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Soledad O'Brien On Haiti, New Orleans And 'The Next Big Story'

Posted: 11/03/10 09:32 AM ET

I began this year hurtling through life. I had a book to write, a sort-of memoir. I was supposed to be sitting with it, thoughtfully pulling together what I'd learned about America as a hard news television reporter. But on January 12, the earth shook in Haiti, a lot of people died, and I began a race to tell a story so horrible I would sometimes blink my eyes hoping to readjust the focus so the images would not be so clear.

I had to put the book project down. I shoved aside the deadline to make way for doing a string of stories on the desperation of Haiti's orphans and ultimately a documentary on the same topic. There is something about this kind of heart-pounding reporting that makes me feel so alive. It's that sensation of being told something remarkable and rushing off to tell it to everyone who will listen. Something terrible has happened. Send help.

The kids I met there were so haunting I went back twice more, even after the documentary had aired and the crisis was fading from public view. The book deadline was still there, but I just ignored it. I raced by airport bookstores, looking away from the smiling faces on the newest journalists' book covers. I didn't get the titles. So many of them sounded so didactic and angry, screaming condemnations of where America is going, selling the latest roadmap to the right direction. I had nothing to add to that conversation. I just had a deadline.

So I started to write late, in the midst of another documentary project, stressed and uncertain how my reporting travels could inform America. Yet I was surprised how easily and quickly the words came. There is no need for another hardback screaming indignantly about the lack of American direction. I wrote about where we have been. We have been to a shaken Haiti and a waterlogged New Orleans, to the depths of a recession and the heights of racial tension. We have seen the worst possible moments flash by and gotten up and rushed off to help - without the aid of governments or the call of duty. I don't need to tell anyone where we are going as a country or where we should be going. We always just get up and go.

I arrived in Haiti just as I'd arrived for so many similar assignments before - just after the storm had passed, hoping to get word out of what's in store. There were Americans already on the ground, dressed in the uniforms of Americans on the move: t-shirts and blue jeans. They had the same look as the folks who had taken to the streets to urge calm after race riots, the same people who paddled through muck to reach people on rooftops after hurricane Katrina. The same folks who sign up for Teach for America or take in foster kids or worship a God who urges them to pass around the collection plate for people they've never met. Those are the people I wrote about --- not the folks griping about what isn't getting done or how they are so misunderstood.

I turned in my manuscript hoping that this kind of reporting isn't out of fashion. Don't we still expect journalists to tell stories about other people and not just dwell on themselves? Since when did reporting become another Outward Bound experience? Isn't the reporter there to report? I barely turned my book in on time for all the things that got in the way. But that's okay by me, even if it was likely a bit unnerving for my editors. I was off doing my day job. I was telling the story of America at work. And when I got back I had a mountain of evidence for what became the thesis for my book: "Bad things happen until good people get in the way. I learn this life lesson ...almost everywhere I go in pursuit of the next big story. People have an incredible potential to do good and make good and seize good from bad if they will only make the choice to do it."

See more of Soledad on CNN's In America page.