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Soledad O’Brien — telling stories that matter

Giving voice to the voiceless through her production company Starfish Media

Sarah Betancourt
Soledad O’Brien — telling stories that matter
Soledad O’Brien (Photo: Photo: Courtesy Starfish Media)

Greater Boston television audiences got a fresh perspective on politics ahead of the November election with the airing of the second season of “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien,” a half-hour program on Channel 5 WCVB-TV that returned on September 10. The political magazine show is produced through O’Brien’s multi-platform company, Starfish Media.

On the web

Watch “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien” on WCVB Sundays at 11:30 a.m. and Mondays at midnight or by visiting: http://matteroffact.tv

Twitter: @matteroffacttv

Facebook: www.facebook.com/MatterofFactTV

Instagram: www.instagram.com/matteroffacttv

View video clips of documentaries and see previews of upcoming projects:

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/starfishmediagroup

YouTube: www.youtube.com/channel/UCZ0U8_I8mqEbkxRUcGkDeIA

Starfish Foundation: www.starfishmediagroup.com/starfish-foundation

“The War Comes Home,” first aired on CNN in August 2014: www.cnn.com/2014/08/11/opinion/soledad-obrien-war-comes-home-post-traumatic-stress

Starfish Media is a full-service production and distribution company offering a range of quality shows such as documentaries, branded content, town halls and other programs featuring stories of the “under-voiced.” O’Brien believes the show fills a gap in political discourse that has not been acknowledged. She says, “From a business perspective, I felt the show was about elevating the voices of people who are often left out of a conversation. Being able to do that was really what the mission of the production company was. As we continue to grow our production company, we make sure the partners really make sense to us in terms of what the philosophy is.”

Hearst Television recently partnered with Starfish to syndicate “Matter of Fact” nationally to 110 stations. Other partners include CNN, Hearst, CoverGirl, WebMD, PBS and XQ. Starfish Media, which O’Brien said first came on the scene at her dining room table, now has grown to nine full-time employees.

Giving voice and standing

During a long political season with polarizing candidates and headline-making sound bites, it’s difficult to discern what really matters to everyday Americans. The familiar group of characters who dominate the national political landscape often leaves voters disenchanted.

The Starfish mission is to produce “empowering stories that take a challenging look at the often divisive issues of race, class, wealth, poverty and opportunity through personal narratives,” according to the statement posted on its website. Through O’Brien’s editorial direction, “Matter of Fact” viewers hear and learn from Americans who often are neglected in national discussions. Their views, often juxtaposed with interviews with policymakers and experts, add texture and depth to some of the more pressing issues of the day.

Examples include a life-saving program for traumatized veterans on the brink of suicide; a second chance for women raising their babies behind bars; a teen-aged daughter of immigrants who prepare for a robotics competition she’s entered, her hopes set on Stanford.

Since its inception in 2013, Starfish Media Group has produced these kinds of stories, while continuing to produce programs undertaken beforehand. These include the popular documentary series “Black in America” and “Latino in America” both of which continue to be programmed through CNN. Indeed, O’Brien enlisted CNN as her first client after leaving her CNN morning show, “Starting Point,” in March 2013 to launch Starfish.

A 2013 long-form journalism project called “The War Comes Home,” a documentary about veterans who live with post-traumatic stress, was produced in association with MediaStorm. O’Brien and Starfish Media worked with Fathom Events to get the documentary shown in 300 cinemas nationally in May 2016. In an op-ed promoting the documentary for The Huffington Post, O’Brien explained, “In our documentary, our main characters have exhausted clinical settings and medication. Save a Warrior emerges as one of the non-clinical settings that lives outside the world of traditional veterans’ services.” A pre-produced town hall was screened after the documentary, with participating organizations including the National Association of Black Veterans, the George W. Bush Presidential Center, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

O’Brien said, “Certainly my philosophy as a journalist has long been to tell really compelling stories about people whose stories are left out.” Starfish Media still produces the CNN original series, “Black in America,” which first premiered with an episode dispelling myths of black men, and continues with episodes such as the one featuring the survival of a 7,000-member parish during the Great Recession. The award-winning actor and director Tyler Perry was featured in one episode that documented his evolution from homeless man to a television producer, paying it forward for others.

Author: Photo: Courtesy Starfish MediaSoledad O’Brien with her husband Brad Raymond, founders of the Starfish Foundation.

“Black in America” was followed by “Latino in America.” In 2016, both series were featured as O’Brien traveled the country, meeting with people in town halls. She continues to keep an open mind to demographic perspectives the company might want to feature. She said, “Sometimes they’re stories of people of color — ‘Black in America,’ ‘Latino in America,’ ‘Gay in America’ — but not necessarily always people of color. Sometimes it’s women. We did a great documentary on women who were rescue workers at Ground Zero.”

O’Brien was named journalist of the year in 2010 by the National Association of Black Journalists. In 2013, she was a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. O’Brien elaborated in a recent interview: “On Sunday mornings you’ll see a lot of economists who are 60-year-old white guys who make the Sunday morning rounds — sort of typical. I would argue that there are a lot of voices, whether it’s gender, people of color, whether it’s millennials — people who really deserve to be part of a conversation. That’s what the show is all about.”

The homegrown production company has evolved with the help of clients, and has moved onto two floors with a production studio, make-up and tracking facilities and a full editorial suite.

A starfish story

Starfish Media takes its name from a story about effecting change. In 2010, O’Brien was shooting “Rescued,” a documentary about Haitian orphans, which would become retold in the book, “The Next Big Story.” During filming, the massive 7.0mW earthquake occurred, displacing 1.5 million people and killing several hundred thousand.

It was hard for her to see the impact of small scale progress amidst such overwhelming havoc. She told Banner Biz a story of travelling around Haiti and seeing initiatives undertaken in an orphanage founded by a woman from California. “You have 58 orphans in a sea of 400,000. You can rightfully say that’s not doing very much. I mean 58? And I asked her, ‘Why do you do this,’ and she kept telling me, ‘Soledad, it’s a Starfish story.’”

What is the Starfish story? It’s a tale about a boy walking along a beach where the tide has receded, leaving starfish beached on the sand. He starts picking up starfish and throwing them into the water. A man comes up to him and asks, “What are you doing? There’s a million starfish. You can’t help them all. This is a waste of time.” The child picks up a starfish and says, “Well I guess it matters to this one.”

That story became the narrative behind the documentary, and eventually the name of O’Brien’s production company, as well as an educational foundation for young scholars. She said, “You’re never really toiling in vain if you’re affecting one person.”

Beyond the November 8 election, O’Brien is looking forward to digging into political issues of everyday importance. “Politics is not just an election and someone running for office. Politics is life,” she said. “Politics is everything. Do the roads have potholes? That’s politics. Is someone running for school board? That’s politics. Is your water good quality or poor quality? What we’re doing will not change at all, because politics is the fiber of everyday life.”