En español | Today is not a “freak-out” day. Soledad O’Brien, the no-fuss CNN anchor and special correspondent, isn’t on the scene of an earthquake or tsunami, covering its devastating aftermath. The mother of four poses amidst cameras and lights in her expansive Manhattan loft, ready for today’s photo shoot.
Five-year-old twins Charlie and Jackson regale her with knock-knock jokes. Everything’s cool, if you don’t count Valentina the cat tearing through the room, barely missing the camera lights. O’Brien, 43, stays calm, even as the boys race down the hallway, arms flailing, voices rising.
Nearby stands close friend Kim Bondy. Family, says Bondy, shapes O’Brien and her reporting. “I watched her become a better journalist after she became responsible for people on the planet,” says the former CNN producer, who in 2005 covered Hurricane Katrina with O’Brien and knew she had left her year-old twins behind. “She was more compassionate, from a storytelling point of view.”
A New Orleans native, Bondy found her own house destroyed and her parents temporarily missing after the hurricane. “I was just trying to maintain my sanity, and then I heard Soledad express the outrage we were all feeling: ‘How could you not get food and water to people in a major U.S. city?” That was the moment I felt most connected with her.”
Don’t be fooled by O’Brien’s seemingly effortless ability to connect with diverse audiences. It’s a skill honed over 20 years in television news—from her days as a scrappy intern fetching packets of Equal for reporters’ coffee to the consummate journalist she is today, say colleagues and friends who are close to her.
But it’s those moments when composure cracks and O’Brien’s emotions take over that reveal her often hidden side. The calamities may have lasted only seconds, but she still feels emotional aftershocks from the earthquakes that shattered Haiti and Chile early this year. “There are hundreds of thousands of children who are in dire need,” she says, her voice breaking as she recalls holding an orphaned Haitian toddler whose gaze was that of an 80-year-old.
Getting home to her own children had to wait. Flying back from Port-au-Prince, with Haitian dirt still in her clothes and horrific images in her mind, news broke of Chile’s calamity. Immediately, she and CNN producer Rose Arce embarked on a 48-hour sleepless odyssey to the South American nation.
With a car battery powering the cameras, O’Brien reported as people rioted and looted and as tanks raced through the streets of Concepción. “Soledad has an ability that few journalists do to focus on the human story and block out how the challenging conditions are affecting her at the moment,” Arce says.
Despite such challenges and her evolution as a journalist, those closest to her say she still embodies the young Harvard graduate who does her research, rarely turns down an assignment, and always keeps her sense of humor.
“I’ve never had more fun doing television than with Soledad,” says former CNN co-anchor Miles O’Brien (no relation). “She’s truly the overachiever she’s made out to be. She comes to it with the desire to do the job in a serious way, but she doesn’t take herself too seriously.”
And she balances her life by managing it well, Miles says. “She taught me about being Miles O’Brien Inc. She has a keen sense of priorities. She taught me how to focus on the things that are important and outsource the things that aren’t."
Right now, at home, Soledad is focusing on Charlie and Jackson. Sofia, 9, and Cecilia, 8, are on a play date, their presence reflected only in their artwork on the walls. O’Brien tells the boys that today—and only today—they can break house rules and jump on the living room table for a photo. They go for it.