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Soledad O'Brien tackles crime with Oxygen's 'Mysteries and Scandals'


Posted Friday, January 5, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Journalist Soledad O'Brien is known for digging into topics such as race and equality.

But at various news and cable networks including MSNBC, Al Jazeera America and CNN, she has also covered her fair share of crime stories.

Bottom line: crime is endlessly fascinating to millions of viewers. Oxygen Network, once home to "Bad Girls Club" and reality shows featuring Russell Simmons and Tori Spelling, is now focused exclusively on true crime, chasing after an audience that ID had cornered.

So O'Brien has teamed up with Oxygen to create a show called "Mysteries and Scandals" which debuts Friday, January 5 at 9 p.m. and delves into past crime cases, some more familiar than others.

"It was just an opportunity for me to dig deeper into stories I covered as a reporter," O'Brien said in a recent interview. "When you're reporting day to day, you don't get to really understand fully what happened. Once some time passes and you get some context and perspective and hear some new voices, it adds a lot of light and insight into the stories."

Some are huge. She revisits O.J. Simpson, not the murder case but the later robbery that landed him in prison. "I don't get a sense that it's being over-covered in any way," O'Brien said. "People have a massive appetite for him. If you can figure out how to tell those stories in a thoughtful way as Oxygen can do, you can find an audience."

Others cases she looks at have faded in time such as the murder of an actress Christa Helm from 1977. Some are far fresher like Randy Stair, a YouTube regular who went on a gruesome shooting spree last year.

And O'Brien tackles the sad Atlanta story of Bobby Kristina Brown, who died in 2015 in a similar fashion to her famous mom Whitney three years earlier. She covered the story when it happened but this time was able to get a better sense of Bobby Kristina's frame of mind after speaking in detail to family members and investigators. "It's like watching a car wreck in slow motion," O'Brien said.

Like many of these types of crime programs, there are re-enactments. Traditional journalist pieces don't include them, but she understands that it's a story-telling device that can be very effective in helping viewers get inside the crime.

"I love a good mystery," she said. "I like to sit in the middle of these stories. I find it fascinating. I'm a professional storytelling. I hope to tell these stories at a high level."

O'Brien is happy she's not doing day-to-day CNN-type news coverage now, especially in the age of Trump. "I watch them and I feel sort of sorry for them," she said.

But she does host a syndicated weekly magazine program “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien" to discuss the week's news. (It's available in 140 markets and locally in Atlanta at 12:30 a.m. on Sundays on CW69/WUPA-TV.) She said they get to provide more perspective than the "breaking news" ethos of the cable networks. One recent weekend, she got to discuss in depth the threatened CHIP program, which  provides health insurance for millions of children.

She is also hopeful but saddened by all the sexual harassment claims since Harvey Weinstein was called out in October. She said she was classmates with actress Mira Sorvino in Harvard and was chastened by how she was blackballed in the industry.

"What I focus on are the women and all the talent lost," O'Brien said. "Women who quit the business. They felt the only way they could get ahead was provide sexual favors and when they didn't feel like doing that, the best option was to quit. That breaks my heart. I hope we're going through some purge with society better off on the other side."

And while the free press has been under attack by the White House and others, she is thrilled to see good work still being done, citing the Washington Post's investigation into Roy Moore that led to him losing a Senate seat in Alabama.

"It wasn't just the story of the accusers," she said. "It was the story about how the Washington Post got the story. They knew they were going to be questioned. It was great to read about the process. I'm obsessed with context. It adds a ton of value. I think you're seeing people not just tell the story but explain how they got it."

And with Trump calling her former news organization CNN "fake news," she has empathy for her former colleagues.

"They're doing a good job in what is a challenging circumstance," she said. "It's a news organization trying to report day in, day out, many in some of the most dangerous parts of the world. They go out and tell stories and report back to people regardless of their political bent."

TV PREVIEW

"Mysteries and Scandals," 9 p.m. Fridays, Oxygen Network


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About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.