First Posted: 1/15/2009
PEMBROKE -- With a name like Mar'a de la Soledad O'Brien, the CNN news anchor says it is hard to avoid the issue of diversity.
Nor would she want to.
O'Brien, who spoke Tuesday night at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke as part of its annual Distinguished Speaker Series, said ethnic diversity is something she has dealt with all her life. She is the daughter of a black Cuban woman and an Irish-Australian man.
O'Brien says her background gives her a unique perspective as a journalist. She is a member of National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She was named to Irish-American Magazine’s “Top 100 Irish Americans” list and, in 1997, she was awarded the Hispanic Achievement Award in Communications.
“Diversity makes our newsrooms better and our stories are better when we seek out diverse voices,” she said. “It gives us access to stories that might otherwise fly under the radar.”
More than 700 people came out to hear O’Brien speak at the Givens Performing Arts Center. She took photographs with students and signed autographs after her presentation.
O’Brien kicked off the fourth year of the Distinguished Speaker Series at UNCP. Also scheduled to participate in the series are Olympic Gold Medalist Billy Mills, on Nov. 3; syndicated columnist Dave Barry, on Dec. 2; and film director Spike Lee, on Feb. 2.
O’Brien co-hosts American Morning on CNN with Bill Hemmer. She began working for the network in July.
O’Brien came to CNN from NBC News, where she had anchored the network’s Weekend Today since July 1999. During that time, she contributed reports for the weekday Today Show and weekend editions of NBC Nightly News and covered such notable stories as John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane crash and the school shootings in Colorado and Oregon. In 2003, she covered the space shuttle Columbia disaster and later anchored NBC’s weekend coverage of the war in Iraq. Additionally, in 1998, she traveled to Cuba to cover Pope John Paul II’s historic visit.
O'Brien said the death of her colleague and friend, journalist David Bloom, earlier this year pushed her to leave NBC for CNN.
“He was so enthusiastic about what he did, you could see it,” she said. “He taught me that life should be embraced, and you should take opportunities whenever they come along. Don’t always take the easy path.”
O'Brien said she hopes that society will eventually get to the point where race and sex don't matter so much. But she added that hasn't happened yet.
She said she has experienced racism and sexism during her career in broadcasting.
“Just go out and do a good job,” she said. “There are a lot of morons in the world. It’s exhausting to have to defend yourself all the time.”
O'Brien grew up on Long Island, the fifth of six children, and attended Smithtown High School East in St. James, N.Y. She is a graduate of Harvard University.