Soledad O’Brien remembers a girl in her high school on Long Island, New York, who broke a front tooth and went for many months without getting it fixed.
O’Brien grew up in a stable, comfortable home and never had to worry about shelter, food, medical care, or other valuable parts of stable living. And she never gave much thought to why the girl didn’t get her tooth fixed.
But the girl and her front tooth are still on her mind decades later. That girl makes her think about all the young women, then and now, who live unstable lives, who can’t meet daily needs that are met without much thought in other homes. “I was so naive and stupid about those things,” O’Brien said during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School on Tuesday.
“What sixteen-year-old girl walks around (with a broken front tooth). Think about her family circumstances, and think about what this girl was going through that that was completely normal. I don’t think I ever thought about poverty, I don’t think I ever thought about access to health care, or all these things as a journalist I would really dig in to.”
A few minutes later, as she was talking about covering the aftermath of an earthquake in Haiti in 2010 that killed tens of thousands of people, she returned to the girl with the missing tooth.
“I am sure that if, in my high school, I had been standing with a young woman who had grown up in poverty, she would have said, do you see that girl who is missing a tooth? How do you not see that, Soledad? You don’t see it because you are a comfortable middle-class girl who doesn’t have to see, you have never thought about it one minute of your life, because your parents are teachers and they have excellent dental care. You don’t have to see this.”
Now, she is dedicated to seeing people like that student. “I think that translates into story coverage,” she said. Genuinely seeing people whose stories don’t get the attention they deserve, digging in depth into issues many hesitate to touch, and reporting with passion and authenticity have made O’Brien one of the most respected and prominent journalists in the nation. A former CNN and NBC anchor, an author and documentary film maker, she is founder and CEO of a media company, Starfish Media Group, and anchor of “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien,” a weekly political magazine program shown nationwide on the Hearst television network and elsewhere.
The program with Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, was part of a full day of events for O’Brien on the Marquette University campus, capped by delivering the annual Nieman Lecture, hosted by the J. William and Mary Diederich College of Communications.
In her conversation with Gousha, O’Brien hit frequently on a theme: There are people whose stories are important and compelling, and they aren’t always the ones in the biggest positions or who are at the head of a march. One in five children in America live in poverty, she said, but “when was the last time you saw a story on child poverty?”
O’Brien said she loves it that the pieces she does sometimes make people uncomfortable. That can be a way to prod thinking. She sometimes wants to ask people, “What have you been lulled in to?”
She was bluntly critical of the venue in which she has made much of her living, television news. “TV news is painful to watch,” she said. Why? “It’s structured around people yelling at each other. . . . The opportunity to educate people is something we just don’t see on television.” The yelling and the drama of television talk programs is “a waste of a platform,” she said. She said the Sunday morning major network news talk shows too often offer “the same people all the time,” adding, “It’s offensive”
Issues around death and dying. Care giving. What’s happening along the Mexican border, through the eyes of people who live there. These are all subjects that capture O’Brien’s attention.
And she and her husband, Brad Raymond, launched a philanthropy, the PowHERful Foundation, which helps young women get to and through college. The foundation offers scholarships, but also helps recipients overcome obstacles that can get in the way of students succeeding through mentoring, counseling, or other help.
VIdeo of the one-hour program may be seen by clicking here.