Soledad O’Brien returns to Harvard
One of the most recognized cable news anchors of the past decade, Soledad O’Brien has come a long way from her days at Harvard and interning at Boston’s WBZ-TV. O’Brien, now 47, left her post at CNN’s morning show last spring, but today, the mother of four is busier than ever. Besides managing her own media production company, O’Brien acts as a special correspondent for Al Jazeera America, regularly appears on HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” and will be replacing Alex Trebek as moderator of the National Geographic Bee. O’Brien will soon add “teacher” to her resume, as well, as she has returned to Harvard to teach an education course.
Q. Last spring, Harvard named you a distinguished visiting fellow for the 2013-14 academic year. You spent some time on campus last semester, and, you’ll be co-teaching a course at the Graduate School of Education. What’s the course about?
A. It’s called “Advancing the Public Understanding of Education” and I’m co-teaching it with Professor Joe Blatt. Basically, it’s a look at all these perceptions of education – in movies, in the media, online – and how they are portrayed and how accurate they are. We want to really look at the impact of these stories and how people feel about education.
Q. Has education always been a topic of special interest for you?
A. Absolutely. For any reporter, education is a topic where everything else — money, politics, et cetera — intersects. I have four kids in K through 12, so I’m knee-deep in it. I’m really interested in the philosophy behind it all. Should you just memorize your multiplication tables, or should you understand the concept behind them? I’m right in the middle of that [with my kids].
Q. What do you feel you bring to an education course at Harvard?
A. The goal is to help students understand journalists’ role in education. Education stories are really hard to do, especially in a four-minute segment, and it really behooves everyone to understand the bigger picture. My trademark at CNN was really asking insightful questions and making sure people are understanding the connections in humanity, and I think that is the core of education.
Q. Are you excited to be back on campus?
A. Yes, going back to Harvard, I get the same great feeling I did when I was finding my dorm freshman year. Harvard hasn’t changed at all, but it’s kind of funny to explore it all from a different perspective as an adult.
Q. Do you feel a special connection to the Boston area since, besides attending school here, it’s where you got your start in journalism?
A. Yeah, absolutely. When you cover a community, you really get to know it. [Coming back,] it feels like coming home.
Q. After leaving CNN last spring, it was announced that Starfish, the media company you launched in 2013, is partnering with Al Jazeera America to produce a series of documentary specials for the channel. You’re also acting as a special correspondent for Al Jazeera America’s primetime broadcast, “America Tonight.” How did people respond to you joining the network?
A. Most people that knew the network’s model weren’t that surprised. People were more surprised that I joined HBO’s “Real Sports [With Bryant Gumbel.’’] At Al Jazeera, the first story I did was to sit down with a former Haitan dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, and grill him about crimes against humanity. Al Jazeera is giving me the opportunity to tell important stories and stories that I want to tell.
Q. Between managing your own company, raising a family, and being involved in so many different projects, how do you find balance between it all?
A. I cannot articulate the degree to which sleeping changed my life. I go to bed at 10 and get up at 6. It’s life-changing. That trickles down into my family life — I get to bring my kids to school now. [Plus,] a lot of the decisions I’m making are in categories that I have an interest in. It’s a real luxury.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version incorrectly spelled Professor Joe Blatt’s last name.