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Soledad O’Brien on journalism’s failures in the Trump era

The reporter and Twitter gadfly says her new podcast is “about what’s happening in society and social change, in a way that looks at that as political.”

Soledad O’Brien on journalism’s failures in the Trump era
[Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Lifetime]
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A 30-year veteran of the news business, Soledad O’Brien has earned the right to speak freely about the state of the world in general and journalism in particular. That’s one of the big draws of the ex-CNN anchor’s spicy Twitter feed, which has gained her more than 2 million followers.

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Very Opinionated with Soledad O’Brien is an extension of O’Brien’s pithier exchanges on Twitter. On recent episodes it’s explored issues as diverse as Native Americans’ fight for CARES Act money, the U.S. Capitol riot, and the firing of Google AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru.

Very Opinionated is part of Quake, a subscription service that costs $3 a month or $30 a year and also offers shows featuring Fox News host Laura Ingraham, Florida gubernatorial contender Andrew Gillum, and Republican politician/pundit Mike Huckabee, among others. I spoke to O’Brien about her new podcast, its topics and approach, and the crazy political and media environment it tries to explain. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Fast Company: The political conversation in this country is as rancorous as it’s ever been in my lifetime, and much of that conversation now happens on social media.  Sometimes I really wonder if Facebook and Twitter are good settings for the national political conversation.

Soledad O’Brien: In a way, [they’re] a great place, because I think technology has always been an amazing way for like-minded people to find each other. If you think about it, that’s just an incredible thing. But often social media platforms don’t really allow for a lot of context, and a lot of conversations actually require a lot of context.

I’m obsessed with Twitter, even as I call it a cesspool—which describes probably everybody on social media–because I like that ability to have conversations and break through and just talk to the people you want to talk to you. It’s really fascinating.

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We always start the podcast with a look at the conversation that Twitter is having, to hear the nuggets that people are talking about on social media, and then do a deeper dive into a conversation with the main person that we’re chatting with that day. I want to give my opinion, but it’s less about my opinion and more about “here’s the contextual story that you need to understand.” And also to share with people my obsession with Twitter—the good and the bad that is Twitter. I tried to encapsulate all of that in the podcast, and I think we finally figured out the recipe of it.

Trump, the truth, and journalism

FC: What do you think about the way the media handled Donald Trump and his various proxies over the past four years? Sometimes I’ve watched the press conferences and gotten frustrated because the reporters in the room weren’t very tough.

SO: Not everybody, certainly, but many prominent journalists failed in really holding the president accountable. The idea that someone could be a birther and just have that disappear and not be challenged on it was appalling. The idea that someone could say racist and bigoted things and not be challenged on it. The idea that some of his underlings, people who are working at the White House, could overtly lie or be dishonest or talk about alternative facts [during TV appearances] and then be invited back and back.

One of the jobs of journalists is to not give platforms to misinformation and disinformation.”

I find that insane. I think one of the jobs of journalists is to not give platforms to misinformation and disinformation. It’s that basic. And I have always just been baffled and stunned and dismayed and disheartened by, especially, the White House press corps, who often just don’t care. You can’t help but think this is because it’s what we would call good TV.

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People don’t want to hold the president accountable. They have no problem elevating or quote-tweeting something that is factually, clearly, overtly, obviously, untrue. The president says, to give you a fake example, that the moon is made of cheese. But we all know that it’s not accurate, so why would you elevate that if you’re in a news organization? That should be so obvious. You can fix that on social media by just adding the words “wrongly” or “inaccurately.”

That’s one of the things I’ve found very frustrating. I think it’s an indication that people don’t know how to deal with someone who’s a chronic liar.

FC: When I look at the people who were cowed by him in different ways—like Jenna Ellis, his legal adviser, who seems like a fairly bright person—sometimes Trump must be the funniest, most likable guy in the world, one on one, because of his apparent ability to turn these people to his side.

SO: I never thought that, because I don’t think that frequently he’s likable or funny. You rarely see him talking to a child. You rarely see him petting a dog. All these things that make someone more human.

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There is more evidence that [he’s] the person who kind of says what the inappropriate. And there’s some appeal to that—it’s edgy, and I think people like that. I think you’ll find that people who [provoke the reaction] “Ooh, I can’t believe what he just said!” are the kind of people who get booked on TV [because] they’ll say this absolutely crazy stuff.

And I think also that people admire the fact that he’s quite a bully. Somehow, in America, we’ve come to create this idea that being a compassionate person—thinking of other people, doing things for others—is a weakness.

What’s happened is we’ve normalized this idea of aggressive, arrogant, narcissistic, nasty behavior. I think everybody around [Trump] recognizes the value of embracing that. He’s not surrounded by people who say “That’s not OK, that’s not appropriate, I think you’re wrong, I think you should apologize.” Because he’s a horrible narcissist, there’s no version where he sees himself as wrong. That appeals to a certain kind of person.

FC: One way to look at it is that Trump is an example of politics merging with entertainment, and I’m not sure politics was ever meant to be this exciting.

SO: Yeah, exciting in the bad way. When I started working at CNN we had crews set up in the second-floor corridor between the rotunda and the House chamber where all the congresspeople would hang out. One thing you would notice is that instead of doing what they used to do, which is to hash things out, they could swing by and talk directly to the camera. They understood the value of the cable TV audience. But it didn’t push people to come to solutions. It pushed them to sell something to their constituents. All they wanted to deal with was this little tiny sliver that supported them.

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Holding leaders accountable

FC: I wanted to touch on diversity. I know that here in our virtual newsroom the George Floyd thing caused a lot of debate and self-reflection. This type of thing was also happening in all-hands meetings within tech companies. At some places, CEOs were taken to task for not taking diversity seriously.

Frequently the stories around tech are about access and opportunity, and who is left out and who is included.”

SO: I think that you’re seeing people in leadership beginning to understand that this is a category of leadership, that leadership actually is dealing with some of these social issues. And I think a lot of leaders have thought that they were kind of exempt from that because it wasn’t something that mattered to them. I had a CEO tell me that. He said, “Honestly, we did a whole Black Lives Matter statement, hashtag-Black-Lives-Matter, and I’ve got to tell you I don’t care and I don’t like quotas.” And it was like, “OK, well, thanks for being straightforward.” I think other leaders are like, “Holy cow, we actually have to solve this problem; we’re part of the solution that’s clearly not going to be a governmental solution.”

So I’ve seen the range. I think it’s a learning curve for a lot of executives who never had to think about it before. Why? Because they’re not people of color. They operate in a world that is kind of built around them, and I think they just don’t ever have to think about it.

Sometimes very good people who are good leaders are suddenly recognizing that this is a category of leadership because this country is in crisis and part of your job as a leader is to navigate this and at least understand it. I don’t think people are born necessarily understanding racial dynamics in the workplace.

FC: I notice that you had former Google AI ethicist Timnit Gebru on the podcast in December. Her firing was a pretty big thing in the tech world. Do you think you’ll be doing tech issues regularly on the podcast?

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SO: We think of the podcast as being able to cover any issue. It’s called Very Opinionated because we wanted to talk to people who feel very passionately about an issue. Of course, what people feel very passionately is frequently politics. We love delving into politics, but for me it’s never been politics for politics’ sake. Sometimes it’s the politics of race. Sometimes it’s the politics of class. Sometimes it’s the politics of access.

I think a lot of [Gebru’s] story was about tech, but it was also about how you navigate an institution, a place that has said that they want to really give opportunities. I think if you work in tech you may think about the tech story, but I think for a lot of people outside of tech, you think of it as a story about the challenge to break into an industry for lots of African American women.

That’s kind of our organizing principle: We can cover lots of issues, which means yes, we’ll cover lots of tech. I think frequently the stories around tech are about access and opportunity, and who is left out and who is included.

FC: I think it’s naive to try to put these issues in neatly into a box that says “tech” on it, especially what she’s talking about, which is AI and the data that gets dumped into these black boxes we call neural networks. These things will increasingly control the world around us, so it’s just a tech issue.

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SO: What she and others have been pointing out is about this sense of injustice. Most of us outside of tech don’t really fully understand how tech works. You have all these datasets and that you know things are formed by those people who pick the datasets. There is lots of bias, potentially, and a lot of her role in her former job was to actually think about the ethics of these sorts of things. In my mind, it’s pretty amazing for the tech companies to be thinking about ethics on the front end versus the way they usually think about it, which is on the back end. Who knew we’d be opening up the Pandora’s box?

She’s a fascinating person to talk to, but I think her story is a lot about what happens when you’re a person in the minority in the room who says there’s a problem here, and maybe your bosses don’t want to hear it.

FC: Is there anything else you can tell me about the podcast and the vision for it?

SO: One of the reasons we went back and forth over the name a lot is because I was trying to figure out a title that encompasses this idea that you can talk about a lot of things and they’re not overtly political. I think the pothole down the street is political.

While the show itself is not overtly political—I’m not going to talk about the data of election night as it’s unfolding—I think we’d like to talk about what’s happening in society and social change, in a way that looks at that as political. That’s what we really set upon, and why we called it Very Opinionated with Soledad O’Brien, because it’s not “Soledad O’Brien is very opinionated,” although my husband will tell you I am [laughs]. I want to talk to people who have a strong opinion about an issue that matters in our world; those are the people that I want to hear from.

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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