IN CONVERSATION WITH…
ERROL BARNETT, CBS News Correspondent
“The story of black people in the world is really a story of being the descendant of survivors — every single one of us. We don't know enough about the successes of our story and our ancestors.
We are ‘survival of the fittest.'"
CBS News Correspondent
Speaking with Amy Elisa Jackson, Errol talks about how he navigates the often-toxic news cycle and balances life as a Black-Brit on the edge of greatness.
ICON MANN: How do you define yourself, personally and professionally?
Errol Barnett:I have been reflecting on this. I define myself as someone who has made the difference about me an asset. And I've really defined myself, I think, through not just the path of self-acceptance in that way, but through always aiming to do better and improve myself while not abandoning core values that I have. In that everything that's different about us really is what matters and what we should protect and highlight.”
ICON MANN: Your journey does seem to have a through-line that any difference or uniqueness about you has been turned into an advantage. Is that something you learned to do at an early age coming from the U.K. to the U.S.?
Errol Barnett:Without a doubt. I think everyone at some point in their lives learns to turn their differences into assets. For some of us, it happens early on in our lives, and for others, it happens much later. Still, for some, it's a perpetual journey. For me, I was constantly faced with these questions of “In order to succeed and improve yourself, who is it that you’re trying to impress? Who is it that you’re changing for?”The answers to those questions may change over time for some people, but for me, it has always made me focus on improving myself to impress myself. I know that no matter what I've been through, no matter the challenges I face, at the end of the day I can always take relief in the fact that I'm being genuine, I'm being true to myself, and I'm not abandoning who I am.
Coming to the U.S. and being the only black Brit in the red state of Arizona in my grade school when I was painfully shy, forced me to get outside of my shell. Even throughout high school, we all deal with identity, and I was really trying to fit in. I tried to lose my accent, and I tried to mold myself into my peers. There was a point where I said, you know what, that just doesn't work for me.
ICON MANN: What have the turning points or defining moment in your 36 years of life been, where you really felt that you had to embrace exactly who you were and live in that truth?
Errol Barnett:When I came to the U.S., my stepfather was in the Air Force, and he served in the first Gulf War, and that's how we made this big move from the U.K. to the U.S., and he was stationed at Luke Air Force Base. It was through the military that I ended up as a real standout demographic in Phoenix, Arizona.
In high school, I was in athletics. I was into leadership roles, and it was the T.V. production program I did that seemed to tap into something else I had, an ability to connect with people. From then until now, people constantly want to know about my background. You look at me, you hear me, and it's so difficult for people to place. They ask, "Where are you from?"
One of my defense mechanisms early on became turning the question around. I was tired of having to tell my life story a million times. I thought it was just more interesting if after I told them where I'm from, I'd say, "And where are you from?" I'd probe just as curiously into their background. That ability to speak with someone and get to their essence is where I found my passion. People always have interesting stories you don't expect. People may have a background that you don't anticipate, but that truth that I represent really lives in everybody. But it's more apparent in me. It's more apparent that I have a parent from this country, and I lived over here, I lived over there. That's all part of our story to some degree.
So when I got my first job opportunity out of high school, it was my 18th birthday in my principal's office where I signed my first T.V. contract that relocated me to Los Angeles. So that was a real moment for me as I was becoming an adult. It was like if I can take ownership of sounding different and looking different and use it as a way to improve myself professionally as an interviewer, as a journalist, as a reporter, I thought to myself maybe I'll have a shot at this job and this role if I can be myself.
ICON MANN: Were you ever dismissed because of your accent?
Errol Barnett: In 2004, I went to my first journalism convention for the National Association of Black Journalists. I went to all the booths, and I was really enthusiastic about my work at Channel One News. A talent director of one of the big networks said, "Of all the news directors that we've met with at this network, I think half the people would hire you because of your accent and half of them would not hire you because of your accent." And she said, "My advice to you, you're a young man entering this industry, that's my professional advice to you is that you lose the accent."
That was a real moment for me. She wasn't being callous or mean, she's actually known as a real straight shooter in the industry. But I knew that if I was going to pursue this industry of being a journalist and be a reporter and get to people's truth (that's my mission), then I'm going to be me. I'm going to be true to myself, and I'm not going to lose my accent for the sake of fitting into someone else's idea of what a T.V. journalist should look like and sound like.
Long story short, CNN and CBS News later, I think I'm doing okay.
ICON MANN: What words or phrases do you live by?
Errol Barnett: Don’t believe your own hype.
It’s not very poetic, but it’s what I always remember. That, and “focus on your own race.” If you're looking back to see who's behind you, you're not looking at what's in front of you.
Lastly, “chase this fear of improving yourself.” I truly believe that. I think of why I still am doing this at 36 when I started when I was 18, and it's partly because every few years there's a new challenge and assignment that has stretched me in some way, has scared me in some way; every single one. And I'm so thankful I pursued that each and every time because now I'm aware of what I'm capable of and I'm motivated to stretch myself in other ways.
ICON MANN: Who or what inspires the way you move through life?
Errol Barnett: This moment in history inspires me. Despite some of the anxieties that are out there (that are valid and pervasive), never before have we had this much knowledge and information at our fingertips. But the truth is that we don't really access it. It's almost like a data overload. We get lots of data and information, but we don't really know how to process it. Being a journalist who's had experience all around the world, I'm neatly placed, thanks to a diverse background and viewpoint, to help tell the story of this moment. We are a more diverse America and a more technologically advanced world and all the pitfalls of it.
What motivates me is that I feel perfectly placed in this time and in this moment to do what I do.
ICON MANN: You are a Brit-born, US journalist who is tasked with discussing President Trump, immigration, and global policy daily. How do you keep your head about you?
Errol Barnett: The stories we tell are always infused in some way, shape, or form by emotion. Emotion usually speaks to something that's at stake. And certainly, when you see the level of violence in the country, it's apparent that people's lives are at stake. At this moment, when it comes to differences when it comes to how we communicate differences and solve them.
Therefore to be fully present in this, I have to take care of myself health-wise; whether it's long-distance running, meditation, eating clean, spending time outside, staying away from my phones and devices sometimes just to allow my brain to flush out. It makes a big difference so that then the next day you can jump in full force and think clearly about telling an accurate story of what's happening in the country.
Any political story I tell, any economic story I tell, any story related to violent crime, a lot of times these things stem from what's happening in our culture. In order to actually lean in and process that, I think you have to both keep yourself physically healthy, mentally clear. It was an incredibly challenging thing for me to cover a mass shooting about two weeks after my wedding. That was so jarring for me personally because the wedding was in Montego Bay and it was a real dream moment with family and friends.
Then I was deployed to Virginia Beach to cover the mass shooting there. I needed to convey the importance of the lives lost and the impact from one lone killer. I had to do that story justice and to do those families justice. However, at the same time, when I got home, I needed a few days to be unplugged, to flush things out and to reset again. It was just very jarring for me to go from one of the best moments of my adult life to one of the most difficult parts of the job.
ICON MANN: What is the meditation or the way that you recover from covering these types of traumatic stories?
Errol Barnett: I do find it difficult to sit still and to meditate and to clear out my mind. That's really, I've learned that that's my biggest challenge is actually quieting my mind.
When I was in my 20s, I used to listen to my most banger playlists to really get amped up. Where I'm at now, I see the importance of clearing my mind, staying balanced, and taking care of myself. I started listening to meditations and natural sounds through the Calm app.
This is only within the past three years of what have been some of the biggest professional challenges of my life with coming to Washington and covering Trump for one of the big few networks, that's not easy.
Meditation and clearing my mind has also helped my personal relationship. My wife relocated to Washington D.C. with me early on when we met, and I said to her, don't worry, stick with me. I'm going to relocate, and everything's going to be fine, and it was really difficult because I work weekends. And it wasn't fine, it's been an immense personal challenge for us both. I had to check myself and re-evaluate what was important and why I was trying to work so hard.
ICON MANN: This is all a testament to the fact that sometimes the tools it takes to get you to one point of success in your life are not the tools you’ll need to be a successful husband or journalist.
Errol Barnett: Now you’re really hit on the head. It’s about finding and sharpening different tools.
Being confident of your own opinion, being forceful, being able to take the kind of hits in the newsroom to your judgment, that does serve you on the one hand. But at home, a completely different skill set is required to maintain that balance. And I'm still learning that. My wife has told me as much.
ICON MANN: In addition to being a newlywed, you're also a new dog, dad. How's it going?
Errol Barnett: Remy is a good example of relationship compromise. During the past three years, I've been on a weekend White House assignment, and general assignment during the week, which of course is everything you can think of, any and every sequence of days. It was really challenging for my wife Ariana with not having me around, and she wanted to have a puppy. She's a real animal lover, which is what I love about her. And I was very reluctant at first and long story short, Remy was this compromise to say, okay, we'll split the work, and I'll take care of her when I'm here, and this is a way that we can have a new home life.
It has made a big difference because Remy is this really enthusiastic positive poodle that loves everybody and looks like a teddy bear and jumping up on everyone. And in many ways, she became or is, I think, our therapy dog. If anyone is here, whenever we're home, no matter what tension we bring back from the office or anxiety or friction that life throws at us, having a real loving dog that just wants to sit in your lap and just wants attention puts us at ease. And she made me realize the importance of energy and the energy we put out and bring back. Not just to each other but in general in life and in the world.
ICON MANN: How has your upbringing and exposure to marriage informed your outlook on the marriage you and your wife want to build?
Errol Barnett: Growing up, I feel like I didn't benefit from the success of a solid marriage. My mother divorced from my biological father shortly after I was born. She married my stepfather, who brought us to the U.S., and then they separated after my older sister died unexpectedly and tragically. She was 17, I was 12. And I didn't realize what I was missing out on until more recently.
When I turned 30, I had just completed my assignment on the African continent, and I hosted a show called Inside Africa, where I traveled across the continent. I had a realization; here I am exploring a part of the world I've never been to and feeling a real personal connection to, but not really understanding my link, where my ancestors were from.
So when I turned 30, I reached out to my biological dad, to my grandmother who was getting ill and to some uncles and cousins who up until that point were slightly estranged from me. And it was this realization that look, even if you don't get what other people may get from the father figures in their lives, it then becomes incumbent on you to pursue it as an adult, as a grown man.
My wife has a completely different background. Her parents have always been together. I think they just celebrated 30 years married recently and so she comes from a perspective of my parents are both in a successful marriage; therefore that's the model on whereas I've had more of a 'I haven't seen it and I really wanted to be careful.'
ICON MANN: Now, you must be thinking more about legacy and family.
Errol Barnett: Learning more about my family and speaking to my grandmother on camera about our family history made me so proud of my Jamaican heritage. My grandfather was a member of the British Royal Air Force in Jamaica. The story goes that during the war, the Brits needed all of the help they could get to win with the allies, and they allowed their colonized people from places like India and Jamaica to join in the effort and as a result, become effectively citizens of the Kingdom. I had no idea about that part of our history and how we became citizens of the United Kingdom. But I became so proud.
The story of black people in the world is really a story of being the descendant of survivors — every single one of us. We don't know enough about the successes of our story and our ancestors. We are ‘survival of the fittest.’