Soledad O’Brien Is Calling It Like It Is

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey, y’all. It’s Brittany. Ooooh baby…It has been a WEEK. Can I be honest with y’all? I mean, we’re a family, right? The closeness of this election is troubling. Even if it was to be expected. In 2016, I started the night POSITIVE that I’d be witnessing history, but by the end of the night, I was crying into a pillow between gulps of champagne, straight from the bottle.

This time Reggie was tossing back tequila and I was searching Twitter for any bright spot I could find. And I found plenty, but I still went to bed with too much of that very familiar dread in the pit of my stomach. I mean, after four plus years of outright lies and a quarter of a million people dead from COVID-19, I prayed that even just that was unreal enough to make this election a blowout. That’s what we’ve been organizing for. That’s not where this country is. No matter the outcome we have to deal with reality. White supremacy is still far too appealing and suppression is far too pervasive. Both are branches of the same tree. So we gotta buckle in. This won’t be an easy ride: beyond Trump and his obstructionist Republican party, we still have a raging pandemic; and economy hanging on by a thread; and the social justice reckoning of my lifetime and yours. And we’ve got work to do. It’s going to be tiring, but we are going to stay the course. We are UNDISTRACTED.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham On the show today…broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien. 

I’ll be talking to the former CNN anchor and current host of “Matter of Fact” about the election and why the news media needs to get better at calling out racism for what it is. 

Soledad O’Brien I do think the media has never actually sat down and said: “Here’s what we screwed up. We fucked this up. How do we fix it for the next time?” Journalists, as far as I can tell, mostly don’t admit their failures. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Soledad O’Brien is coming up, but first it’s your “UNtrending News.”



Tracy Chapman Don’t you know, they’re talking about a revolution? It sounds like a whisper. Don’t you know, talking about a revolution. It sounds like a whisper. While they’re standing in the welfare lines. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah, we’re talking about a revolution. On Monday night, Tracy Chapman gave a very rare performance of her 1988 hit on “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” the Grammy Award-winning musician wrote on Instagram: “This is the most important election of our lifetime. It is imperative that everyone vote to restore our democracy.”


Tracy Chapman And finally the tables are starting to turn. Talkin’ ’bout a revolution.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Y’all know, flipping tables is my favorite thing to do


Tracy Chapman Finally the tables are starting to turn… 


Brittany Packnett Cunningham Okay, let’s get to some highlights. There were a record 574 LGBTQ candidates up for election Tuesday night and quite a few big wins.

Our friend Sarah McBride in Delaware became the first openly trans state Senator in the country’s history. 

Sarah McBride I came out as transgender while serving as student body president in college. I worried that my dreams and my identity were mutually exclusive. Since then though, I’ve seen that change as possible.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham In Kansas, trans Native-American candidate Stephanie Byers won her House race, making her the first trans person of color elected to a state legislature. In Oklahoma, Mauree Turner, who is Black and Muslim, became the first non-binary state legislator in U.S. history. I also want to give a big shoutout to Kim Jackson who is set to become Georgia’s first out state legislator. Kim is a Black lesbian Episcopal priest who was the Grand Marshall of Atlanta’s pride parade last year.

Kim Jackson St. Louis strong. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Cori Bush made history in my hometown of St. Louis as the first Black woman to be elected to Congress in Missouri. 

Cori Bush To the Black women, the Black girls, the nurses, the essential workers, the single mothers…This is our moment. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham We’re sending a big congratulations to ALL the winners and also, and I know they’d agree with me, I’m hopeful that we can get out of first territory really soon here. We need to just go on ahead and break all those glass ceilings once and for all so we can get from first to many.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham Coming up some real talk from Soledad O’Brien on why she’s taking her media peers to task.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So…Early Wednesday morning with millions of votes yet to be counted, Trump falsely declared victory, falsely claimed voter fraud, and falsely claimed this election was being stolen. My guest today argues that the news media can’t keep giving a platform to someone we know will lie. Broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien has been in the news business for decades as an anchor on CNN and now as the host of the public affairs TV show “Matter of Fact,” but in recent years, she’s also become a no-holds-barred critical friend of the news media, calling out their normalization of white supremacy to her 1 million plus followers and beyond. Soledad has a lot to say, and I’m incredibly glad for it. I spoke to her the morning after. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Good morning, Soledad. How are you? 

Soledad O’Brien Good morning. I’m well, how are you doing? 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I’m wiping the sleep from my eyes, which is funny because I barely got any, but I’m doing well and remaining hopeful. How are you feeling? What was going through your mind as you went to sleep last night? DID you go to sleep last night? 

Soledad O’Brien Yeah. You know, I find watching TV news and cable news so frustrating really around the entire election process that I knew I wouldn’t watch a lot. In fact, I watched very little. I probably followed more of it online and that’s because you know, that everything needs to be framed as a horse race. Right? So you’re not gonna get sort of the boring, dry here’s what’s happening. It’s always going to be posed as breaking news and, you know, “With 8% of precincts in here’s what’s happening.” And I find it really irresponsible and having been in the center of it for a very long time, I really know what’s going on there. But, you know, a little bit went as I felt, which was in 2016, I felt very strongly that Donald Trump would win. Mostly, my very unscientific lawn signs thing, right, which was this idea of even 90 minutes north of New York City, there were just lawn signs for Trump everywhere. There was just an incredible amount of enthusiasm for a guy who I thought was pretty despicable. And I think what you’re seeing four years later, going in the results a little bit reflect how I felt people would ask me and I’d be like, I just don’t know. People were saying, you know, it’s going to be a blowout. I was like, ah, I just don’t know. I think it’s because…I think it’s really hard to measure things like the appeal of racism.

I do think there are secret voters who don’t want to brag about finding tremendous appeal in something that most people would say is despicable. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You talked a little bit about how hard it is to measure the appeal of racism. I want to come back to the polling in just a second, but I think this is the question on a lot of Americans minds. How is it still so close after four years of being reminded over and over again exactly who Trump is. How is it so close? 

Soledad O’Brien Yeah, because I think that you’re seeing a very divided electorate. We’ve seen it divided and it’s growing more divided. Things that I thought were a no-brainer—a president who’s had terrible leadership on the pandemic to the point of just, you know, basically saying he was giving up, and lying consistently. That doesn’t seem to really resonate with people. So, I don’t know that THAT gets reflected in the polls, but I do think that’s a question of the American people. Like, I mean, one thing I do find very disappointing is I don’t know how people can support just an overt racist and misogynist, but, you know, I think we— I’ve been having that thought for a long time now. I’m always surprised when you’re like, “Wow, this is a person who just says disgusting things and does disgusting things,” and, and for all these people who like to talk about how character matters and goodness matters, I think that’s a pretty clear measure that it really doesn’t. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So we of course don’t know the result at the time we’re talking, but how relevant are pollsters anymore? 

Soledad O’Brien I’m going to tell you—it’s terrible. It was a fail. It was bad. And yet I think the media needs it on election night to drive a narrative. So yes, terrible, terrible, bad, bad, bad. 


“And we’ll see you back here four years from now and probably for the midterms too.”

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Trump has constantly lied and spread disinformation like it was his job. And then of course, there’s this whole question about whether or not when he gets up on stage, if networks should even air it. I mean, many have argued, and you’ve implied, that by airing so much propaganda, the news media helped Trump get elected in 2016. Do you think it has gotten any better this time around?

Soledad O’Brien Uh, you know, I think there’s more conversation around it, if not from the media, I think from people themselves—understand the potential of this. So, yes, I do think there’s been an improvement. I think the challenge for journalists is always: “But if the president gets up and says a thing in an election, like don’t, you have to cover and how do you cover it?” I think journalism is learning very slowly that the answer is not always just take it live and give somebody who’s a pathological liar a mic all the time.


Soledad O’Brien Do you hear that noise behind me? That’s my puppy—my pandemic puppy—attacking a pillow, but because I’m sitting here, I can’t go over and wrench my nice pillow out of her mouth. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s probably the most relatable thing we’ve had on UNDISTRACTED so far. 

Soledad O’Brien I was going to say I’m distracted. I’m extremely distracted. Do I save my pillow? Do I not save my pillow? I— do you think the media has never actually sat down and said, “Here’s what we screwed up. We fucked this up and how do we fix it for the next time?” I think that journalists, as far as I can tell, mostly don’t admit their failures, their flaws. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Let’s keep digging into this media question more broadly, because I think it is so important that we get this right. You are incredibly experienced at this. You spent three decades as a reporter and an anchor. Let’s be clear. You have receipts. You have one Peabodys for your coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. But in recent years, you’ve also become somewhat of a critic or maybe critical friend of the news media. What made you want to speak out more?  

Soledad O’Brien You know, I think because I kinda know how the sausage is made in a lot of ways. And I think when there are failures, it’s important, who’s to analyze what we got wrong. And I find it very frustrating that journalists really, really loath saying, “this is my piece in how this was screwed up.”

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And this is what I mean—you are blunt, you don’t hold back, but you’re not mean. You genuinely seem to want the news media to do better. 

Soledad O’Brien Yeah, well, you know, I think I really love journalism. I love media. I love it. And I’m still a journalist. I do a lot of work—reporting and anchoring—but I think I’d like to tease out the entertainment-deep part of it, especially when the stakes are so high, but I’m not a media critic per se, I’m just a gal on Twitter, who tries to give people some perspective from some of the things that I’ve covered over the years, I’ve spent A LOT of time and in newsrooms on election night: I’ve been there eating bad pizza, and you know, worn high heels all night so I could report on, you know, analysis and polls. I get it. I really do. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So you’re not a media critic per se, but even beyond Trump, we just touched on it a bit, but what have been some of your biggest criticisms of the news media in the past few years?

Soledad O’Brien A lot of my big criticisms do fall under the Trump umbrella. And it’s around how do we think about giving a platform to someone who we know is lying? You know, there’s no rule. There’s no like, TV news book that says, you know, “page four: the president has to be taken live every time he speaks.” He doesn’t. And you can actually say our job is to elevate facts and we’re going to make sure that people get information that’s important to them. And so yes, if we have to pre-tape it and then edit out the shit that’s just the lies and elevate it or give context to what he’s saying. Say what’s going to follow is not true. Here’s a president lying about such and such. You could do that, but I think what people USUALLY do, which is just elevate stuff, that’s just bullshit. I think that’s truly a mistake. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham There’s a clear issue with platforming a liar. There’s also a clear issue with platforming white supremacists. You tweeted, and frankly I’m very grateful you did, last year that, “CNN gives racist and white supremacists a platform, all in the name of hearing them out,” which you’ve called “a ratings ploy.”

Soledad O’Brien Yeah. I think the story of white supremacy is often a story of normalizing people. They’re just—he’s just a regular guy, he’s pushing the cart in the grocery store; and very rarely do I think there’s a lot of conversation around how do we have a context around this? You know people will talk about objectivity. And, you know, well, “Well you just gotta hear both sides”? And I, you know, I feel like on some things I’m not particularly objective, like pedophilia—bad. I don’t need to be objective. I don’t need to say both sides and, but wait a minute, you know, “Don’t we need to listen to their side?” No, we really, I think it’s interesting to do stories, but I think I’m allowed to frame a story and make sure that people understand that kind of context. And I think people have really failed to do that in this day.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I mean, there are things that we can’t normalize, but you’ve also been at the vanguard of trying to normalize storytelling about race and ethnicity for decades—before it was trendy. Am I to understand that around 11 years ago, back when you were at CNN, you were actually TOLD by one of your bosses to stop talking so publicly about Black people and police violence. Is that right? 

Soledad O’Brien It was! It was actually the head of CNN Worldwide, so that was my boss’s boss’s boss. And he’s a lovely man. He’s the guy who funded CNN’s “Black in America” for nine years. But when it came to…we were at the TCA, the Television Critics Association, launching “Black in America,” this big six-hour doc about African Americans. And someone said to me, so you know, “What was your big takeaway from this doc?” 

And I said: “You know, the most interesting thing, I think, is how no matter what you’re talking about in terms of socioeconomic class, their narratives, their stories were exactly the same— almost like they were reading off a script when it came to policing. t would go something like this: ‘When my son turned 13,’— sometimes it was a daughter, but almost always, son —’I said to him, If you are stopped by the police, here’s what you need to do.’ 

So that ended. And he did, he took me aside and he said, “That’s just not true.” I was like, “I spent 18 months on this doc, trust me. It is true.” He said, “No, white people have a similar conversation.” And I say: “They really don’t.” I think for white people—having grown up in an all white neighborhood, I can promise you this—that a lot of that conversation is around respecting police: ou know, don’t be an idiot, don’t be disrespectful. But I said, you know, for Black parents and Black children, the conversation is around, “How do you survive this interaction? How do we make sure that you survive?” 

And I said, “I just think that’s different.” And he did; he said to me, “Well, that’s just not true. So stop telling that story.” So I did cause I wanted to keep my job. I did.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Well. So that was 10-11 years ago, fast forward to 2020. We’ve got deep discontent and unrest around police violence. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, unfortunately, so many more names. Do you see ways in which the media, especially around protests and race, has steadily improved or are things about the same? 

Soledad O’Brien That’s a good question. I think there’s a lot of agitating within the organizations now to improve. I think most reporters are trying to do the right thing, are trying to figure it out. I don’t think people go out every day in order to misinform people. I think sometimes just the system is set up and it’s so easy to kind of do the lazy job that if you don’t have other people pushing back from within, you can really get it wrong. So I think the thing that I found interesting about my boss’s boss’s boss all those years ago was that I just couldn’t figure out, like, why was it so important to him that that was not the story? Like, why could he, here’s a super-duper successful, like insanely successful guy who was running a multinational organization and who gives money to every charity? Like a good dude. But he couldn’t wrap his head around this idea that policing might be different in different communities. And I think that’s kind of what I took away. It wasn’t was he wrong or was he right? It was more like, wow, why is there pushback? I spent 18 months on this story, right. So if anybody’s going to know, it’s probably me. I think often what you need in a newsroom is the person who kind of pushes back on the inside and says, “But why do you always interview the cops at the protest?” Always. Like why is the cop’s point of view frequently the prevalent point of view in a protest. What if you actually, instead of just covering violence, you want to get TV cameras come out—start breaking windows in your, in your march. 

Most journalists think a very peaceful march is boring as fuck. They just do. They do! Right?! That we roll 15 seconds of it: “In downtown, wherever a march for, you know, for voting.” Then only until that march becomes violent and then that march will be covered like crazy. Well, there’s a couple of lessons from that one, which is easy to see why marches pretty quickly can spiral into violence, but also because we don’t really do a good job covering peaceful marches and explaining, “But really walk me through what is that issue here? Who’s on what side? And what’s the point of view of this side and what are these people over here saying too and then what are the facts of the matter,” regardless of what people’s perspective is, like, there’s just a different way to do it. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham This question you asked your boss’s boss for me is really IT—why is it so important that that’s not the story? I remember in 2016, I was a panelist that had kind of a DNC-related event and I used the word “fascist” and people audibly gasped, and I think it irked me to no end, because I was like, you guys, we can’t afford to be surprised by the things we have to fight whenever possible. Why are you so desperate to make sure that’s not the story? 

Soledad O’Brien You know, when we were doing “Black in America,” it’s so funny. You just reminded me. We weren’t allowed to use, I’m not saying it exactly the right way, it wasn’t we weren’t allowed to use the words “white supremacy,” but it was frowned upon. I mean, now something that I think people talk a lot about, but that was just, you know, not that phrase, think of something else that just was like, not the way people wanted to put it.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham This is important though, because reporters of color, LGBTQ journalists, all of the folks who have perspectives that are marginalized in this country and who work in news media have increasingly been challenging this age-old idea of objectivity. You touched on it a bit before, but how relevant is the idea of journalistic neutrality anymore?

Soledad O’Brien I think it was always a bit of a pipe dream, because what neutrality to me always meant was—so here’s OUR leadership’s point of view. I mean, I think that to some degree is what my boss’s boss’s boss was saying. Right? Like our take on this is THIS. And you’re saying the thing that makes us feel uncomfortable. So I think when people say “objective” in the news, they don’t really mean “objective,”—they mean, it’s what makes us, the leadership here, comfortable. That’s how we hire people. That’s how we think about these stories. The point of view is going to be, for the most part, the police are always right. The people who are protesting are always mostly bad guys. And I think there’s just a rush to get rid of nuance. So I think you now, again, have people who are just challenging the status quo, right? Saying, I just think, you know, that this objectivity thing is kind of bullshit because depending on where you’re standing is going to be, what your point of view is.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And now you are in the position of power. You are expanding the perspectives that are setting the agenda. You’ve been filming your own TV show “Matter of Fact,” you have many, many jobs. We have just been through hell as a country. We’re still in it in so many ways, but as we move forward from this election, what continues to drive you and the work you do?

Soledad O’Brien You know, I think it’s because—one, at some point you’re not trying to grow your career anymore. Like, I don’t think of myself, as listen, I need to ingratiate myself with the bosses because one day I’m really hoping to get the seven o’clock hour on CNN. And so I think it gives you a lot of freedom to say, I just want to work on this stuff I want to work on. I spend a lot, you know, I’ve done this for a long time now. And I really think there’s a lot of opportunity in media and in journalism that doesn’t have to go through the old standard bearers, which are changing pretty dramatically. So I think that frees you up a lot. And I also think the conversation is changing.

It’s very different than when I started. Very, very different. And that’s a good thing. It is glacial change. Slow as hell, but it does change. And so I think, you know, people should feel good about inserting some of these conversations into newsrooms that usually don’t have that. And usually only people with some kind of power, or people with nothing to lose, can bring those conversations to bear. And I, I think so, I think it’s really changing. I do. I mean, but slowly. So I was, I was going to say, I’m going to caution you to feel too good about it because it’s changing very slowly. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Well, Soledad, we are grateful that you are one of the leading voices changing it and making more room in the conversation. Thanks so much for spending time with us today.

Soledad O’Brien It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien is the host of the political magazine TV show “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien.”


Brittany Packnett Cunningham I still remember sitting down as a family to watch Soledad’s “Black in America” series. She has been such a model for what journalistic integrity truly looks like. And I agree with Soledad, we have to stop giving a mic to people we know are lying. We’ve watched as completely ruthless politicians tried to force their own narrative on the rest of us.

But we cannot normalize white supremacy. The story of this close election is unequivocally about the attractiveness of white supremacy and the pervasiveness of suppression. It may be uncomfortable, but any other story is false. And as Soledad reminds us, we need to interrogate why people continue to hold on tightly to their false fantasies.

It’s our job to keep white supremacy on the roads until it takes its last gasp. I have hope. And I know you may be thinking I’m feeding you a bunch of bull, but listen, I’m a disciple of disciplined hope—that’s hope you earn. It’s what comes from being honest about the things we’re fighting against so we can defeat them once and for all. There is a precedent for abolition in this country. I know because my ancestors set it. And there is a new precedent for getting involved in our country’s future because you are creating it. Voter turnout is estimated to be the highest it’s been in 120 years. And despite it being a pandemic, more than 100 million of us cast our ballots during the early voting period. We are not powerless. We are powerful. And for the sake of that power, your action items for this week are important and ongoing. Number one—fight voter suppression, and don’t think that’s irrelevant because election day has ended. Elections in this country have never been fully free and fully fair, and we have to fix them now.

Follow support and volunteer for organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, The Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights, Fair Fight, The Florida Rights Restoration Commission, and Black Voters Matter right now, not just in 2022 or 2024. And number two—don’t let the media normalize white supremacy. It is not a valid other side.

When you see propaganda rear its head, don’t let it slide and enough with all these euphemisms for straight up old-fashioned racism. The truth will matter if we keep telling it.

That’s it for today…but never for tomorrow!


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our Lead Producer is Rachel Matlow.

Our Associate Producer is Taylor Hosking. 

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Grace Chen, and Hannis Brown. 

Our Executive Producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself. 

And our Executive Producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media, and our team @TheMeteor.

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED—and rate us!—on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you check out your favorite podcasts. 

Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. Thanks for doing.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.