Journalists who have thin skin might want to think twice about reading Soledad O’Brien’s Twitter feed.
The former CNN anchor who now runs her own New York-based production company has used her social media account (@soledadobrien) to take her peers to task before her 1.2 million followers.
She frequently berates the New York Times and CNN for headlines and takes that she believes normalize President Trump’s often unpresidential behavior (the term “racially insensitive” to describe racist statements is a particular target).
Hypocrisy doesn’t escape her, such as the time former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was given a going-away party by the correspondents she often lied to during briefings. (“Why would the lady from Politico organize a reception for the very person who undermined their jobs?”)
O’Brien, 53, does not forgive or forget. More than once she has referred to former NBC News anchor Megyn Kelly’s on-air remarks about blackface, which led to Kelly’s departure from the network in January 2019. (Kelly declined to comment for this article.)
O’Brien might have difficulty wielding her unfiltered online blowtorch if she still toiled full-time for a big network news operation. But her two-word Twitter bio — “boss lady” — explains her freedom.
Since leaving CNN in 2013 after her contract was not renewed, O’Brien has run her own eponymous company, where she creates documentaries, specials and podcasts, and offers her services as an on-air talent (CNN was her first client).
Until recently, O’Brien would travel to Washington, D.C., to host and produce “Matter of Fact,” a syndicated weekly public affairs show for Hearst Television that averages close to 2 million viewers. During the pandemic, she has taped the show out of her home.
The company’s TV station group is also running her coronavirus documentary, “Outbreak: Seattle,” which homes in on how the coronavirus has affected the most vulnerable populations in the city. She is also correspondent for HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” where she does several segments per season.
In between those projects O’Brien delivers her running Twitter commentary, which many journalists find an entertaining must-read — especially if they are not on the receiving end of her barbs. The 30-year TV news veteran, who has rarely shied from speaking her mind, believes her tweets are a service in an era when news is often interpreted through a partisan prism.
“It’s very much my voice and how I think about things and talk about things,” O’Brien said during a recent video chat from her home in Dutchess County, N.Y. “You’re a reporter, and you’re supposed to be held to a certain standard. Journalistic cowardice is a crime and should be pointed out.”
The agents and lawyers who cut her business deals have never told her to cool it on Twitter, although she has responded to one criticism.
“Someone did say ‘Could you stop saying the F-word?’” she said. “And then my children said, ‘We think we agree with that, Mom. You curse so much and you should stop. It’s so embarrassing.’ So I’ve tried to curse less.”
While that effort is still a work in progress, O’Brien’s candor hasn’t deterred her from tapping into the increased demand for nonfiction programming across cable networks and streaming services. She has a documentary series in the works at HBO, projects pending at other networks and will soon launch a limited true crime podcast for Luminary. She recently pitched a scripted series to “Empire” creator Lee Daniels that is loosely based on her experiences as a TV news anchor.
While cable news has become more about partisan politics, she notes that other outlets are open to take on more nonfiction projects.
Even with strong opinions she is not afraid to dispense, O’Brien has no desire to get into the cable news commentary business, which has been booming since she departed CNN. Nor does she want to get back into anchoring after two stints on the network’s morning programs.
Once eager to book a flight on short notice to cover breaking stories such as Hurricane Katrina and the earthquakes in Haiti that could keep her on the air for hours at a time, she now enjoys having control over her time and assignments.
“I loved anchoring but I would not want to do that now,” said O’Brien, who has two daughters, ages 19 and 18, and 15-year-old twin boys with her investment banker husband Brad Raymond. “It’s very hard to sustain, it’s exhausting, and you’re never around. I mean, I was never, ever, class mom on anything for my older daughters, who remind me of it constantly.”
The main driver in O’Brien’s recent career path has been the ability to focus on topics she cares about and not have to follow the dictates of ratings-driven TV news executives. She noted that her latest documentary feature, “Hungry to Learn,” about food insecurity among debt-ridden college students, is the type of subject executives would dismiss as “too earnest.” The film, scheduled to debut at the since-canceled South By Southwest Film Festival, will be distributed for educational use.
O’Brien has tried to make “Matter of Fact” an alternative to the Beltway-centric Sunday shows, with reports that focus on people affected by issues rather than depending on pundits or elected officials.
“If we’re going to do a story on poverty, shouldn’t we be hearing from someone who’s in poverty, as opposed to the lawmaker who’s going to talk about this thing that they’re proposing?” she said.
O’Brien is the daughter of immigrants — her mother was Afro Cuban and her father a white man from Australia. They were unable to get married in their home state of Maryland in the 1960s and were asked to be plaintiffs in the successful legal challenge on the state’s ban on interracial marriage (they declined and exchanged vows in Washington, D.C.).
The family they raised is a great American success story. O’Brien grew up in the mostly white middle-class community of St. James, N.Y., fighting the stereotypes associated with her skin color and, like all five of her siblings, going on to graduate from Harvard University. She launched her successful award-winning career at NBC’s Boston affiliate where she became a production assistant before she got her college degree.
O’Brien’s understanding of race and ethnicity in the United States has informed her work, especially at CNN, where she had her own documentary unit. Her series “Black in America” — at the time an unprecedented TV examination of racial issues — delivered large audiences and industry kudos. She followed it with “Latino in America.”
“Those programs really brought out the best in her,” said Jon Klein, the former CNN president who gave her the assignment. “She’s suited to asking the tough questions in a manner that elicits powerful answers.”
O’Brien’s background has made her Twitter radar particularly responsive to the coverage of race. She recently roughed up Ed Henry, a former colleague now working at Fox News, after he teed up a question to a Republican congressman on why the coronavirus relief bill included $13 million for predominantly black Howard University, without noting that the school’s hospital was central to handling the pandemic in Washington, D.C.
“There was no context,” she said. “There was just, ‘A bunch of black people are getting this money.’ I will go to my grave calling out racist [remarks]. And I think it’s not done enough.”
In a statement, Henry responded: “Soledad’s beef is with the Washington Post, which reported the money for Howard University was ‘far afield’ of the pandemic. Neither the Post nor I mentioned race. When we worked together at CNN, Soledad invited me to her weekend home so our children could swim together. Now that I am at Fox News Channel she changes her tune and goes to the gutter with pathetic insults.”
Like other TV personalities, the pandemic shutdown has kept O’Brien out of her offices and her studio. Her downtime has been filled with watching “NCIS” repeats with her children and caring for a foster puppy. She has been shooting “Matter of Fact” in her bedroom using an iPhone. But HBO shipped cameras and lighting equipment for her next shoot for “Real Sports.” (O’Brien calls it “the best show on the air ... it’s got to look fancy.”) Her well-stocked closet is her audio booth.
“My husband does not believe that the clothes is what makes all the audio sound better,” O’Brien said. “But I keep trying to convince him.”