Carlos Watson Biography
Was a Student Journalist, Phoned by Producer, Multiple Careers
Political analyst, television commentator
A political analyst and commentator who joined CNN's political team in 2003, Carlos Watson has been described as a rising star at the network, representing a new generation of political journalists and interested as much in personalities as he is in policies and political goals. A graduate of Harvard University and Stanford Law School, Watson previously worked for several major law firms, acted as campaign manager for Florida Republican Daryl Jones, and wrote for the Miami Herald and the Detroit Free Press. Before moving to CNN Watson hosted CNBC's one-hour interview series "The Edge," where he interviewed high-profile guests such as Florida Governor Jeb Bush, brother of president George W. Bush. In October 2004 he hosted the first of an occasional series of one-off specials for CNN. Titled "Off Topic with Carlos Watson," the prime-time show allowed him to discuss unusual and wide-ranging subjects with celebrities and politicians. "Off Topic" suits Watson's knockabout style, which has earned him a reputation as a fresh voice in political journalism. Critics argue that Watson's departure from the solemn approach of old-style commentating reduces it to a form of entertainment, but he sees himself as setting new standards. His dramatic rise to the elite in the American media gives him the chance to do just that.
Watson was born in 1970 in Miami, Florida. His parents were Jamaican immigrants, and he attended a local kindergarten followed by a campus school at the University of Miami, West Lab Elementary. Watson had a difficult early schooling; by the age of six he had been thrown out of kindergarten for disruptive behavior, had seen a child psychologist to be assessed for a learning disability, and was attending his second elementary school. Watson attributes his bad start to boredom: he told Essence magazine that he had already learned a lot of what he was being taught from his older sister. He also cites the experience as one of his motivations for founding Achieva in 1996, a company providing materials to help high school students get into college. After high school Watson attended Harvard University, where he studied government and journalism, graduating cum laude in 1992. He then went on to study law at Stanford University Law School and graduated in 1995.
Was a Student Journalist
Watson's media career began while he was still in college, when he wrote for newspapers such as the Miami Herald and the Detroit Free Press. He also began to develop an interest in politics, working for Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, Senator Bob Graham, and the Democratic National Committee Chair, Ron Brown. After graduating from Harvard he became chief of staff and campaign manager for Florida Republican Daryl Jones. Watson's interest in journalism continued after he moved to California to attend law school. There he served as editor of the Stanford Law Review as well as working as an intern for the White House Office of the Legal Counsel.
After graduating from Stanford he joined the management consultancy firm McKinsey and Company, where he worked as an adviser in strategy and operations. In 1996, along with his younger sister Carolyn and his best friend Jeff Livingstone, he co-founded Achieva, a company that provides software, books, workshops, and other materials to help schools prepare students for college. Watson told Essence magazine that "I realized how critical a second (or even third) chance could be in a young person's life. The indelible memory of being counted out, then helped back in, inspired me to help others." Helping others was also good business: Watson left McKinsey in 1997 to work full-time as CEO of Achieva, developing it into a multi-million dollar company by the time he sold it in 2002. He continues to pursue his interest in education and assisting disadvantaged students through his work as a director of College Track, an organization that provides help for high school students as they work towards college.
Phoned by Producer
Not long after selling Achieva, Watson was trying to work out what his next move would be when he returned home to find a message on his answering machine from a TV producer asking if he had considered a career in television. Watson told Mountain View Voice that he thought the message was a joke and ignored it, but the producer called again. Within a few months Watson was hosting CNBC's interview series "The Edge." His brand of quick-fire interview and his ability to persuade celebrities to open up on a wide range of topics soon came to the attention of CNN. He was hired in 2003 to help with CNN's coverage in the build-up to the 2004 presidential election; by the time the election came around he was appearing on the network eight or nine times a week, more often at busy times.
By the autumn of 2004 Watson had become an important figure in CNN's news line-up. During the election he provided analysis and commentary across the network, including a regular column on the CNN Web site, called "The Inside Edge, with Carlos Watson," where he is able to discuss in depth his observations on the political scene. Like many commentators Watson observed that the 2004 election was one of the most important in U.S. history, not least because of its effect on the Democratic Party in the aftermath of a win for President Bush. As far back as March 2004 he noted, for example, that the Republicans were making a huge effort to register voters in areas where the GOP was likely to pick up votes; Bush's win has since been attributed in part to this aggressive registration drive in key states such as Ohio. One of Watson's strengths is his willingness to do extensive research before interviewing or talking on camera, and the depth of his knowledge is often greater than his easy style might suggest. Off-camera Watson has a reputation for being an exacting and at times difficult colleague.
Despite his relative youthfulness and inexperience, Watson proved himself an able anchor, commentator, and interviewer over the course of 2004 and in the autumn he was rewarded with his own show, "Off Topic with Carlos Watson," which first aired on October 15. The show's format involves celebrities, politicians, and business leaders talking "off topic" on subjects other than those for which they are best known. Within a matter of months "Off Topic," which airs only a few times each year, had become an important show for public figures wanting to raise their media profile. Early guests included Heidi Klum, and Barak Obama, while in January 2005 Watson talked to the biggest guest of the series up to that point, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Watson's multi-faceted career includes law, journalism, media, education, and politics; he stands out from older commentators whose media image depends on their reputations as journalists of long standing. But Watson revels in being unconventional and seems relentlessly modern in his attitude to traditional ways of doing things. One example is his refusal to move to the east coast from his home in California, despite his career in the media which would traditionally have centered on New York City and Washington, D.C. In the past decade or so technological advances have made geography less important, but Watson's sense of belonging to a new media generation goes further than simply being able to do his job wherever he chooses. He told the Mountain View Voice in 2004: "I don't want to be IBM, I want to be Google."
Watson is not without his critics, who attack him for simplifying politics, for displaying bias, and for favoring celebrity over substance. But his achievement is to have begun a process of change in the American news media towards a more irreverent, direct approach. Despite his youthful style and "new media" image, Watson's fan base is surprisingly diverse. He says proudly that his most loyal fans are grandmothers, but his role as one of CNN's key analysts and interviewers suggests that the network sees his appeal as being much wider than that. Besides his high-profile television work Watson is a member of the California bar, sits on several boards, and regularly gives talks and presentations in schools, colleges, and for other organizations.
Black Enterprise, September 2001.
Contra Costa Times, October 1, 2004.
Essence, November 2004, p.148.
Mountain View Voice (California), September 3, 2004.
People Weekly, June 28, 2004, p. 126.
"Board of Directors," College Track, www.collegetrack.org/organization/board.html (January 21, 2005).
"Carlos Watson," CNN, http://cnnstudentnews.cnn.com/CNN/anchors_reporters/watson.carlos.html (February 8, 2005).
"Transcript: Carlos Watson," Tavis Smiley Archive, www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/archive/200411/20041118_transcript.html#1 (January 25, 2005).