EMOTIONAL BREAKTHROUGH

How NBC Reporter Jacob Soboroff Helped Kill Trump’s Media Domination

Jacob Soboroff’s charged reports for NBC and MSNBC from the Texas border, where children were being separated from their parents, helped push Trump into a rare policy reversal.

NBC News/Dateline

Cable and network television correspondent Jacob Soboroff kept his composure earlier this month during more than a week of sleep-deprived days and nights bearing witness to President Donald Trump’s policy of separating children from their families, and locking the kids in chicken-wire cages, in illegal-immigrant detention centers on the Texas-Mexico border

Unlike MSNBC’s star anchor Rachel Maddow, who was unable to stifle sobs on her June 20 show while reading a news bulletin about how authorities in South Texas were taking babies from their parents and dispatching them to “tender-age shelters,” Soboroff was journalistically dry-eyed on camera during his countless appearances—often looking unshaven and exhausted—on various MSNBC and NBC News programs.

But then, while stopping off in Manhattan last week and getting some much-needed exercise on his way home to Los Angeles, he lost it.

“I was working out actually in New York,” the 35–year-old Soboroff told The Daily Beast, a catch in his voice as he described an instant when he was suddenly overwhelmed, “and I had to take a moment to get it together. It was weird. I was like back in my normal routine, you know? We’re talking about over two thousand kids who don’t have their parents. I have my own little boy who’s two-and-a-half.”

In recent weeks, Soboroff—along with a small army of NBC News and MSNBC correspondents, notably Miamian Gabe Gutierrez and Venezuela native Mariana Atencio—has been at the vanguard of powerful reporting that featured the sounds and images of weeping, displaced and incarcerated children, and which ultimately forced the Trump administration to reverse a harsh policy that two-thirds of Americans consider cruel and inhuman.

“Trump Loses His Superpower: The president’s tweets have been powerless against images of migrant children in the news media,” was the headline on Politico media critic Jack Shafer’s recent essay arguing that the president’s self-created crisis on the border had deprived him of his almost magical ability to control the media narrative.

Shafer noted that “perhaps for the first time in Donald Trump’s presidency, thanks to contradictory policy moves not even his supporters could understand, the president came out the loser.”

Shafer added: “As much as he howled, his message about ‘enforcing the law’ couldn’t find footing. His blather was overwhelmed by the emotional punch carried by the pictures and the stories about families breaking up. (MSNBC pushed the story the hardest, applying almost a Fox News thoroughness to nurturing, advancing, and yes, sensationalizing the story.)”

Soboroff—who was in the first group of journalists permitted inside a defunct Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, that served as a migrant detention facility—said: “That was a big moment for the journalists down there who pushed to get those images released, and check what we saw against the images.”

While federal authorities refused to let news cameras inside, they did—under intense pressure—release government-approved photos of the detention operations in Brownsville and nearby McAllen.

Relying on his notes, Soboroff went on Morning Joe last Friday and described the scenes he witnessed as “one of the most despicable moments in modern American history…I saw kids locked in cages, sitting on floors, supervised by security guard contractors in a watch tower in McAllen, Texas…

“I will never forget it,” he continued. “I don’t think the American people should forget what happened because this should never, ever happen again. It’s the worst thing that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”

That’s a pretty fast retreat by a president who lives and dies by what’s on television and usually wins that game
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The impact was immediate.

“Trump said it, point blank, that this was a big factor,” Soboroff told The Daily Beast. “It was six days from the day I was in Brownsville that he signed the executive order” undoing the child-separation policy. “That’s a pretty fast retreat by a president who lives and dies by what’s on television and usually wins that game.”

He added: “I think it’s shameful that they haven’t let us bring our cameras into these facilities. That’s why it’s so important for us to get inside, at least to bear witness to it.”

While Soboroff resists the label “advocacy journalist”—“I think other people can make up their minds about what they want to call me”—he acknowledged: “I am a guy who is not ashamed of having emotions and opinions. And I just don’t believe in holding those back. It’s frankly unhealthy as a human being. So why should journalists have to do it? I’m just telling you what I saw, and I’m telling you my visceral reaction to it.”

Soboroff—who attended private schools and grew up wealthy and privileged in a gated community in the L.A.’s posh Pacific Palisades—prides himself on being able to talk to anybody no matter their circumstances, to engage people empathetically no matter their politics, and to draw them out and reveal their genuine, unvarnished views.

That, however, was not the case when he interviewed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for The Dividing Line, an hour-long Dateline NBC episode on the immigration issue that aired this past Sunday.

When they sat down for their chat a few months ago, Nielsen erected a psychic wall every bit as high and impenetrable as the one she and Trump imagine building on the southern border.

You know what you feel like when somebody’s beating around the bush, and you know what it feels like when somebody’s leveling with you. I didn’t feel like she was connecting with me on a level that was human

“You want to feel like somebody is speaking to you based in truths—and they know them,” he said. “I’m not accusing her of being liar, it’s just that, as I later found out, she still hasn’t been to the detention center where all these kids were kept in cages. So to speak about these polices, and to not have spent the time on the ground, it didn’t seem like she was representing the same things that I have seen on the ground…

“It was like we weren’t talking about the same place,” Soboroff continued. “It’s like we weren’t talking about the same reality. And so it was hard to connect in that way, because you know what you feel like when somebody’s beating around the bush, and you know what it feels like when somebody’s leveling with you. I didn’t feel like she was connecting with me on a level that was human. It felt like it was ‘Washington, D.C., speak’”

During his nearly three years at NBC—after a series of reporting and anchoring gigs involving YouTube, Participant Media’s now-defunct Pivot channel and the HuffPost Live streaming video operation—Soboroff has developed an on-camera style that NBC News President Noah Oppenheim describes as “relatable, insightful and always deeply humane.”

He’s original and what makes him special is he brings humanity to his pieces. This last week we saw just how good Jacob is. He broke away from the pack

Soboroff’s second boss, MSNBC President Phil Griffin, called him “a natural” in a statement to The Daily Beast.

“He was made to be a reporter,” Griffin added. “He’s original and what makes him special is he brings humanity to his pieces. This last week we saw just how good Jacob is. He broke away from the pack.”

Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg hired Soboroff to be an anchor on YouTube Nation, a millennial-focused channel that shut down in December 2014 after a yearlong run.

While Katzenberg told The Daily Beast that more than a hundred prospects were interviewed before Soboroff got the nod—and Soboroff said he went through normal channels without using connections—it didn’t hurt that Katzenberg’s son David has been a close friend of Jacob’s since early childhood, or that Katzenberg knows Jacob’s parents Patti and Steve Soboroff, a public-spirited real estate developer and former Dodgers executive who toiled in city government and once ran for mayor of Los Angeles.

“He was a very mischievous, very outgoing, very charming, very self-assured six-year-old,” Katzenberg recalled about Jacob, the eldest of five children.

The adult Jacob “has got a very deep and rich character and sense of who he is and his values,” Katzenberg said. “He has always been someone who had a very open mind. He grew up in a family where there are little or no prejudices. I know his parents. They’re very open and generous people. That was an environment where those qualities of character matter.”

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is also a fan; as an 18-year-old college student at New York University as the city was still reeling from the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Soboroff interned for the mayor’s office, helping advance Bloomberg’s public events.

“A great advance person knows how to relate to people who are going through tough times,” Bloomberg told The Daily Beast in a statement. “We didn't teach Jake how to do that—he has that talent. And it's great to see him putting it to such good use."

Soboroff obtained the prized internship—for which he worked part-time while attending classes (“I was a shitty student,” he said)—only after persistently writing and calling staffers in the mayor’s office and finally getting their attention.

Kevin Sheekey—who was one of Mayor Bloomberg’s principal aides and now is a top executive for his $51 billion media and financial services empire, Bloomberg L.P.—told The Daily Beast that  Soboroff brought “hustle” to the advance job.

“Being a great advance person can’t be taught,” Sheekey said. “It has to be someone who’s aggressive, good with people, smart, and makes things happen. Jake was a complete natural…That’s also true of television.”

Despite his formative years among the One Percent, Soboroff sees himself as a descendant of modest, hardworking people; his paternal grandparents, he said, went bankrupt before moving from the Midwest to California to open a high-end linen and gift shop in Beverly Hills.

One of their loyal customers was Kirk Douglas, Soboroff, said—which is how his father Steve ended up chauffeuring the movie star around town in his Rolls Royce, once crashing the car into a tree. Later, Robert Redford was a tenant in one of the Soboroff-owned office buildings.

By 2008, Jake—as he’s still known to friends and family—had obtained a master’s degree in political theory and philosophy from NYU (where he’d begun as a freshman theater arts major, with a focus on acting), and approached the film company Participant Media with a pitch for a documentary on why a near-majority of Americans don’t vote in most elections. Soboroff had been evangelizing on the issue on behalf of the election reform nonprofit Why Tuesday?, and actress Kirsten Dunst apparently heard him talk on a radio show, and was so impressed that she got in contact, and ultimately joined the documentary project.

In the end, while Soboroff and Dunst shot some footage, the movie never made it past the development phase, but that was enough time for various gossip sites to claim that Dunst and Soboroff were a couple—which, alas, he explained was never true.

“We were together often at that time because were working together on a documentary about America’s voting system which we were developing for Participant Media,” he emailed.

Dunst was not available for an interview, her publicist said.

The same year as the abortive documentary, Soboroff met fashion executive Nicole Cari; they’ve been married since 2012.

Diane Weyermann, president of Participant Media’s documentary film and television division, said that the voting movie project, while never completed, led to Soboroff getting the shortlived anchor perch on Pivot’s youth-oriented TakePart Live! program.

“He was passionate and dedicated,” she recalled. “I’m incredibly proud of what he has accomplished.”

As Soboroff spoke on the phone, it was still early morning in L.A. He was sitting in a parked car in the hipster Silver Lake neighborhood near the sleek modern house he shares with his wife and their young son Noah.

“I’m home, thank God, finally,” he said. “I’m sitting in my car, so as not to wake up my child, looking at the Silver Lake Reservoir right now. I figure it’s better to do this interview now, early in the morning, because I have a little kid. I’m going to get him out of bed once we’re done.”