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by Carlos J. Queirós, AARP VIVA, Summer 2010
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.
O’Brien is the daughter of immigrants, a black Cuban mother and an Irish Australian father who married in Washington, D.C., because interracial marriage was illegal in Maryland. They settled in Long Island, New York, where Soledad was born, the fifth of six children, all Harvard graduates. “I have a different perspective than others on issues of race,” she says. “Sometimes a question that may seem offensive coming from another person, with me comes from a place of understanding, of struggling with identity.”
She brings that understanding to her work, whether covering a disaster or hosting a documentary, such as Latino in America, which aired in 2009. “Until she did that documentary, I don’t think Soledad even realized how passionate she is about the destiny of Latinos in this country,” says Arce, also the daughter of immigrants. “Soledad always considered herself a member of the community, but I’m not sure she knew how vital she is to Latinos, how much she can really do as far as telling their story.”
Her high-profile platform allows her to keep telling those stories and spotlighting the role of education, especially among underrepresented groups.
“I’m in an absolute panic over public education,” O’Brien says. “You can’t have a wide swath of the population struggling with education and expect the country is going to do well.”
Just because the cameras stop rolling doesn’t mean Soledad does. She and her husband, who is an investment banker, established the Soledad O’Brien and Bradley Raymond Foundation, which provides grants to needy students.
She learned of one potential recipient’s plight while filming the documentary Black in America in 2008. Young mother Nya Buckley, 20, was struggling. “I had no one I could talk to about the issues I was having at home,” says Buckley who plans to graduate with a 3.0 grade point average this fall. “Soledad’s now putting my son and me through school. Now I can call or e-mail Soledad and tell her about anything that’s on my mind or just to say ‘Hello.’”
And that’s exactly what O’Brien hopes her legacy will reflect. It’s not about having her name chiseled into buildings, she says, but about inspiring others and offering a helping hand, wherever that may be.
After working on Rescued, a documentary about Haiti’s orphanages that premiered in May 2010, then covering the earthquake, she knew her next step. This summer, she and daughter Sofia plan to volunteer at a Haitian orphanage. “This is to open her eyes,” O’Brien says. “I want my kids to have a giving spirit and understand we’re all linked.”
But when nothing seems connected—when catastrophe hits, chaos reigns, and home and children have to be left behind—then it’s her turn to get a helping hand.
That’s when her husband steps in. “The advice I always give people is get a partner who is supportive,” O’Brien says. “When one person is freaking out or is just overwhelmed or overworked, the other person doesn’t get to be. Only one person can freak out at a time.”
And today isn’t her turn.
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