Cover Story, Diversity Woman, Fall 2014: "Sunny Hostin, CNN's Legal Eagle"
by Jackie Krentzman for Diversity Woman Magazine
When Sunny Hostin was six years old, her uncle was stabbed as she looked on. Just over a year later, she witnessed a friend's father murdered in front of a candy store in her neighborhood in the Bronx.
"Those incidents shaped who I am," says Hostin, a CNN legal analyst and frequent guest host in ABC's popular talk show The View. "Those experiences made me strong - there's nothing I can't handle. They also informed my career direction. I think I became a prosecutor in large part because of those experiences."
Today, Hostin, 45, whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is African American, is, for many television viewers, their go-to media analyst for high-profile, complicated legal cases, particularly those with a racial component. Viewers trust Hostin, a former federal prosecutor, not only to break down a legal case but also to provide the emotional context around hot-button cases. They know that she's been there - and often is not afraid to take a stand.
Most recently, Hostin was on the scene in Ferguson, Missouri, providing insight into the racially charged incident in which Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer. This time, her trademark reporting style of incisive legal analysis combined with an empathetic demeanor was tinged with frustration, even outrage, that the same story line - involving racial profiling, violence against an unarmed black man, and public uproar - was being played out once again. It was easy to imagine many viewers across the country nodding in agreement as she expressed the anger they were feeling.
One of Hostin's colleagues, Regina M. Jansen, a senior trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, sums up Hostin's universal appeal: "As a leading attorney, Sunny is a brilliant woman. Her talents also include incredible emotional intelligence. She comes from humble beginnings that taught her how to relate to diverse people, both class and culture. She is a kind and generous person, always carrying humility with her in all of her circles. From the moment you meet Sunny, you see a beautiful woman who disarms you with her great wit and humor. She's a wonderful gift."
That a young Puerto Rican-African American girl, the child of teenage parents raised in poverty in the South Bronx, rose to become one of the country's most trusted legal analysts is startling (and also echoes the story of Hostin's hero, Sonia Sotomayor; see sidebar).
"I was more likely to become a statistic," says Hostin.
Sunny Hostin, whose real first name is Asunción, credits her success in large part to her parents, Rosa and William. Her mother became pregnant with Sunny in high school, and she and William were married three weeks before Sunny was born. Rosa had dreamed of becoming a lawyer, and William longed to be a doctor, but an infant daughter quickly derailed those plans. William got a job as computer analyst, and Rosa stayed home with Sunny. They lived with William's mother in the South Bronx until they could afford their own place. Rosa's mother, who didn't speak English, provided support as well.
"My parents made huge sacrifices for me," says Hostin. "We would go out to restaurants, and they would make sure that I ordered first, then would see how much money they had left over so they knew what they could order. I was their everything. They often said their only goal in life was to make sure that I succeeded."
It certainly helped that Hostin had the smarts. She started reading when she was four - not Green Eggs and Ham but The New York Times. She began kindergarten a year early and skipped fifth grade. She started high school at 12 and college at 16 (Binghamton University, on full academic scholarship).
Growing up, Hostin was acutely aware of her race and ethnicity.
"My parents would tell me stories about when they would go to Georgia to visit an uncle who was in the armed services, and the KKK would run them out of town because they assumed my mother was white and she was with a black man. And that racism wasn't just in the South. Shen they tried to get an apartment in Manhattan, they kept getting turned down. So my mother applied for the apartment on her own, and instead of using her birth name, Rosa, she used the name Rose on the applications. She got the apartment. And then there we were, the chocolate chips, showing up on moving day!"
The prejudice wasn't just coming from the outside.
"My grandparents didn't want my parents to get married," she says. "My mother's side was very concerned about 'passing' in society and thought that her being married to a black man with a black daughter would doom us to a more difficult life. My father's family gave him pushback because my father was the golden child. His brother had drug problems and spent time in prison, as did some of his cousins. I would say my mother was never truly accepted by his family."
Growing up in the midst of violence, but in a loving home that encouraged her to succeed, drew Hostin to the law. She earned her law degree from Notre Dame University. She says she was driven not only to pull herself and her family out of poverty and away from violence but also to help others find justice and make the world a better place. Her background helped make her successful. As a prosecutor, I would go into the ghetto and interview people," she says. "I was very comfortable doing that. It also helped me gain trust as both a prosecutor and a TV reporter - people see that I came from the same place. They know I'm not some sort of rich-kid television anchor who can't relate to people."
After graduating from law school, Hostin worked as a law clerk, then moved into private practice. Next, she joined the Department of Justice's antitrust unit but wanted to work on something more meaningful, so she became an assistant United States attorney specializing in child sex crimes, at which she thrived. She was honored by then Attorney General Janet Reno with a Special Achievement Award for her prosecution of child sexual predators.
Hostin then moved into the private sector as a managing director of business intelligence and investigations at Kroll, the world's leading risk consulting company.
By this stage, Hostin was financially secure and successful beyond her parents' wildest dreams. But she still wasn't satisfied. She wanted to make a bigger impact.
So she joined Court TV as a commentator in 2006, which led to a spot on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor. Her ability to quickly parse and analyze a complicated legal case and flawlessly (and fearlessly) debate O'Reilly and others caught the attention of CNN President Jonathan Klein, who signed her to a contract in 2007 as the legal analyst on CNN's flagship morning show, American Morning.
Hostin's star rose quickly. She has covered many of the foremost legal and political stores of the last seven years, including the Bernie Madoff investment fraud, the Eliot Spitzer prostitution investigation, the Michael Vick dogfighting ring, the Duke University rape scandal, and the State of Florida v. George Zimmerman trial following the death of Trayvon Martin. As a result, increasingly she has been invited to publish scholarly and popular articles and to moderate and speak on panels at universities and nonprofit organizations across the country.
Hostin considers the 2012 George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case the turning point in her career. Zimmerman - a Latino-Caucasian man who fatally shot Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African American - was acquitted under Florida's "stand-your-ground" law (essentially on grounds of self-defense), which led to a firestorm of protest.
Up until that incendiary case, Hostin says she was hampered by two factors: she was tired to the studio, and she held great admiration for broadcast journalist Soledad O'Brien.
"When I first started at CNN, Soledad O'Brien was doing her Black in America series," explains Hostin. "I was such a fan. I would watch her on the air and look at how she did her hair and the way she spoke and how she held herself, and for a good year I was probably doing a Soledad O'Brien impersonation. I wasn't being authentic.
"But the Trayvon Martin story changed that. I had been a studio analyst, and now I begged to leave the studio and go report in the field. I told them, 'You guys are sending out reporters with no legal background. The bottom line is that I'm going to see things in that courtroom that no one else can see. I can establish relationships with the lawyers that no one else can. They know me - I'm one of them.'
"They agreed, and so when I got into the field, I was completely in my element. Because of my training, and because I'm also the mother of a black boy, a child of color, I felt like I was meant to cover this case. And from then on out, I wasn't playing Soledad O'Brien anymore - I was playing myself on TV. I was the best Sunny Hostin that I could be."
Hostin makes no apologies about establishing a position on certain cases, such as the George Zimmerman trial. She is the voice of indignant righteousness. As a multiracial reporter and analyst (as well as being African American and Puerto Rican, she has a Sephardic Jewish grandfather), people from all backgrounds - both sources and the audience - naturally gravitate to her. Her deep understanding of that it's like to be black or brown in America informs her reporting. "I understand the plight of black men in America because they look like my father," she says.
While Hostin says that her gender informs her reporting, being a mother is a greater factor: she and her husband, Emmanuel, an orthopedic surgeon, have two children, an 11-year-old son, Gabriel, and an 8-year-old daughter, Paloma. When reporting on the influx of refugee children from Central America into the United States, she looks at the issue from the perspective of a mother prating with her children and sending them unaccompanied to give them a better life. "I don't look at it as a border crisis," she says. "I look at it through a humanitarian lens. If a mother would take a chance sending her child alone to America, then her situation must be very dire."
Even as her career has taken off, Hostin still frets. Could she be effecting more change? Should she return to the U.S. attorneys' office and head up the child sex crimes unit, for example?
Recently, Hostin talked with Anderson Cooper's executive producer at CNN, Charlie Moore, and voiced her reservations. He told her, "You are able to reach millions of people. That gives you a great platform. This is your life's work."
That completely changed my perspective," she says. "I finally realized that being a legal analyst, bringing the judicial system to so many people, is in and of itself important work.
That platform also makes Hostin a role model - or, as she prefers to call it, "a possibility model."
"I believe in leading by example. Leaders have to be authentic, make tough decisions, and be honest," Hostin says. "You have to work hard and be selfless. I am motivated by the notion that I can show what's possible. Because there's no way that the kid of teenage parents from the South Bronx should be where I am today. I should've been a statistic. But here I am."