Possibilities Abound in a Nation That Is Diverse, CNN Journalist Says

When CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien was growing up, her mother in­structed her never to let anyone tell her that she wasn’t black or Hispanic because of her mixed ethnic and racial heritage.

So, when she was asked to identify her race on official forms, O’Brien — the daughter of a black Cuban mother and an Irish-Australian father — refused to check just one box, even when making a single selection was required, she told a packed auditorium in the Law School’s Levinson Auditorium during her Poynter Fellowship Lecture on Nov. 10.

America’s value lies in its diversity, O’Brien said, and that mixture of races and ethnicities should never be viewed as a “problem.”

In her talk on “Diversity in the Media: Behind the Scenes and in Our Lives” O’Brien described the impact of her heritage on her career, explored some of the ways in which diversity benefits society and discussed her own efforts to reflect the lives of people of color in the media through her coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and her CNN documentaries “Black in America” and “Latino in America,” among other television news stories.

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Times have changed since her mother and father, both immigrants who met at Johns Hopkins University, first started dating in the early 1960s, said O’Brien. Interracial marriage was illegal in many states, and when they tried to have a dinner out on their first date, they couldn’t find a restaurant that would serve them. Instead, O’Brien’s mother cooked a Cuban meal at her own apartment.

A generation later, O’Brien recalled, her older sister was urged by her adviser at Harvard University to drop physics as a major because “girls don’t succeed in physics and minorities don’t succeed in physics.” Her sister completed her degree — majoring in physics — in three years at Harvard, later earning a master’s degree in astrophysics and an M.D. and Ph.D. in medicine.

Likewise, when O’Brien — also a Harvard graduate — was first applying for jobs as a journalist, one news director told her that there was only one spot open for a black person but that she wasn’t dark enough to qualify. Another news director asked if she would consider changing her name because it was too difficult to pronounce. On both occasions, her mother pointed out that these were jobs her daughter wouldn’t want anyway.

O’Brien said that her parents served as examples of perseverance who encouraged their children to look beyond challenges and focus on possibilities, instilling in them this message: “Dream and do what you want; push and achieve what you want; go and get what you want.”

Her own children, the journalist said, have become so used to diversity in their lives that they were shocked to discover that Barack Obama is America’s first black president.

“Diversity to me is an opportunity to think differently and to see differently,” she told her audience.

O’Brien, who is also a special correspondent for CNN Worldwide, cited research by University of Michigan political scientist and economist Scott E. Page that demonstrated that more diverse teams are more likely to come up with a wide range of solutions to problems, while less diverse teams tend to get stuck.

Innovative thinking, she said, is vital to dealing with some of the most pressing global issues of today: war, climate change and the faltering world economy.

There is also a need for conversations about diversity, said the journalist, adding, “Those conversations can be very unpleasant. … [They] can be uncomfortable and iffy. But the end result is getting innovation.”

The CNN journalist gave several examples in her talk of how individuals are taking new approaches to long-existing challenges.

She mentioned Harvard economist Roland Fryer — featured in “Black in America” — who has designed a controversial national program that aims to close the achievement gap between black and white students. In his two-year test program in low-achieving school districts, students are financially rewarded for their academic performance. While critics argue that giving financial incentives to students is “destroying the love of learning in children,” O’Brien cited one eight-year-old boy in Dallas who received the maximum payment he could for reading books but continued reading at a fevered pace. Asked why, the young boy responded, “I’m not going to let my friends beat me at reading.”

Such competitiveness may not be a bad thing in schools where other efforts have failed, O’Brien suggested. “Is this ruining a love of learning or growing the love of learning in a small child?” she asked.

Similarly, she described how sheriff Jack Stephens of St. Bernard’s Parish in New Orleans thought outside the box when deciding what to do with two lifelong petty criminals whose prison sentences ended the day of Hurricane Katrina. He enlisted their help in rescuing elderly people from their roofs as floodwater rose below them.

“Neither of them could swim, but they dove into nine feet of water and rescued so many little old ladies from their roofs that [the sheriff] gave them jobs in his office,” O’Brien told her audience. “Jack Stephens said that he thought allowing circumstances to dictate someone’s character was far more important than anything else.”

O’Brien, who was part of a team that earned CNN a George Foster Peabody Award for its Katrina coverage, described some of the horrific scenes of destruction she witnessed in New Orleans — a city, she said, that she “will never abandon.”

While issues of diversity and community — such as those highlighted in New Orleans — have gained popularity in newsrooms (they once had such low status they usually followed the weather, she pointed out), O’Brien said she doesn’t choose her subjects for that reason or to advocate for a particular agenda.

“I just want to tell great stories,” she said.

Sometimes, the stories that she tells are “heartbreaking,” said O’Brien, such as one in “Latino in America” describing the death of Mexican immigrant Luis Ramirez from a beating by a group of teenagers in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. The teens were only charged with simple assault.

“His identity cost him his life,” she stated.

She ended her speech with a quote from Dante’s “Inferno”: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crises, maintain their neutrality.”

“Think about it — a person who has perpetrated something bad isn’t even as bad as a person who stands by,” she said.

“I think we have a great opportunity now to lead the charge. … There are so many issues to solve, and it’s going to require all of us — in all of our diversity — to come up with a wide range of solutions. What could be possible to make a difference?”

— By Susan Gonzalez

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