CEO

08.13.14

Soledad O'Brien's Next Chapter: 'The War Comes Home,' Her CNN Departure, and the State of News

The longtime CNN anchor left the network last February to start a production company, Starfish Media Group, whose documentary The War Comes Home, about soldiers struggling with PTSD, aired Tuesday.

The role of CEO seems to be suiting Soledad O’Brien just fine. I’m seated in the corner of a coffee shop in Beverly Hills when a black sedan pulls up. A bespoke-suited man with a Bluetooth rushes to the side door, opens it, and out steps O’Brien—a paragon of glamour in a black suit and diamond earrings. She, along with her assistant, have hauled her rollaway suitcases into the lil’ coffee shop. “I feel like I’ve been living on airplanes of late,” she says with a smile.

Over the past week, she’s been to Sante Fe, San Francisco, Minneapolis—stopped home for a day in New York—Miami, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and is now in Los Angeles for about eight hours for a screening of her new CNN documentary, The War Comes Home. The film follows two ex-soldiers, Delon Beckett and Garrett Combs, who are struggling to cope with PTSD, which manifests itself in fits of rage, alcoholism, and suicidal thoughts. But the men find solace with Save A Warrior, a program launched by military veteran Jake Clark that treats soldiers’ PTSD through non-traditional methods like equine therapy, transcendental meditation, and team-building—a five-and-a-half-day “war detox” that provides a path toward reintegration and emotional sobriety. 

The War Comes Home, which aired Aug. 12 on CNN and will have an encore presentation on Aug. 17, is produced by Starfish Media Group—O’Brien’s production company. After ten years as a CNN morning anchor, O’Brien left the network last February to start her new venture. And since she’s fresh off a plane, she’s starving. After ordering black beans and rice with avocado on top—we’re in California, after all—we talk about why she left her regular gig at CNN, the state of the network (and news media, in general), and much more.

What was the initial inspiration for The War Comes Home?

I met Jake Clark at a breakfast, and he invited me out to see the work that they were doing. I sat down at a table with a group of veterans and asked them what they thought of the Save A Warrior program. Three of them burst into tears. It was clear that these guys were very emotionally raw, and that they’d really managed to connect with these guys by using equine therapy and Transcendental Meditation and various other modalities.  

Transcendental Meditation is really becoming popular, with the David Lynch Foundation.

That was the David Lynch Foundation in the documentary, and they actually taught me Transcendental Meditation. What I love about Transcendental Meditation is I find it so hard to relax and silence my mind, and with TM, you’re not supposed to; it’s OK to be dealing with things in your head because that’s the natural part of trying to relax. I do it every time I fly. I’m a good flier, but I find it relaxing. I’d say I do it a few times a week. But there’s been a ton of research on TM and the positive effects it has on post-traumatic stress.

“There’s a lot of journalism these days where it’s 'Let me give you my take on it…’ and I don’t like watching stories like that.”

How culpable is the VA in all this? There’s a moment in the film where one of the ex-soldiers recalls being suicidal, and calling the VA Suicide Hotline and waiting 40 minutes on hold with a gun on his lap. And there was of course the big scandal earlier this year, when it was discovered that the VA left 120,000 soldiers waiting or without care.

We had this conversation at an early screening and both of our subjects, Delon and Garrett, said, “Let’s stop talking about the VA.” The film isn’t meant to be an indictment of the VA. It’s a film about following two guys over five days who are trying to not kill themselves.

The root of this problem—post-traumatic stress—is, of course, that they’re being sent over in the first place. Garrett discusses being stop-lossed, which is a psychological yo-yo that really screwed him up.

He described it as being absolutely devastating. I think he articulated very well his frustration of, “I’m not sure what we’re accomplishing here. I don’t know what we’re doing.” But tonight, we’ll have a veteran coming to a screening named Charlie Plum who spent years at the Hanoi Hilton as a POW and never had PTSD. He said the difference was that a brotherhood formed, and there was a community that supported each other. For these guys who are stop-lossed, and go out there and do tour after tour, they lose that brotherhood.

That’s one of the things that’s always confused me a bit about John McCain—to still be relatively pro-war yet have been a POW for so many years.

Politics is an interesting game.

So you’ve started this new phase in your career: CEO of Starfish Media. Is it liberating to have editorial independence now? When you were a CNN anchor, you’re pretty beholden to ratings, so you’re forced to cover things like Casey Anthony for days on end.

Well, when we did our morning show we avoided a lot of those traps partly because we had such a high news count that we were able to dip into the Pistorius trial, give it enough time, and move on. I never felt like I was trapped in a story. But now, I have a lot of editorial independence, but I also have clients, so you have to figure out how to fulfill a mission that they’re interested in. But I never felt particularly handcuffed in the job that I had. And there have been times in my career where I have. I remember covering JonBenet Ramsey with 200 other reporters thinking, “What am I doing?” or sitting outside O.J. Simpson’s house trying to get him for an interview. I’m very happy I don’t have to do that anymore.

Why did you decide to leave CNN?

Because they decided to go in a different direction with their morning show. They made it really clear that they wanted other people to anchor it. They wanted me to stay, but I’d already been thinking it was kind of time for me to go. I’d been thinking about starting a production company for a couple of years.

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So it didn’t have to do with the regime change with Jeff Zucker?

No. Jeff had been my boss at NBC, and we got along fine, so there was no sense of, “Oh, Jeff’s coming in.” And I still work with him at CNN. I just felt that if I wasn’t anchoring a show, I wouldn’t have the ability to do the things I want to do. Being an anchor is kind of like being a CEO—it’s your questions, your answers, and you have a big say in the tone and vibe of the show. Also, I have four kids and didn’t want to do things in the middle of the night. The mornings were great with the kids. You’d miss the mornings, but be home for them in the afternoons.

CNN does seem to operate a bit more in the center, whereas you’ve got MSNBC far on the left and Fox News that’s very far on the right.

I agree.

I’m a longtime CNN watcher, but their coverage recently has gotten a bit insane—the around-the-clock coverage of the missing Malaysia plane, the fumbling of the Boston bombing coverage, that every single item is categorized as “Breaking News.” Is this the Zucker-ization of CNN?

The Boston bombing was the first live breaking news story I didn’t cover, so it was very hard to watch because I wasn’t there. It was very hard to see all my friends be dispatched to cover this breaking news story. But, I realized this wasn’t my gig anymore, so I didn’t see any of that coverage. And with the plane, I mean it was great ratings, so what are you going to do? I’ve been there. You need great ratings.

Can we talk about the new trend of “native” advertising and sponsored content? It seems very problematic for the future of journalism—take the recent New York Times story on female prisoners sponsored by Netflix and Orange Is the New Black.

I think we’re in a very interesting and somewhat chaotic time. I actually was just reading that study today. They’re doing all this research on women in prisons, and nobody does it! So on the one hand, you think, “Oh, so this is what it’s going to take for them to do a study on women in prisons because there’s this hot new show that’s doing well, so they’re driven to know more about it.” I don’t know how I feel about it. It’s an interesting time. I don’t know if I’m disturbed about it. The report itself was good.

So then do you think it’s strange that the “paper of record,” The New York Times, has to find funding from a place like Netflix to actually do an investigative report on women in prisons instead of just financing it in-house?

Name three other organizations that are doing real, data-driven stories on actual women in prison? You can’t. There’s opportunity in chaos, and people are trying to figure out what the successful model is, but there’s a lot of opportunity in that. Five years ago, I don’t know if I could be a correspondent for HBO Real Sports, turning out pieces for CNN, hosting for NatGeo, and doing reports for Al Jazeera. And today, it kind of works fine. Yes, Buzzfeed and Vice are finding opportunity in the chaos, but I think there’s room for everybody.

Al Jazeera, as a news network, has been struggling to gain a foothold in America, and I think it’s because plenty of people still associate it with the Osama bin Laden videos that they aired.

I think they’ve received really good reviews on their coverage of Gaza and Syria. I report for one show, America Tonight, and I complete and deliver the pieces to Al Jazeera, but I don’t have too much insight into what’s going on in the newsroom because I don’t spend too much time there. At the end of the day, though, every network needs to lay out what they’re going to do, and how they’re going to do it. I think Al Jazeera’s made some interesting claims about what they’re going to do, and they’ve won a bunch of awards for their diverse coverage.

How do you feel the media’s done covering the current conflict in Gaza? It seems like the media, in particular, is turning on Israel a bit.

I will say this: I almost never comment on stories I don’t cover, because I don’t know what my friends covering the stories are going through, and I haven’t been following them like a reporter.

What stories have you been following?

I’ve been knee-deep in my docs, honestly. I’m working on a documentary on stop-and-frisk, so I’m following the story of Eric Garner, who was choked to death.

And the Brooklyn grandmother who was dragged naked from her apartment recently by the NYPD?

How crazy was that? Cellphones have really changed the game when it comes to these things. You almost wouldn’t believe that story if someone told it to you, but now you can see the video and pictures online. But I’m working on a doc on stop-and-frisk, and also on a doc on women who raise their children behind bars. I’m working on about six docs right now… but I’m also always looking for the next thing.

Your CNN special Black in America was pretty huge. But there have been studies recently saying that the situation for most blacks in America today is just as bad as it was in the ’60s. Did you read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay, “The Case For Reparations”?

I did. I’ve never met him—ever—but he’s brilliant, and such a beautiful writer. The issue is that we don’t necessarily want to dig into the history of these stories. When we were doing Black in America, we discovered whites have about 20 times the wealth of blacks, but nobody wanted to ask: Why? Because there was a whole point in time where people had free labor, so if your grandfather or his grandfather didn’t get paid for their labor, it’s very hard to build anything. When you look at redlining in the cities, where if you’re African-American you can’t buy a property in certain areas. I grew up in Smithtown, Long Island, and the suburbs had a boom. My parents paid $30,000 for their house in the 1960s and sold it for $1 million. In the suburbs, you invest in your property, the value increases, and you sell it. Cities don’t do that. My Dad is white, so he ended up not being able to take my mom when he looked at property because otherwise they wouldn’t sell it to him. There are real reasons behind these very troubling statistics, and history hasn’t changed. 

What is your take on Fox News?

I’ve gotta say, I almost never watch it. There’s a lot of journalism these days where it’s “Let me give you my take on it…” and I don’t like watching stories like that. I just like watching news where people tell me what’s happening and there isn’t analysis.

How do you take your news?

I used to watch the morning news, but I don’t anymore. I take my kids to school, and I get a lot of my news on Twitter. It gives you everything you need to know to function for the rest of the day.