Monday, September 12, 2005
An Anchor Who Reports Disaster News With a Heart on His Sleeve - New York Times
September 12, 2005
An Anchor Who Reports Disaster News With a Heart on His Sleeve
By ELIZABETH JENSEN
The CNN anchor Anderson Cooper strikes a pose in the September issue of the men's magazine Maxim, modeling a sharp black suit set off by his prematurely gray hair. A stylized jumble of broken television sets is piled high beside him.
It is a very different Mr. Cooper who has captivated CNN viewers in the two weeks since Hurricane Katrina crashed ashore. The jumble of broken stuff is there, but it is real remnants of homes and lives washed away. Mr. Cooper's heart-on-his-sleeve demeanor has been anything but slick and packaged.
The 38-year-old anchor has dressed down officials in interviews with polite righteous indignation in behalf of hurricane victims. At least twice he choked up on air, once abruptly stopping his commentary about lost homes and waving away the camera as he looked about to burst into tears. CNN's camera occasionally has caught him playing with stray dogs. He says he has no intention of returning to his hip New York existence any time soon.
"Life is funny like that," Mr. Cooper said of the fashion spreads (he is also in Esquire this month) as he took a break on Friday in Baton Rouge, La.
Mr. Cooper's Sept. 1 interview with Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, marked a turning point in the tone of hurricane coverage as he snapped when she began thanking federal officials for their recovery efforts.
"Excuse me, Senator, I'm sorry for interrupting," Mr. Cooper interjected. "I haven't heard that, because, for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.
"And when they hear politicians slap - you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours."
His comments pushed right up to the line between tough questioning and confrontational advocacy journalism, but viewers responded.
CNN last week expanded Mr. Cooper's prime-time role, teaming him for two hours with Aaron Brown, in addition to his 7 p.m. weeknight show, "Anderson Cooper 360°." "He is the anchorperson of the future," Jonathan Klein, the president of CNN/U.S., said in an interview. He is "an anti-anchorperson," he said, adding: "He's all human. He's not putting it on."
"I don't feel like I'm doing anything different," Mr. Cooper said of his work on the hurricane, comparing it to 1992 reports he did from Somalia for the Channel One classroom news broadcast.
Mr. Cooper said that he did not believe in taking sides and did not think he had done so. "I am listening to people's questions and getting answers," he said. "I am least of all interested in any TV anchor's opinion, and least of all my own."
"This is life and death," he added. "This is not some blow-dried pundit standing outraged for some ratings, which is what cable news often boils down to."
As for his emotional moments: "It's absolutely not true; it's lies, lies, spread by that conservative or liberal agenda, whatever it is," Mr. Cooper quipped, before conceding: "I have been tearing up on this story more than any story I've worked on. I can't really explain why that is." He has tried not to do it on camera, he said, because "who wants to see that?" But, he added: "It's hard not to be moved. The fact that it is in the United States, for me, added a layer and dimension to the story."
The producer David Perozzi worked with Mr. Cooper at ABC News, where he reported for "20/20 Downtown" and was anchor of the overnight newscast. Mr. Perozzi said that his friend "has shown a certain amount of heart and compassion," adding: "He does care about people deeply."
When no major news organization hired him after his graduation from Yale in 1989, Mr. Cooper said he had a friend make a fake press pass and he headed overseas on his own, sending Channel One stories he taped with a small home-video camera.
His bare-bones training in Somalia was a precursor for his current assignment.
"When you travel with him, he's no joke," Mr. Perozzi said. "He's really intense. He could care less how he looks, his hair and makeup. If there's no cameraperson, he grabs the camera."
For all that drive, this is the same person who quit ABC News in 2000 to be the host of ABC's reality show "The Mole" when the news division told him to choose between the two jobs. One executive publicly predicted that Mr. Cooper would never work in news again.
"I think at that time he was sort of at a crossroads in his life and wasn't sure about TV news," Mr. Perozzi said. "But it doesn't seem to have hurt him."
CNN hired him in December 2001, giving him his show in 2003. He often heads to disaster zones, and has reported on the December 2004 tsunami and the Niger famine.
"It sometimes feels as if we need to bungee-cord him to the anchor chair," Mr. Klein said, adding that he is happy to have Mr. Cooper stay in the South indefinitely. "He's young and healthy, he can go forever."
Mr. Cooper said that his mother, the socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, "is a little concerned and freaked out" about his nonstop work, but that he has no plans to return home.
"I can't imagine going back," Mr. Cooper said. "I'm going to have to at some point, but I don't know what I'm going to do, I don't know," he repeated, his voice trailing away.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company