Soledad O’Brien on career, new book

Veteran journalist Soledad O’Brien will be in town next week to discuss her new memoir and her storied career at the kickoff of the First Person Arts Festival.

O’Brien will be the guest of honor at “First Taste Dinner,” 6-9 p.m. Nov. 8 at Le Méridien Philadelphia, 1421 Arch St.

The newswoman may be best known in the LGBT community for her recent CNN documentary “Gary and Tony Have a Baby,” a profile of a gay couple’s journey to fatherhood that first aired this summer.

Among O’Brien’s many CNN specials are series like “Black in America” and “Latino in America” — not attempts at political correctness, but rather at poignant storytelling, she said.

“It’s not like we were checking off, ‘OK black,’ ‘OK Latino,’ ‘Now look at the time, we need a gay in America.’ It was more of, ‘Wow, this is a great story that’s compelling and interesting,’” she explained. “We need people that you want to actually sit and watch for two hours and care about them as you watch their lives unfold.”

O’Brien found such a story in Gary Spino and Tony Brown, LGBT activists who enlisted a surrogate to help them start their family. The pregnancy, preparations and courtroom efforts to ensure the baby was legally theirs took up two hours of screentime, but the reporter spent nearly a year closely following the growing family.

O’Brien, whose own background includes Latino, African-American and Irish roots, is not an LGBT community member, but said such a relationship to her subjects is not necessary.

“I think sometimes if you identify too closely with someone, that can get in the way,” she said. “Sure, I’m black, I’m Latina, I’m a mother, but that doesn’t mean I’m an expert on any of those roles, so what I try to do is just do good interviews and find out as much as I can about who these people are as human beings, not just about their communities. We actually started shifting the naming of the projects from just ‘gay’ or ‘Latino’ stories because they’re about individuals. It’s not the telling of the story of everyone in the gay community in America, but just narrowly of these two guys. Gary and Tony’s story is about Gary and Tony.”

O’Brien said public reaction to the piece was overwhelmingly positive and that, while she isn’t currently working on another LGBT-focused documentary, “Gary and Tony” won’t be the last of its kind.

Although O’Brien is a longtime LGBT ally, she said her work on the documentary drove home the similarities between opposite- and same-sex couples, especially when it comes to parenting.

“As a mother, it was interesting for me to see these two guys go through the same things my husband and I did. There was the cleaning of the apartment, the sniping at each other because someone wants to keep something and the other wants it to be ditched, the stress of a new baby entering the family, and the falling in love with that baby,” she said. “When they saw Nicholas for the first time, that moment was literally exactly like the moment my husband and I first saw our baby and how we started crying and just saying how lucky we are.

“People think things are so different, but they’re really not. Humans are humans, and that’s something I’ve discovered from reporting across the globe,” O’Brien said. “People basically just want the same things: security, love, happiness and for their children to be in better positions than they were.”

O’Brien looks at some of the other innumerable lessons she’s acquired from her worldwide work in her new memoir, “The Next Big Story,” which will be released later this month. As a journalist, she explained, she’s required to remove herself from her reporting, so the book offered a way to review certain assignments from a personal perspective.

She compared trying to pick her most valued story to trying to pick her favorite child, but said high-profile world events like the Haitian earthquake, the tsunami in Indonesia and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina rank near the top.

“Hurricane Katrina was both miserable and amazing. We were walking through the airport and none of us had showered or changed our clothes in two weeks. We were filthy and disgusting, and we were all wearing CNN baseball caps, and the people in the airport gave us a standing ovation as we walked by for the work that we’d been doing. That was one of the most amazing moments of my life,” said O’Brien.

“I just feel so lucky to be a journalist. I get to have this great view of the world. I get to hop on planes and interview people about their lives for a living. That’s just amazing.”

To order tickets to the First Taste Dinner ($135-$250), visit or call (267) 402-2055.

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].