PHILADELPHIA — When he was not even three years old, Jacob Soboroff drew some dials on a cardboard box, cut a hole to create a “screen” and popped himself inside to air his first news report — chirping something about life on the beach in Santa Monica.
The through line from that moment more than three decades ago to this week’s Democratic National Convention is not crystal clear, but it is there. Los Angeles-native Soboroff is one of a breakthrough group of reporters who have made their mark in Campaign 2016 – weaned on political campaigns, including his dad’s run for L.A. mayor in 2000, molded by the new millennium’s multi-channel online and TV landscape and tempered by an election cycle as unpredictable as any in memory.
The Harvard-Westlake and NYU grad’s dispatches from around America have the vibe of a hipper, latter-day Charles Kuralt — commiserating with a hover boat driver in the Everglades and an ice fisherman atop a lake in New Hampshire, or riding a bike with an immigrant “dreamer” to get her to confide how it feels to meet other immigrant children on the campaign trail.
Last week at the Republican National Convention, the 33-year-old Soboroff was often in the thick of the action — coaxing a Trump endorsement out of a seemingly reluctant South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, commiserating with the Utah Sen. Mike Lee over his state’s failed attempt to alter the rules to allow an anti-Trump protest vote and cornering Donald Trump Jr. to get him to vent about dissidents protesting his father’s nomination.
And Monday in Philadelphia, Soboroff was trolling for reaction about the sudden ouster of Debbie Wasserman Schultz after the revelation that party officials appeared to be plotting to raise questions about Bernie Sanders’ religious faith.
“We are trying to create this dynamic sort of feel that you can experience what is going on right now,” said Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC. “And Jacob exemplifies that as well as anyone — that ability to take us right into the moment.”
Soboroff feels he has landed in the right place at the right time. “For me, it feels like a privilege to be able to see the country this way and to be one of the vehicles through which people experience this election,” he said.
Soboroff got an early introduction to politics as a teenager when his father, Steve, ran for mayor of Los Angeles in 2001. The elder Soboroff finished third in the primary race behind eventual winner James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa, but his son’s fascination with politics was whetted. In college, Jacob Sobroff interned with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Working for the exacting Bloomberg was invaluable training in understanding everything that went into political events. “I had to leave no stone unturned and soak up everything that was going on,” Soboroff said. “And that’s still what I am trying to do.”
By the time he arrived at MSNBC last fall, Soboroff had already been an on-air host for the public affairs program “TakePart Live” on obscure Pivot TV, contributed to MTV News’ 2012 election coverage and served as a correspondent on AMC News.
He had an almost immediate trial by fire when he joined MSNBC and happened to be in the area when a young gunman shot up a community college in Roseburg, Ore. “He had been doing these fun engaging feature stories and then he got thrown into this very serious news story and he handled it in the most calm and natural way,” said Griffin. “It was very impressive.” The report went on the “NBC Nightly News.”
Before seguing into news, Soboroff headed the non-profit group “Why Tuesday?” which pushed the political establishment to move elections to weekends, so more people could vote. Soboroff bird-dogged politicians about why the public had to vote during the work week. And very few could answer. That experience honed a regular attribute of his reportage — persistence. When Gov. Haley last week repeatedly ducked his question, Soboroff kept on asking until Haley finally acknowledged her support for Trump.
More recently, on weekend “Today,” Soboroff mounted a field report examining Trump’s proposal to build a wall the length of the Mexican border. He used stats to show that Trump’s claim of an ever-more-porous border was inaccurate, then interviewed a Border Patrol supervisor who said technology and more manpower would do more than a wall to make the border more secure. The hate mail from Trump supporters flowed.
Soboroff seems unfazed and entirely comfortable in the moment.
His camera operator, Dana Roecker, has been in the field for 25 years. “The way he draws people out is really special. It’s something beyond charm,” said Roecker. “I have never seen anything quite like it.”