Relishing the Role of World-Stage Interpreter

Most TV news veterans have vivid 9/11 stories. They can immediately summon not just where they were but how they helped cover the attacks as they unfolded.

Kate O’Brian, who spent 30 years at ABC News before joining all-news network Al Jazeera America as president in 2013, has a pretty compelling 9/11 story. With her boss on a plane and temporarily unreachable, she remained at the Manhattan headquarters of ABC News Radio while directing initial coverage, and ultimately barely slept for three straight days. But O’Brian also has a Fukushima nuclear disaster story; a Tahrir Square-Arab Spring story; a Newtown story. Going back to the start of her career, she can even summon a Polish Solidarity/Lech Walesa story.

What unites them all for O’Brian is the consciousness of playing the role of interpreter of world-changing events. With Superstorm Sandy, “I remember at 2 or 3 in the morning there was this moment when babies were being evacuated from hospitals in Manhattan and the Jersey Shore was completely underwater and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be our Katrina,’” she said. “It’s an amazing thing to be in the middle of those moments.…You have to be able to follow that instinct. You have to be able to say, ‘Something is brewing here’ and stay with it.”

Al Jazeera America launched last summer from assets including Al Gore’s former Current network.Skeptics abounded then, and more than a few remain. They cite, among other things, the daunting task of competing with established players such as Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, as well as the Qatari government’s control of the channel.

O’Brian and CEO Ehab Al Shihabi brush off the criticism, pointing to two Peabody Award wins and to international examples of government-run broadcasters such as the BBC. “It is a startup, I keep reminding myself. We’re not even 10 months old yet,” O’Brian said. “When I look at what we have on the screen, it really is remarkable.”

News was a childhood staple for O’Brian, who grew up in New York City as the daughter of noted newspaperman and culture critic Jack O’Brian. Her sister long worked in print, including at The Wall Street Journal. Even so, “there wasn’t an expectation at all” of her pursuing journalism, O’Brian said. “But there was definitely an environment where we looked at news.”

Through most of her time at Smith College, O’Brian had “no idea” about her postgraduate direction. Fate intervened when she became an intern at ABC News’ 20/20. “I had found the groove,” she said. “I loved it and had an affinity for it. That sent me on my path.”

O’Brian progressed through the contracting and competitive broadcast news arena by taking “a lot of left turns,” expanding her skill set. “Every three or four years I would get offered a new job—managing talent, running the Atlanta bureau, working overseas, working in radio—man, I loved it.”

She joined Al Jazeera America in a similar spirit, hiring 800 new employees from 26,000 applicants. At a recent Paley Center Q&A appearance with O’Brian, Al Shihabi underscored the network’s belief in demand for a more substantial all-news outlet. “We are getting there,” he said. “And we trust that we have a place in the market, with the leadership of Kate.”

Moderator Pat Mitchell, now Paley’s executive vice chairman, asked O’Brian if it felt good operating in a newsroom not ruled, for now, by ratings.

“Well, I peek at them,” O’Brian smiled. “But yes, it’s early days.”