The CNN anchor and correspondent recently came to Washington D.C., along with celebrities like Magic Johnson, to fete the National Urban League on its centennial, then jetted to San Diego to accept the Journalist of the Year Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. In between the engagements, she shared her thoughts on the Shirley Sherrod story, partisan agendas in the media, her upcoming documentary Black in America 3 and more.
Christopher Chambers: Let's get the Shirley Sherrod story out of the way. Cable news has not been kind to people of color as of late. For a journalist of color, is there a subconscious — or conscious — urge to protect or defend these people or institutions when other media outlets seem to use them as ratings gimmicks or to serve an agenda?
Soledad O'Brien: Journalists of color know that race is nuanced and complicated. That doesn't fit into a world of sound bites and simplistic answers. Checking facts, reporting fairly and accurately, is the "protection," whether it's a blog or The New York Times. I think at CNN we did that with this story. The sad thing is that the facts around the speech were such a moving story! It becomes less about race but about class, and how we are so much stronger acting together. That should have been the real story, and it was lost.
CC: Is the Sherrod situation an example of a new kind of anger-driven, partisan media — or a throwback to the yellow journalism of the past?
SO: This type of journalism has always been with us. But there is also an undertone of frustration and anger in the country. I've been to Arizona covering the immigration debate and to several Tea Party rallies. This anger correlates heavily with the economy and jobs, but there's also partisan politics. This affects how the media treats issues. It's driven by quick-trigger responses and a need to get ahead of the story. Ultimately, however, journalism is about taking the time to make sure what is presented is accurate.
CC: So it's not about agendas, as some people may say about Fox News, but ratings?
SO: Ratings keep the lights on and pay the bills. When I was in local news, sometimes we'd lead with the worst car accident. Was there any redeeming social value? No, but look at the pictures! It's like that. But I think we must wade through all of that and cover something fairly and hear both sides. I think we do that at CNN.
CC: Regarding your documentaries on CNN, like the recent Atlanta Child Murders; Rescued, which looked at the Haiti earthquake and Haitian child slaves; and the upcoming New Orleans Rising, do you see yourself as a modern muckraker who uses the medium to expose injustice and create solutions, or someone who just spotlights these issues?
SO: In Black in America 3, which we're calling "Churched" because it's based on a church in New Jersey, we're telling the story of the pastor and three people who are at these critical junctures. My role is to examine the plight of three young black men trying to go off to school and stay in school, and what the church is doing to help. The work speaks for itself.
CC: You took your 9-year-old daughter, Sofia, to Haiti. Was it to establish a kinship with the people and their problems?
SO: I wanted to share with her that you have a responsibility to other people. The human struggle is a universal struggle, and that's why Haiti is important. That's what basic compassion is built on.
Christopher Chambers is a journalism professor at Georgetown University and a commentator on Russia Today.