Q&A: Miles O’Brien, Back in Action

Ex-CNN correspondent talks about the NewsHour’s new Science News Unit

Bucking the trend in science journalism, the PBS NewsHour announced last Tuesday that it has created a new Science News Unit under the leadership of veteran reporter Miles O’Brien. An award-winning journalist (and general aviation pilot), O’Brien was a science reporter for CNN from 1992 until 2008, when the network cut its entire science team. Since then, O’Brien has been a writer/correspondent for WNET’s Blueprint America series, FRONTLINE and Discovery Science’s Innovation Nation series. He has also led the efforts to stream live coverage of space shuttle launches and produce “This Week in Space” for the website Spaceflightnow.com. Following PBS’s announcement, CJR’s Curtis Brainard spoke with O’Brien about his return to a major network, big issues in science, and his plans for the NewsHour.

So, how does it feel to be covering science full-time for a major network again? And what do you think of the NewsHour’s investment in this unit vis-à-vis the state of science journalism?

Mile O’Brien: Well, I don’t know the science which undergirds it, but you could knock me over with a feather. Nearly two years after I’d left CNN, I’d pretty much given up on mainstream media coverage of science and technology. It was interesting to be on the outside looking in and seeing how little it is covered, and how poorly it is covered, and how politicized science has become, and how it’s been viewed through a prism that makes it a kind of pro-and-con debate. It has nothing to do with informing the public. I watched that with dismay, and frankly I had kind of moved on and realized there were other ways to reach people, using alternative means of distribution—web 2.0, social networking, tweeting, facebooking, youtubing, all that kind of thing—and that’s been exciting. I’ve enjoyed that.

So, when I got the call from [NewsHour executive producer] Linda Winslow that she was interested in doing this and that she had the funding to do this, it was truly a eureka moment for me. It’s so good that there is a place left that cares about this kind of content. It’s so important for our national discourse and debate; it’s so important for the education of our kids; it’s so important for, ultimately, the competitiveness of our country that we have people who understand a little something about science and technology – these complicated issues. And what the NewsHour wants to do is take a serious look at that – not a boring look, but a serious look, and explore the issues in an engaging way. You know, I’m flattered. I’m honored. I feel like the knight in Monty Python [British accent]: “I’m not dead yet.”

What will your strategy be at the NewsHour? What kinds of resources are you going to have at your disposal and what are your short-term priorities and objectives?

Well, there are so many stories out there that are fun and interesting in the world of science. A story that is fun and interesting and relevant to the NewsHour audience, and which is able to sustain eight minutes—that starts to get to be kind of a high bar. Keeping people going and interested for eight minutes is a challenge, and I look forward to that challenge. On the one hand, it’s a great opportunity to really get in and explain some things to people. But you have to be careful. You don’t want to go too deep into the weeds and start writing essentially a TV version of the journal, Science.

So, what I want to do is look at big buckets of issues. I’m very interested in robotics technology. I’m very interested in nanotechnology. I’m interested in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education issues and how this nation addresses a huge problem we have in a lack of expertise among science teachers. I’m interested in the technological shift that is making newspapers and books more or less obsolete—I’m sitting here looking at my iPad as I talk to you—and how that profoundly changes the way we all process and learn. So, those are like big buckets of issues, and what we have to do now is figure out how to fill up eight minutes on that, and find the right people and subject matter. We’ve had our initial story meetings. The NewsHour is interested in a lot of things that I’m interested in, which is always nice, and frankly, stuff that I had a hard time selling at CNN.

So, I’m heartened that they’re willing to take some chances on stories that might on the surface look like, “Hmm, I wonder if that’s going to be interesting television.” I guess they have a little bit of faith in me to make that work for them. So, that puts a little more pressure on me, but that’s what we’re doing right now. I’m going to be working with my long-time producer at CNN, Kate Tobin, who left the day I did at CNN. We’ve actually worked together now for eighteen years, covering any number of science stories. She really knows science, and studied biology in school. I’m of course a history major who is just enthused about it. So we’re a good team, and we are going through our wish list right now, trying to make these big buckets of ideas into stories with a nice little narrative. My production company will actually go out, hire the crews, and we’ll do the production component of it. Obviously, the NewsHour is going to be doing all the script approvals and so forth, and we have the ability to tap into the resources of their staff. So we’re going to be doing a lot of stuff. Everything we’ll be doing will have a very robust web component, as every organization does these days, but the NewsHour is pushing very hard in that realm right now. So, it’s good. I feel like I’ve got a little bit of independence to seek out some of that cool things that interest me, but I’ve got a nice supportive safety net there of people that are going to help make these stories work.

Is the plan to produce one of these eight-minute segments for each nightly broadcast?

No. We have agreed to do twelve pieces for them over the next nine months for this first round, and how those will be released will depend on news pegs. For example, on November 1 they’re going to launch a robot to the international space station on the shuttle, and that’s a great opportunity to do that robotics piece that I’ve been dying to do. So, that is probably going to be the first story out of the gate.

The NewsHour wants us to stay close to the news curve and that’s appropriate, and obviously Kate and I, with all our time at CNN, know how to do that. So, we can’t be too indulgent—off in a corner that doesn’t relate to the news flow at all. But the beauty of it is that there’s a lot of stories that we run into each day, whether it’s climate change, or STEM education, or vaccines, or the BP oil spill—they all have a very compelling and important science component, which really isn’t being told, and that’s the opportunity we have to inform our audience.

Speaking of the spill and your audience, Linda Winslow told The Associated Press that the NewsHour’s coverage of the spill, “proved there was definitely an audience for this kind of story.” And, in the same piece, host Jim Lehrer said, “There’s evidence that we’re delivering a new audience for the NewsHour.” Who do you think your audience is going to be, and can science continue to bring in new viewers?

I’ve been digesting the latest Pew study on media consumption in the U.S. and how people have basically turned news into a kind of social thing that they participate in. It’s fascinating, and one of the things that warmed the cockles of my soul was that when you ask people what they believe is the most underreported story, it is science and technology. That study was talking to people who are actively engaged in news online—which is to say a younger, more participatory audience that expects to be following me on Twitter and Facebook, to know what stories I’m working on, and to have an ongoing dialogue with me.

I think if we let that community know that we’re out here and that we’re doing stories on a subject matter that it feels it’s not getting enough of, those people will beat a path to our doorstep. Because the honest to goodness truth is that mainstream news organizations—the twenty four hour cable news—don’t cover science because it’s hard to turn complicated scientific concepts into stories that are engaging and relatable to people. You’ve got scientists and engineers who are not known for their communication skills, you have subjects that are a little bit esoteric at times, and it requires some extra work. It’s a lot simpler to throw on a couple of pundits and have them bat around the Tea Party for eight or ten minutes on cable news. It’s a lot cheaper and it’s a proven ratings winner. It’s the same reason why local news operations chase bodies on the streets instead of going to City Hall and actually covering some bona-fide issues that are more relevant to the people in the community. It actually takes time to do the reporting if you go to City Hall. If you go shoot the body, it’s simple. It’s easy, it’s done, and you’ve filled up your time.

So I’m a little bit of a cynic, as you can tell. There is a whole disenfranchised audience out there that I’ve been trying to reach through alternate means, but it’s nice to have an audience—a smart audience—already there that is going to be watching, and we’ll bring in some more people. Look at the ratings—1.1 million people watch that show every evening. In the cable news universe, you would kill for that number.

In terms of your coverage, I have to ask about a couple possible conflicts here. You are the chair NASA’s Education and Public Outreach Committee and the NewsHour’s new science unit is receiving funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Will you be able to cover the U.S. space program or HHMI at the NewsHour?

Well, we’re pondering this issue even as we speak because my role at the National Advisory Council [which comprises nine committees, including Education and Pubic Outreach] is to advise strictly on education and public outreach issues. I don’t get involved in policy because, you know, I’m not a rocket scientist. But, having said that, as an advisor to NASA, it could be confused and create the appearance of a conflict, so we have to work through that. The issue for me is, I tell NASA how to better tell its story. I’m not sure if that’s a direct conflict if I’m doing a story about the next mission they’re going to launch to Venus or whatever, or about a shuttle launch. Now, if I were advising the NASA administrator about what sort of rockets should replace the shuttle, and how long the space station should stay in orbit and what experiments should be on there, it’s clear that would present a conflict, because if I’m doing a NASA policy story, that’s right in that area. So, we don’t have it figured out just yet. Admittedly, it’s a grey area and right now we don’t have a story that’s forcing us to contend with it. But I’ve had some discussions with Linda Winslow and Jim Lehrer about it to see what we’re comfortable with. I would hate to recuse myself from space stories, but I have also enjoyed my role in trying to help NASA engage the public a little better. So right now, frankly, I’m in the middle of a bit of a quandary.

And HHMI – do you think there’s an issue there?

Well, we’re not going to cover them directly. It would not be good form to get involved in telling the story of a specific funder. I think it’s a much more clear-cut situation—as opposed to the one with NASA—when a funder is linked to a story. But, you know, will biomedical research be an area we discuss? Of course. Will we be trotting over to the HHMI to see what they’re working on? We can’t do that, obviously.

Speaking of your widely acclaimed coverage of the space program, after PBS’s announcement last week, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit griped that you were so good at it, you “got plunked in the anchor’s chair a lot.” Obviously, he’d like to see you wear the reporter hat first. How do you plan to strike a balance between interviews and analysis and in the studio versus chasing down stories on the beat?

There will certainly be occasions in the course of my role at the NewsHour where I come in and do debriefs with Jim or whoever is hosting that night, and I’m happy to do that. I’m not so anxious to get back into an anchor chair anymore. Years ago, when I was a science correspondent at CNN, I had a producer take me aside and say, “You know, we’d really like you to anchor this weekend show here.” I didn’t want to do it. I was really enjoying what I was doing for a living and I was kind of pressured into that job. I’m not going to lie—I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the money, frankly, and I enjoyed the ability that that job gave me to do certain kinds of stories. However, I missed my roots. I always did. And I missed covering the stories where I felt like I had a passion and a knack for it. So, I think I’ve got it out of my system. I really feel strongly about staying close to the story—getting out there, meeting people, and interviewing them. The whole process of reporting is what I love. I love writing a story. I love production. I love the team endeavor of putting it together. And when you anchor, you get kind of elevated a step away from that. So I’m going to try to resist the temptation. Now, you know, if they start throwing a lot of money at me, you might want to call me back. I mean, I’ve got kids and all that. But really, if I can keep a roof over my head and my airplane flying, and still indulge my passion in this subject matter, I’m going to do it.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.