Soledad O’Brien on Why the New York Times Is Failing Us Under Trump
The former CNN anchor opens up to Marlow Stern about her new true-crime podcast and the mainstream media’s struggles with covering “batshit crazy” Trump.
For Soledad O’Brien, life under lockdown has meant more time with her kids, negotiating a détente between her cat and dog, and spending several hours a day crouched down in a closet. “We had a little bump in the road when coronavirus happened, and I had to turn my husband’s closet into my podcast studio, which I think he’s still not thrilled about!” she says with a chuckle. “I have a nice microphone in there, a stool, great headphones, and a recording device.”
The former CNN anchor and current head of Soledad O’Brien Productions has expanded into the podcasting arena with Murder on the Towpath, a new true-crime miniseries that’s now available on Luminary. The pod, produced by FilmNation and Neon Hum Media, explores the unsolved 1964 murder of Mary Pinchot Meyer, a D.C. socialite who was shot down in Georgetown, and Dovey Johnson Roundtree, the trailblazing civil-rights attorney who defended Ray Crump, the black man arrested for her murder. Meyer’s killing has attracted the attention of many a conspiracy theorist, given her late-night trysts with John F. Kennedy (she was murdered mere weeks after the release of the Warren Commission Report) and the CIA chief’s confiscation of her diary following her death.
O’Brien was attracted to the deliberateness of podcasting—a sharp contrast to the sturm und drang of cable news. “They allow you to get into the backstory,” she says. “God is in the details, and in daily news, you miss those moments. You get a lot of information but no explainer about how and why things happened.”
In addition to her podcast-hosting, production company, and correspondent duties on HBO’s Real Sports, O’Brien has earned a reputation on Twitter as a prominent media critic, calling out the political news media’s reality show recap-style coverage of the Trump administration.
We spoke with O’Brien about her new venture and why she feels the media has fallen far short in the time of Trump.
I’ve listened to plenty of podcasts and Murder on the Towpath is a very impressive first go-round. You’ve got that measured podcast delivery down.
It’s very different than how you do news. My goal is to give context and history and understanding, whereas in a morning newscast the goal is to get through it fast and knock out the most important facts. You’d never say, well, let’s go back to that day and walk through it slowly, and give it more context. It’s a completely different genre and made me really like podcasting.
How did you arrive at the story of Mary Pinchot Meyer’s murder for the pod?
I was completely unfamiliar with the story, and what comes up through a cursory Google search is a lot of conspiracy theories. But what made me do this is we didn’t want to focus on the conspiracy theories; we wanted to focus on the two women at the center of the story and re-center it on them. And then we started exploring how much they were alike, even though they were different. They were very different class-wise, race-wise, everything-wise, but they both were badass ladies, and I think they would have admired that in each other.
Conspiracy theories aside, the CIA’s role in Mary Pinchot Meyer’s murder is fascinating and bizarre.
That’s what makes the conspiracy theories hold merit for some people. The CIA seems to have read her diary! That’s crazy, and that’s a fact of the case. So I understand why people would then jump to a conspiracy. Oh, and she was sleeping with JFK! There are faxes, there’s a love letter, there’s all this interesting information before you even get to the conspiracies. You understand why people go down the rabbit hole.
Right. Her connection to JFK is nuts—that they were having these secret late-night rendezvous where they were sleeping together and smoking weed.
It seems completely impossible, right? As much as I’m not a conspiracy theorist at all, you think, well, this lady is talking about doing drugs with the president of the United States!
And she was murdered a few weeks after the release of the Warren Commission Report.
Exactly. It’s wild.
In addition to podcasting, you’ve become known for being a Twitter flamethrower—and someone who takes the media to task for the way they’re covering this moment in history, in particular the Trump administration and its rampant corruption. How did you become someone who delivers these Twitter checks to the media?
I think we’re in an interesting time, and political media is—often—having a bad moment. And that’s because they don’t know how to handle a president who is a compulsive liar. I think we’re up to 18,000 verified lies, and they don’t know what to do with that, because there are these unwritten rules about how you handle the presidency. But how do you handle a president that lies so much? Nobody knows how to do that. Normal reporting would be, the president said x, y, z, but if someone’s a compulsive liar, and this is a fact, how do you then go forward with the president said x when you know that much of what the president said is a lie? Nobody seems to know how to handle that, and they haven’t had a come to Jesus about what their strategy is going to be when all the ground rules have changed.
So, the president said he’s taking this drug [hydroxychloroquine]. Well, we know the president lies, so is there a better way of communicating this information other than repeating or retweeting it when we know that he lies? That’s a problem people haven’t been able to solve. The other thing they haven’t been able to solve is normalizing something that’s batshit crazy. Like, some of these pressers are insane. And if this were happening in Venezuela we’d be like, Oh my god, did you see that? That was completely crazy. Some of these soundbites are verifiably nuts, and that’s not how the political media covers a press conference. You’re trained to not highlight it as crazy, so you see in the political media people reporting, The president attacked a woman today, and it normalizes it. They haven’t figured out the way to frame and show people that this is very abnormal. There’s an obligation to hold people accountable, and it’s one of the reasons I name names, because we have jobs that pay really well—for political media people, and television people and people who work for The New York Times especially—and we have an obligation to be more transparent, and when you screw up to explain how you screwed it up. But we constantly see this false equivalence or both sides-ing, and it’s so frustrating.
It seems like you’re referring to The New York Times’ headlines, which have become just a laughably poor display of false equivalence, both sides-ing, and normalizing when it comes to Trump’s aberrant behavior.
Oh my god! I wish I could just go and buy a soft blanket for whoever the poor headline writer is who’s screwing it up pretty regularly, because it’s such a mess! You want to say, how did that happen? How did you get a headline like this? And then they fix it, and they’re not particularly transparent about why they’re fixing it or how they got it wrong. It’s very disheartening. And the answer is, their digital subscriptions are up, so the response is: Have you seen our numbers? Well, OK, if that’s how you’re going to judge your worth.
Some of the people that you call out regularly, like Chris Cillizza [of CNN], seem to be guilty of some of the things you mentioned, covering every move Trump makes as though it’s normal. Trump seems to be following the Steve Bannon playbook—flood the zone with as much shit as possible until people are completely buried in shit—and these reporters are covering it in an almost TV recap-y fashion.
Right—until people don’t know anything. When you say, “Trump says he takes hydroxychloroquine—some experts say that could be dangerous,” there’s no moment of, So what happened today? We’re going to ferret out what’s real and what’s not, because this is a screwed-up time. It’s a weird way of thinking about the news, because you’re right, it’s just become a funnel of crap, constantly. And then there’s the deal of access. You can always tell when Ivanka is someone’s source.
Every few months you’ll see a very pro-Ivanka and pro-Jared column in The New York Times and just shake your head.
Or that they have no say! “Sources close to Ivanka and Jared say that they were shocked by the president’s actions.” It’s so overt it would be funny if it was not terrible. We are about 90 minutes outside of New York City, and when I talk to my neighbors, they’re so confused. People do not know what is true about coronavirus and what is not. They feel like there’s so much information. Some people think they should wear a mask; some people say that they don’t have to because the government has said this is all fake. And these are not QAnon crazies! They are confused, because people are reporting the president says x as though it’s true, when x is completely false.
I don’t mind The New York Times or whoever reporting that Trump said x, but the context that he’s lied about these things, or it’s likely not true—you can just add context, and that’s what I’m so annoyed about, is there’s no context. What I love about podcasts is podcasts are all context. It’s: before we get into this story, let’s explain how we got here.
Do you have reporters regularly sliding into your DMs to complain about your tweets?
Yeah, all the time. Half complain, half agree with me. Sometimes people are sending me notes and giving me information but I’m not a media writer, so I just find that interesting. I think journalists are frustrated. They see what’s going on. We all see it. Look, if you have a job that pays well and you’re in an industry that’s really struggling right now, which journalism is, then shoot, keep your mouth shut. What are you going to do? You keep your mouth shut, do work that you’re proud of, and keep your job. I understand that strategy. But when you’re self-employed, as I am, and you don’t have to worry about upsetting somebody, then you can speak your truth. And I have enough experience and enough credibility in the industry, and I understand, as far as cable news goes, how things work.
The media is a pretty dog-eat-dog world. One of the big stories of the past week was Ben Smith’s New York Times piece attacking Ronan Farrow.
Yeah, wasn’t that crazy?
I had a bunch of issues with the piece.
I was like, how come The New York Times hasn’t done their own analysis? They certainly have their own challenges when it comes to these very things, and they’re complaining about… Ronan? And I didn’t get the whole “Resistance Journalism” thing. It reminded me of that movie my daughters love, Mean Girls, when they’re like, Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen. It’s like, that’s not a thing! “Resistance Journalism” is such a weird way of framing it.
And then Mediaite allowing Matt Lauer to publish an op-ed on their site criticizing Ronan Farrow? That seems wildly irresponsible.
It’s so crazy. Listen, it’s just a very weird time. I’d even expand it to people giving a platform to white supremacists. Let’s go shopping with a white supremacist! These people are gun-toting maniacs but…they’re good dads! To me, it feels like a time where journalism doesn’t know what it wants to be.
How about that fight between Chrissy Teigen and that cookbook lady, Alison Roman? I think Chrissy is very funny on Twitter and I don’t know who Alison is, because I’m not much of a cook, but did they fire her?
That seems nuts to me. Say what you will about what Alison Roman said, which was mildly crappy, but it’s still someone less powerful merely criticizing two far more powerful people and then having their column taken away from them.
It might be mean, and it might be bitchy, but it’s still her opinion, which she’s certainly entitled to have. She can say anything she wants. It’s like… that’s what The New York Times comes down on? Also, she wrote an interesting apology that, as apologies go, was pretty good. What a crazy time we’re living in. People just don’t know what to do. And how about Bret Stephens?
It’s just pseudo-intellectual nonsense.
He’s the worst. He’s actually a really weird one in that, when I said something, he was like, “You owe me an apology.” I was like, what? You’re high right now.
Are you worried about 2020, and how Trump is positioning himself as the “reopen America” guy while Biden’s been MIA?
The polling, I think, is going OK for Biden. So I like that strategy. The president is doing all this crazy stuff, so let him do it and stay out of his way. Now, at some point he might need to start doing more. But it’s a long time between now and November. Nobody’s paying me a dime to be a strategist, so I’m just giving that advice for free.
I don’t trust the polling though. And with Trump positioning himself as the “reopen America” guy, the economy’s going to start posting excellent numbers soon given how much it contracted and Trump is going to take all the credit.
I’m just going to give you my bullshit answer but the polls support not reopening America until it’s safe. Even in my little office, I have 11 employees, and I don’t want anyone to come in and get sick until we know what we’re going to do. I think the bigger problem is that there’s no plan. If I let you reopen your restaurant and only let you have it at 50 percent capacity, I am literally fucking you, because restaurants barely make it anyway. What scares me about Trump is that he exists, and people support him who should know better.