Soledad O’Brien, taking her grill elsewhere

February 22, 2013

(Charles Sykes/Associated Press)

As of May, Soledad O’Brien will no longer be an employee of CNN. Her stint grilling people on her morning show, “Starting Point,” is ending, thanks to a decision by CNN boss Jeff Zucker. Under an arrangement announced this week, she’s launching a production company that’ll peddle big projects to CNN and other outlets. According to Brian Stelter of the New York Times, O’Brien, for starters, will be doing two more installments to the documentary “Black in America.”

Documentaries are great and all — what thinking person deplores long-form, in-depth journalism? Count the Erik Wemple Blog, however, as a detractor of this allegedly mutually agreeable solution between O’Brien and her employer of 10 years. The reason: Too many softball questions out there in the world of news. There’s an epidemic of sweet and easy questions in congressional hearings, in presidential briefings, in cable-news interviews, in Google hangouts. Half of media criticism these days is questioning the questions of others.

However lame her ratings at “Starting Point,” however justified the accusations that she directed her questions disproportionately toward the right, however correct the Brietbartians that she screwed up the critical race theory question, let it be said that O’Brien contributed little to the American Media Softball League (AMSL).

In an appearance this week on the Wendy Williams Show, O’Brien said in the same breath that she likes “doing documentaries” and “grilling people.” How does she do both of them at the same time, without a live-TV platform like “Starting Point”? “I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive,” said O’Brien in a talk earlier today with the Erik Wemple Blog. In fact, she said, the formula for “Starting Point” drew some of its inspiration from the documentary method. “What you do in a documentary is you really report on it, so that when you do the main interviews, you know often as much as they know. We tried to do that in the morning,” she says.

Tried, yes, but failed, at least to the mindset of the Zucker-era CNN. Right? “I think we all were trying to figure out one vision,” says O’Brien of the “Starting Point” identity crisis. “I don’t think the show was marketed and wasn’t really supported. There were interviews that would never be turned around and promoted but they’d be promoted elsewhere,” she says, presumably referring to places like Mediaite, Politico and yours truly, all of which regularly feasted on O’Brien’s combativeness with people like Mitt Romney surrogate John Sununu and Rep. Peter King, among many others. “For me, I look at that and I truly believe, we did a great job with no support or little support … I feel really good about being able to break through the clutter on a show that wasn’t supported by the last administration.”

How frustrated was O’Brien with the rudderlessness of yesterday’s CNN? Frustrated enough that she celebrates the new folks who’ve ended her run: That Zucker has “made clear what he wants to see for people working for him is fantastic,” says O’Brien. “I think he’s very clear on what he wants to do.”

As for getting back into the grilling business, O’Brien notes that she could do a syndicated program — something where guests could come on air, say stupid stuff and proceed to be gored (my characterization, not hers). And worry not, she says, there are plenty of “good and great” journalists at CNN to bash cowards and dissemblers on air.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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Erik Wemple | February 22, 2013