Interview originally published May 1
This weekend, Cornell will hold its 139th Commencement, with CNN special correspondent Soledad O'Brien giving the Convocation address on Saturday. The Sun spoke with O'Brien recently about her career, the media today and her upcoming speech.
The Sun: What inspired you to pursue a career in journalism?
Soledad O’Brien: I was actually pre-med in college, and I got my first job in journalism working for a medical reporter because I was pre-med. I decided not to go to medical school, and I didn’t know what else to do, so I started working for a TV station in Boston. After that, I kept working and working. My pre-med background was really helpful in getting a job.
Sun: What do you think of the current state of media?
O’Brien: In some ways, I’ve been really encouraged by the state of media. I think that it’s very easy to criticize, but what I’ve found is that with “news” outlets like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, since they’re satire, audiences really need to know a lot more about what is going on in the news. I have found that students that I go talk to — and I talk to a lot to students — are really well-informed and really have positions on important things that are happening in their world that maybe I didn’t see when I was a student.
Sun: How do you think student participation and activism in national issues has changed since you were in college?
O’Brien: When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, there were not a lot of protests — we certainly were not involved in a war — but for me, it’s much more of a sense that students have a much greater understanding of their place in the world. A lot of that has to do with the changes that have happened since I was an undergraduate. We are part of this global society, where what happens in China does matter in the United States; what happens to us environmentally here does make a difference in the rainforest. We are all connected. These days, young people and older people all understand that.
Sun: How would you characterize the current administration’s receptiveness to students’ concerns?
O’Brien: I think that that is one of those things that remains to be seen. The bottom line is that the voters have spoken in a big way. Maybe a bigger question is, “Has the President been doing a good job listening to the concerns of the voters?” Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer to that question. I think that students have the same concerns in a lot of ways that everyone has. People want jobs, they want security, they want fairness. People want to know that when they get out of school, they’re going to have jobs and they’re going to save money for retirement. We all kind of want the same thing.
I think that one of the concerns that I hear from students — mostly women but growing among men — is how to work and have a family. The other concern that people have is how to make a difference in the world. For both of those questions, I feel like I have a pretty good perspective.
Sun: What do you think of the criticism often directed at American media outlets covering international news, especially the conflict in Iraq: that they don’t paint a complete picture of what’s actually going?
O’Brien: I think that overall that’s very true. The American media does not paint a complete picture of what is going on, and I think nowadays you see the American public demanding that complete picture. There are a lot of questions we ask: Why don’t we show coffins with flags draped on them? By “we” I mean American society, not CNN. Why does this make us queasy? If you watch news overseas, you certainly see what we would consider to be much more graphic pictures. It’s war; it’s real. People are happy to watch that in a movie, and yet not happy to watch that when it’s actually real life. Until the American people demand it, it’s really not going to change.
Sun: Where do you see journalism crossing the line between respecting an individual’s right to privacy and reporting the news?
O’Brien: I think everybody knows the line because it makes you feel incredibly uncomfortable. One of the things that guides me and always has is that I make sure to talk to people that want to talk to me. You do that and you automatically have a different tone. People want to sit down and tell you their story, and that makes a big difference. Whether it’s a tragedy of mass proportions or a tragedy within a family that might involve two or three or four people, it’s still hugely important to them. No matter what, the strategy is still the same: talking to me will allow us to tell the story better. Often, nine times out of ten, people say, “yes I want to tell the story.” Certainly in Hurricane Katrina we saw this.
Sun: What message do you want to impart on the senior class before they step out into the real world?
O’Brien: Seizing opportunities and taking chances. I think of times that I haven’t taken my opportunities that have come to me and some of the opportunities I’ve had to fight for. I think students are really incredibly well prepared in this day and age to do anything they want. They have to figure out what is it they want and what is it they are willing to sacrifice to do it. Are you willing to sacrifice your family? Are you willing to sacrifice a balance in your life? What do you want to do? That’s the theme that I’m going to be talking about.