. But awareness is a very big part of getting people to action. It’s a long road. Everybody in this room. It’s a long road. You have to start with awareness. That’s not a small thing. I think what the global citizen’s festival has done is to bring awareness to issues by using this rock festival to also say, “But you know there are a lot of people who are doing this and this and this and this. Now that you’re here, let’s give you the message of awareness of global poverty.” I guess most people who come to that festival 5 years ago didn’t even know what global poverty meant. I think a hashtag is about a way of saying let’s bring your awareness around this issue. Let’s not let this drop so that you forget it. But it’s not literally to tangibly make some different but I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. I think it’s an interesting way, and certainly search-wise, if you want to track down a number of voices who are having a conversation around an issue, that’s huge.
Absolutely. Do you find yourself as a journalist trying to dig into a story, find new ideas, are you using at all that as a tool to find new stories?
Always, always. Listen, what was unfolding in Ferguson Missouri if you remember was at the same time that every news organization was attending the White House Correspondence dinner. It was the craziest thing. I’m obsessed with Twitter. I love Twitter. I fight with people like crazy on Twitter.
I try not to fight with people who are eggs on Twitter because clearly they’re like a 12-year-old boy in their mother’s basement so that’s a waste of time, but I really enjoy it. But you’re reading this Twitter account of what’s happening like tanks rolling through the streets of Ferguson right? And you’re watching, that’s right, at table number 7 we’ve got so and so sitting with whoever for the White House correspondence dinner.
It was just such a weird … Because it’s news organizations. It was such a weird … I don’t know how many people remember that, weird juxtaposition of like you all should get up and go cover a story that’s breaking not very far from where you all are but instead you’re all in ball gowns. Guess what? Because of Twitter, the next day, they all went and covered that story. They really ignored it the day it was unfolding and they covered it the next day. They covered it only because that story was so big and taking over on Twitter, they couldn’t ignore it. I think that was a really excellent example of the power of social media to move everybody else off their buts to go cover something that was worthy of being covered.
I love that. A few years ago, let’s say few, it was a while ago, you hosted a show called The Site.
A few years ago. I hosted that show in 1993.
A few years ago, few years.
It was one of the first television programs that covered …
… technology at a time when we didn’t have Facebook we didn’t have …
I interviewed Steve Case.
You interviewed my boss. To look at where that show came from with your tinny little avatar next to you which was next to you at that time, and where we are today and how technology has really morphed news. There’s 700-plus cable news stations and we have so many different platforms. How has that made you as a communicator have to adopt with the times and …
It’s fantastic. It’s so much better. Honestly as an independent producer, when we started our company, we thought we could do this model of could you work for everybody. Usually, you work for CNN, CNN pays your benefits, you have a job that goes from this to this and every day you come in and that’s what you do. You know and then if you don’t want to be there you leave and you go do something else. We decided, could you create a model where you just are serving a lot of different organizations? I report for HBO Real Sports, I report for PBS, I report for Al Jazeera, I report for CNN, I do some stuff for Nat Geo. There’s a really different model but the only reason you can do that no is because there are so many platforms out there that they actually all need a lot of content and they’re looking for content that’s going to make them distinct from other organizations because we do very specific and targeted things.
Yeah, I think that one, all those platforms has only been a huge bonus and I tell all the people in journalism, and people who are interested in reaching those platforms that that’s a good thing. That show, years ago, first of all we had a 56-6 modem and we would spend 8 hours shooting a 1-hour show. Literally we would go and spend the day shooting a show. I was an hour long news cast on technology. What made it interesting was we were digging into technology like anthropologists. How do you use technology to track down your adoptive parents, your birth parents if you’re adopted?
I think that technology has only been an amazing thing. It’s all about how you leverage it and use it and how you have to not be overwhelmed by it? You have to make sure you’re leveraging it. It’s an incredible tool. It’s an amazing too. I do not need to go back to 1993 and do a show where we’re all going to lunch because we’re waiting for the visuals to load. Literally we would go out to lunch and then come back an hour and a half later and go like, “Yup, almost ready.” It was a great thing to do but it was … But where we are now is obviously much better.
Much better. Some would say. I want to open it up to the audience and while we’re getting the microphones going around, I want to ask you, since your daughter mentioned that couldn’t believe that you had actually sat around a couch and gathered together, what is on your DVR when you get back.
I DVR nothing. I DVR nothing.
Is there anything that you’re …
I literally don’t have time. No. What I try to do is do a lot of Netflix, has been a really interesting way to see things in bulk, I think that that’s been great. We can record stuff because we have a studio so obviously we do it that way and I can just see it on my …
Were you a House of Cards fan?
Yeah, but you know, I had to because I was in House of Cards, they just sent me the series. But I really don’t sit around and watch a ton of television. I get a lot of my information and even documentaries that I’m watching and even news shows that I’m watching, a lot of them I’m watching on my phone. I think a lot of people now are really using their mobile devices to get information. I have 4 children. When do I have the time to sit down and watch a show? I’m on a plane, I’ll watch an entire season of Scandal or an entire season of Orange is the New Black but I really don’t casually lounge in my living room watching the things that … Maybe one day I’ll get to that point where everybody’s gone off to college …
In your empty nest.
That would be a really nice thing.
Questions from the audience.
Audience: Could you specifically talk about how to find that one person.
Sure. Absolutely. That is on literally what I do for a living. This year we did a project with cover girl. They had a platform called Girls Can and they asked us to find young women who were overcoming issues that they could use to profile around this platform. The first thing we do is we, as producers, just start digging into the issues. We ended up doing 4 mini docks for them, each ran 10 minutes long.
The first one focused on a young woman who is African American and she’s on the cusp of becoming the first black female chess master but she grew up in poverty and interestingly, which I’d never know about chess it’s actually kids who are great at chess now have sponsors, they have high tech computer programs to run through the chess moves and to give them feedback on what they’ve messed up. She’s trying to compete at a level where she can’t afford any of this stuff and she’s really, really good but she’s sort of stuck.
She brings a notebook and every time she has a chess match in some competition, she writes it down by hand and then if she has a chance to run into a mentor or someone who can help her, they reenact the entire match. She’s doing it by paper and pen when everybody else just hits their computer enter and absolutely can see what they’ve done. How we found her was just to sit down and say, “Okay, if we’re looking for young women who are overcoming, we just start researching, reading.” It’s just how we do news research. You just start searching and eventually similar people start popping up. Different stories start popping up.
Another woman we did was a young woman who’s native American named Tina who served in the military, had gone into the military because finances, she wanted to go to college she shouldn’t afford it and came back after serving in Iraq with horrible post-traumatic stress. She’s in Idaho and we went out to her community and spent a lot of time covering what she was doing to try to cure herself of really horrific post-traumatic stress and how little money was being spent actually on women in post-traumatic stress.
The way we found her was there were lots of organizations that help veterans. We went out to sit in on one of their programs that was a … They take them into the field and put them through all these different, what would you call them, like ropes courses and meditation classes and we met her there. You just go and it’s basic reporting. You go, you camp out, you chat with people and you figure out are they a good candidate? Are they a good talker? Do they have an interesting background? Can they connect their dots from their story to the bigger story?
The third woman we did was a model. I had met her at an event. She, in the middle of her story, 10-minute doc, she says, “Well you know I was born a boy in the Philippines.” She talks about her life growing up in a community in the Philippines that really embraced people who are transgender but actually when they were off the stage hated them and how she came to the United States to create this career as a model. She walks in all the big shows but the terror she had that somebody would out her one day as being transgender. She said, “Every time I’d go on a shoot, I would just think like, is today the day that somebody outs me?” Fascinating story.
Then the third one was a young rapper who’s Latina who really grew up above her grandparent’s garage in poverty and decide that she wanted to become a rapper. It’s basic reporting. You land somewhere and you start digging through people and you start saying, “You know this person’s good but their story is not that interesting. This next person’s got a great story but they’re not a good talker.” It’s just literally time on the ground and listening for those sound bites and are they able to connect the dots.
We do it for HBO Real Sports, we do it for any story that we do in the news and I think anybody here, that’s what you need to do. You need to go find that great character who can be the stand in so that when you ask them, “Outside of your story, let’s talk about the big thing.” They can make those connections right? They can connect the dots for you and that’s the way to tell the story.
It’s actually not very hard. It literal is just shunting through people. It’s not an art and you have to just know what you’re listening for.
Audience: As you know, we’re getting a lot of our information out from our social symbols and from social media. Like you said we’re pretty siloed and we tend to watch the things that we agree with and ignore the things that you don’t. How do you encourage a healthy debate? An authentic debate?
I think that’s really hard. I really do. I think most people are not very comfortable with debate. I think it’s actually one of the issues that we’ve had in this country around race right? It’s like it’s so uncomfortable that why would you ever want to … Why would you want to be involved in that kind of conversation? I think it’s a tough thing. I think awkward and uncomfortable conversations are really important and also I’m just saying that people don’t have to agree but shows are no-longer set up with the idea of let’s have a debate on the issue. Some still are but it’s really tough. People now tend to talk to the converted and sometimes shout to the converted about an issue. It’s really, really difficult.
Audience: Why does the news tend to be so negative and kind of, I would say, toxic. Even working in that field, I was being poisoned by it myself. What can we do to make them part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
I think we’re seeing a lot of people sort of flee the typical news. I completely agree with you. You know what’s interesting? When you cover stories, usually they’ve very inspiring. Usually there’s a lot of bad to tell. Certainly like Hurricane Katrina, for an example, was lots of terrible things to tell but the people around you were actually very inspiring. Imagine taking 30 people into your home. By the way, those people, it’s unclear when they’re going to be leaving. But you have relatives, you have … There were so many people who did these amazing, really heroic things. I don’t think that they get enough coverage.
I don’t know. It started for me in local news where you almost wanted to focus on scaring the crap out of people. Like terrible tragedy to tell you about and they wouldn’t even tell you where? You’re like, “Oh where? On my street?” it’s become a bit of a shorthand. I think you’re right. I think people have sort of moved away from that. I think people want understanding right? I think you want basic, yes, there’s something terrible that’s happened over there, one, I want to avoid going there for now but also, I want to understand it and I think we’re getting short on really understanding issues. We’re just doing these little shot-hand ways to scare people.
When I worked in local news, one of the things that we would do is very much in collusion frankly, with law enforcement, right? If we knew they were doing a perp walk, they would time it to all the cameras coming out. They would wait for you right? “Oh, I’m going to be 5 minutes.” “Okay, we’ll hold the guy.” Because you needed b-roll of the guy walking right?
They would walk him in some completely unnecessary random circle past the cameras so that you had video to cover the story. We weren’t capturing, like, wow, we happened to catch this, usually, it was organized. That happens a lot, those perp walks and I think for a lot of journalist it took … Certainly I was really young when I worked in local news. I didn’t really understand what we were creating and what we were doing but they’re feeding off each other right? You need them to give you the video and then they need you to show the suspect and so it’s a bit of a dance.
Audience: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what you do to make sure that you’re honoring and respecting the people whose stories you are telling. I think the stories we’re interested in telling in this room, that they can be inspiring but there’s a lot of vulnerability there and it could be useful for the causes we’re trying to advance but …
Yeah, like poverty porn they talk about right?
This idea that at some point you’re just running in and saying, “Tell me all the horrible things and didn’t something horrible happen to you?” I’ll tell you a great story. When I did our second ‘Black in America’ documentary, we told the story of a guy named Steve Perry who runs a school and one of this students was a young woman who was trying to go to college. Her name is Glorious Menefee and Glorious actually happens to be one of our scholars now.
I was working with this producer on this documentary and the script, usually the producer does the first pass on the script said, “Glorious Menefee’s mother is a crack addict and her father is an alcoholic. I was like, “Well, I mean, that’s true but that really not about Glorious right?” Glorious Menefee is an 18-year-old girl who’s trying to go to college. I’m not trying to hide the things that are true but I also don’t think that we’re really being true to who this woman is as a human being.
I said to the producer, “If this were a 12-year-old white kid from suburban New Jersey, we’d be saying, “Little Bobby Smith loves baseball. He wants to be Derek Jeter when he grows up. And every night he sleeps with his mitt under his mattress because what he’s trying to do is blah, blah, blah.” We’d go into, and we often, for people not in poverty and not in color we give them the full story of who they are. We’re very good about it. When it comes to people of color we use this shorthand. They’re in the ghetto, they’re in poverty, they were rapped as a child. We just do this little like tick it off, almost, truly, dehumanizing them.
I think you have to very forcefully be true. People are a mix of bad and good and where I think what you can really do is we added value to Glorious’s story by telling her true story and not lying about her story, you certainly don’t want to leave that stuff out, it’s relevant but Glorious Menefee our script ended up saying, is a B student who wants to go to college. She’s on the lacrosse team and is debate captain and is a peer mentor in blah …
We told Glorious’s story, all those things that make her a human being. The fact that her mother was a crack addict we went on, really destabilized her middle school years because her mother was in prison at a time when she really needed a mom. Her father’s alcoholism has left the family often spiraling because it really keeps him very dysfunctional. You just tell it honestly but not using the shorthand that we in news use a lot.
I’ve written a lot on this, we call someone a thug, I don’t even know what that means. My version of thug and your version of thug might be very different. You say someone lives in the ghetto. What does that mean? Your version of a ghetto and what I see when I think ghetto might be very different. It really is back to the details. Who is Glorious? Don’t make it up and don’t try to diminish the things that seem negative. Just tell them honestly and truthfully. I think certainly around race and around class issues, we give some people get 100 stories, they get a very nuance look and most people get … Poor black people get 5 stories, most of them about crime and sports and poor Latinos only get stories about immigration and Asian people get a story about, well, they’re all great in school when really the demographics would show you that there’s a lot of struggle in that community around education.
If you’re Native American usually you won’t get any coverage at all. An issue where every single child in I think 4th Grade has studied Native Americans and they never will revisit them again. It’s insane. It’s just detail and being very honest in the way that if someone were going to tell your story right? They’d tell the good and the bad and that would be a better version of who you are.
Soledad, we have a quote up on the screen from you it says, “If you can tell a story well you can move people to do something.” I think each of us in this room, every day when we walk into our offices, that’s what we’re looking to do. Is to move people. I hope that each of you have enjoyed this conversation and I obviously encourage you to follow her on Twitter because she will tweet Back. Please feel free to chat with her afterwards and if you have any questions but thank you all for joining us and thank you Soledad.
Thank you. Thanks for having me.