Part 2 of my interview with award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien takes us into the territory she likes best: uncomfortable questions about sex, race and politics and a journalist’s power to call out people. We talked when O’Brien hosted one of her “PowHERful Summits” for young women in December at the Marriot City Center.
Q: Do you have to badger anybody for an interview, or do you get all you want?
A: A little bit of both. I failed [to land] Luther Vandross. He agreed and then he backed out and I loved him. I loved him so much I was hyperventilating the day I was to interview him. Then he died. I’m pretty clear about what I’m going to ask people. I don’t believe in ambushing people. I want them to be educated in their answers. Sometimes it is hard when people know where this conversation is going and don’t want to talk about it. Certainly elected officials. You can’t get a Republican talking about the tax bill at this moment. So that has been hard to book. For the most part, the people I want to talk to, some of them like me back and I think most of them like my work. The way I do interviews is fair.
Q: You are so pleasant and amiable. Why do you enjoy grilling people?
A: I am pleasant and amiable usually, but I find hypocrisy frustrating. I didn’t ever want to be a lawyer but I like the structure of an interview. It’s the building of your case in order to get to the next question. When you walk someone into saying a thing and then you say, “Well, if that’s the case, sir,” — slaps hand on table — “why did you do such and such?” I think calling people on things is fun to do. Being smart and having studied something [for] an interview feels like a bit of sport to me. You put the work in and then you execute on the field. I don’t do it surreptitiously just to fight with people. I want to have a real argument that we are walking through, not just, “Hey, I’m going to pummel you, because you happen to be sitting on a chair on my set.”
Q: You’re also very comfortable with uncomfortable conversations.
A: [Nodding yes] I think for a journalist, learning how to keep your mouth shut is really a great thing; just sit in this awkward silence. People can’t stand it so they start talking. I love it. It’s a powerful tool that you don’t realize until you’ve gotten to do it.
Q: Is Donald Trump getting away with a narrative that normalizes white supremacy?
A: I think he’s got a lot of support. He has recognized that messaging around an anti-immigrant platform and dog whistles that aren’t even dog whistles, they are shouts about race, mobilize and inflame a certain part of the population, a part of the population that’s always been here. I think he’s just decided that’s something to embrace, and with it a lot of the GOP frankly, because you don’t see a lot of people standing up and saying what the president is doing is despicable. Embracing literally neo-Nazis is despicable. It’s a sad time. It really breaks my heart.
Q: Is his presidency likely to be a one-off or the start of something?
A: I don’t know. I think it depends on who votes. I think a lot of people feel disenfranchised, think it doesn’t matter, so they don’t vote. We’ve seen that it does matter. I don’t think it’s a majority of the population in this country that is angry and racist and anti-immigrant.
Q: Would you have resigned if you were Senator Franken?
A: That’s a very hypothetical question. If your question is: Do I think he should have resigned, I think it’s good that he resigned. He had to resign. People who are in political office and people like me who take photos all the time. At this event I will take 875 photos. In all the years I have taken photos with people, probably under a million photos, there’s not a soul who’ll say, “Soledad grabbed my butt,” “Soledad grabbed my breasts.” If I had accidentally brushed up against somebody I have stopped to apologize. It’s not normal. There’s not a list of people who would say, “She pinched me on the ass.” EVER. We have to have conversations so people understand that treating somebody else’s body as if you had access to it is not normal.
C.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.