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Me Journalism: What Anderson Cooper Has Done to His Profession

Anderson Cooper the daytime talk show host does not look all that different from Anderson Cooper the disaster reporter. He is still boyish, still earnest, still reliably clad in a button-down that accentuates the blue of those sympathetic eyes. Yet much of the new show’s media coverage has harped on the apparent contradiction between the two Coopers: windblown Anderson in a flak jacket vs. spruced-up Anderson ministering to celebrities on his talk show couch. “Anderson Cooper offers another version of himself on talk show ‘Anderson,’” announced The Washington Post online. “Here’s the intrepid CNN reporter getting all soft-feature personal,” said The Los Angeles Times. Cooper himself has made it clear that he intends for this show to reveal a different, lighter side of his character, entirely apart from his primetime duties. “People see anchors on a news program as one dimensional,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “This show is a chance for me to show more of my personality.”

But even as an anchor, Cooper’s personality has always been on full display. He established his career reporting from disaster zones with a combination of a war correspondent’s grit and a daytime talk show host’s conspicuous empathy. “I want you to be able to get home and get out of here quickly. The winds are starting to pick up,” he told a guest on Anderson Cooper 360 in Joplin. “Too many kids have already died ... and none of it had to happen, none of it was preordained, that’s the frustrating thing,” he said in Somalia. And most famously, of course, he demanded of Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu after Hurricane Katrina: “Do you get the anger that is out here?” The hallmark of Cooper’s broadcasts is his own investment in the action. He doesn’t just report on what he sees; he tends to victims and stares down bureaucrats and fights through the pathos of it all. So his venture into daytime TV—with its choreographed human dramas playing out before an empathetic studio audience—is hardly a surprise.

In one episode of Anderson, Cooper interviewed two women who had been respectively abandoned as babies and adopted into devoted families. “[In disaster zones] you see strangers digging people out of earthquakes and saving lives,” he said. “But here in America you see that everyday with foster families ... people who change others’ lives.” It was a stretch of an analogy, to be sure, and one that exemplified a central feature of Cooper’s style: the tendency to sentimentalize everything equally, whether it is a village wrecked by a storm or a marriage wrecked by infidelity, a hospital full of starved Somali children or a missing pet. This is largely the source of Cooper’s everyman appeal—the sense that he is not above sharing the various ways in which he is affected by what he sees, and that he is concerned with petty issues as much as lofty ones as normal humans tend to be. But applying the same sentimentality to everything can also be a way of clouding the boundaries between what is truly significant and what is not. Cooper’s interminable heart can have a leveling effect. “I think all of us remember where we were ... when we heard the tragic news that Amy Winehouse had died,” Cooper said during his premiere, the day after the anniversary of 9/11.

Jonathan Klein, the former president of CNN, has called Cooper the “anchorperson of the future.” And Judy Muller, an associate professor of journalism at USC, recently told The New York Times that Cooper “is a different kind of journalist, one for the future. He is transparently who he is.” Much has been made of the changing of the journalistic guard from the Cronkite model of august credibility to a new species of TV emoters, from impersonality to cults of personality. Disaster reporting, in particular, has traditionally required a certain steeliness: chronicling the extent of devastation, citing death tolls, making sense of large-scale disorder. But Cooper is a journalist for whom all news is filtered through an intensely personal lens, an anchor who is physically and emotionally embedded in the topics he reports on. And his taste for both pop culture fluff (AC 360’s the RidicuList) and schmaltz (his annual television special, “CNN Heroes” about “everyday people changing the world”) is well-documented. So both Anderson and AC 360 coexist quite peacefully within the persona of Anderson Cooper. The talk show doesn’t undermine his hard-news background so much as shed light on the form it has taken all along. Cooper has built his brand by addressing all topics, high and low, serious and frivolous, with the full brunt of his compassion and concern. So perhaps this is indeed the model for the “anchorperson of the future”: half disaster correspondent knee-deep in rubble, half daytime talk show host coaxing revelations from the guests on his couch.

ANDERSON IS EVERY BIT as cheesy and overheated as the daytime programs that came before it, though more along the lines of the group therapy sessions of Oprah and Dr. Phil than the human dogfights of Maury and Jerry Springer. Recently, a teenager scheduled to appear on the show—allegedly encouraged by the producers to record his reckless behavior for an episode about the science of the adolescent brain—fell while doing skateboard stunts and ended up in a coma. Cooper’s guests so far have ranged from the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills to a pair of conjoined twins. According to its website, the show is currently seeking representatives for topics including: “Is your daughter a Mean Girl?” “Spouse’s double life?” “Could your ex have been ‘the one’?” Like its predecessors, Anderson sometimes feels a bit like emotional pornography, so graphic and unambiguous that it overloads the feelings. Its slogan is “real, raw, ready,” and its premium is on baring souls and extracting revelations. All sorts of disturbed bonds—romance, kinship, friendship—get probed and then patched up with Cooper as mediator. During peak moments of drama, the camera pans across the rows of concerned faces, all glassy eyes and knitted brows. As with Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Ellen, all of whom Cooper has cited as influences, Anderson’s adhesive is the sense of community Cooper works to generate among himself, the guests, and the studio audience. “Do you have any words of encouragement for Maria here?” he asked Amy Winehouse’s parents, referring to an audience member who had confessed that her daughter was addicted to drugs. “You’re the sweetest girl, I wanna protect you,” he told a young guest who had been bullied in school.

As a host, Cooper is as eager and likable as ever. But he has the tedious habit of applying his personal life to interviews in an attempt to demonstrate the depth of his empathy. Cooper has said that his own trauma—his father died of a heart attack when Anderson was young, and his older brother leapt to his death from the balcony of their penthouse at age twenty-three—is never far from the surface in his reporting. In his memoir, Dispatches from the Edge, he writes of reporting on the Indian Ocean tsunami, “I find it hard to listen to these people’s stories. They remind me so much of what I’ve lost, though compared with their suffering, mine seems minuscule.” So in the premiere of Anderson, he predictably dredged up a reference to his brother’s suicide while interviewing Winehouse’s family and friends. Later, Cooper’s mother, the heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, discussed her son’s suicide in an hour-long segment titled “Story of My Mom.” In the episode with the women who had been abandoned as babies and thus never met their birthparents, Cooper described a letter that his father had written to him shortly before his death. “I can’t imagine what that was like for you, not even having that,” he said. He has claimed that Anderson grew out of his desire to “give voice to those who aren’t being heard.” But if the show’s subject is other people’s stories, its specific angle is Anderson Cooper. He wishes to be Everybody.

Of course, the talk show has no ambitions of seriousness; it is mindless afternoon entertainment. Even when dealing with darker themes, its message is always designed to uplift. At times, though, watching Anderson is a bit like watching a lightweight version of Anderson Cooper 360 that has been stripped of danger and debris and supplied with tears and slick track lighting—sort of like the 10 p.m show without the Arab Spring. Some of the statements Warner Brothers published before the premiere of Anderson could have passed as press releases for Cooper’s CNN program.“When there is breaking news, he will take the audience along with him right into the eye of the storm as he goes beyond the headlines and into the lives of those affected.” “Cooper will tap into his compassion and fascination with the human condition.” As a journalist who rose to prominence by channeling public outrage in the face of political guff and bureaucratic mishandling, he likes to be the voice of the people. So the daytime talk show format—where identification between host and guests and studio audience is paramount—seems to suit him well. Cooper is a master of rapport. Even in disaster zones, he works to create a sense of community. “We're trying to get people to the region, and, obviously, if we encounter Danny, we will pass along a message,” he said on CNN to a woman who was searching for her husband in Japan. “I’m so glad you found each other and that everyone’s okay,” he told tornado survivors in Joplin. On the talk show, when guest Jerry Seinfeld said that “the key to being a comedian is not to elevate or separate yourself,” Cooper added: “Which is the same thing as being a reporter.” He is always equalizing, always narrowing the gap between himself and his subjects. Asked if he considered his talk show a form of journalism, Cooper told the New York Times that it “can be a form of reporting on subjects that are generally more emotional.” Custody battles, filial spats, earthquakes, tsunamis: “He feels it in his bones,” Jon Klein has said.

THE ERUPTION OF Mount St. Helens in 1980 was the first major televised natural disaster. It featured the standard disaster-report apocalypse imagery: lava oozing down the mountain, the summit gushing black smoke. But most striking from a contemporary perspective is the clean divide between the reportage and the on-the-scene footage. Dan Rather sat at his desk in front of a map of Washington state, commenting gravely. “Imponderables dust the air like volcanic ash,” he said. The images—locals stepping over charred rubble, snowplows shoveling ash—were narrated in voiceover. Technology had not yet plunked the anchor into the middle of the scene; the proscenium was unbreached.

The application of the personal angle as a way to create meaningfulness and stir up sentiment is an obvious departure from the days when anchors were expected to offer clarity and analytical distance, when an anchor’s credibility derived from “the aura of weighty men doing weighty things,” as Robert Goldberg and Gerald Jay Goldberg wrote in Anchors: Brokaw, Jennings, Rather, and the Evening News. Rather’s climb to eminence began when he broke the news of Kennedy’s assassination and grimly described the Zapruder film frame by frame. Jennings’s coverage of 9/11 earned him a designation as “the center of gravity” by TV Guide. Cronkite made history when he ended his broadcast on February 27th, 1968 with an unprecedented interjection of opinion: “For it seems more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” And when he announced Kennedy’s assassination, the hint of a tear in his eye was a cultural milestone. As Neal Gabler wrote in Salon, “One felt the magnitude of the event by the fact that Cronkite had to fight to keep his composure.”

That was before all news, critical and trivial, got jumbled into one digital heap, and before competition for our attention spans pushed TV news to make its coverage more emotional. The ability to report live on location made it inevitable that news anchors would become participants in the action. Anchors are always stationed in front of some shredded building or astounding stack of cars. But Cooper, compared to his contemporaries—the gutsy authority of Christiane Amanpour, the uncontroversial decorum of Brian Williams—takes engagement with his surroundings a step further. He is frequently the first TV journalist on the scene and the last to depart. And he presents himself not just as witness but subject to the forces he is reporting on, as yet another person who is experiencing them. He interrupted his interview with a nuclear expert in Japan, “Hold on, I wanna ask you a bunch of questions but first I just wanna ask my crew, how far are we from Fukushima?” Cooper said. “Which way is the wind blowing? ... The subtext here is: Should I get out of here?” In Joplin, warning sirens shrieked around him as he urged an interview subject who had phoned in to “go to the basement.” “Whoa! Huge bolts of lightning,” he told Piers Morgan in another CNN dispatch, recoiling amid loud claps of thunder. Cooper is a character in the story, aligning himself with the victims to illustrate the extent of his identification with them.

The empathy does not quite feel like an artifice; it feels honest, as if Cooper had wandered from his Manhattan apartment into some grisly scene and found himself suddenly overcome. And it can be genuinely refreshing, as it was in that moment with Mary Landrieu. But gravitas, needless to say, is not Cooper’s aim. He believes that the big picture is in the small picture. On CNN, he asked a tornado survivor in Joplin, “Your cat Kirby, is he ok?” After all, this is the anchor who once hosted the reality show The Mole, where he applied his typical empathy to interviews with contestants: “I’m really sorry you were not reunited with your loved ones. I’m really sorry,” he told players who had lost a challenge that involved finding each other’s family members. As a reporter, Cooper is adamant about identifying villains and emphasizing culpability. “Well, who are you angry at?” he grilled Senator Landrieu after Katrina. “Who do you get angry at?” he asked Jimmy Buffet as they wandered the oil-soaked Gulf coast after the BP spill. Not just “Why did this happen?” or “Whose fault is this?” but “Who are you angry at?”—as if anger is what his viewers need to see to make sense of disaster. There is something of the daytime-talk-show ethos of catharsis in the idea that, when the physical world is in shambles, it helps to get mad at someone, to reduce a historical devastation to a sense of private offense. Or at least it makes for good TV.

COOPER IS NOT the first journalist to expand his on-air brand into a daytime talk show. On the darker end of the spectrum was Geraldo Rivera’s daytime show, which ran from the late ’80s to early ’90s and once featured a brawl between white supremacists, Jewish activists, anti-racist skinheads, and black activists in which Rivera himself threw a few punches. As a journalist, Rivera’s mode of involving himself in situations made him into a kind of clown, loud and tacky enough to overshadow whatever he was reporting on. He feuded with The New York Times in 2005 over allegations that he had pushed aside rescue personnel so that cameras could catch him helping a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs. During Hurricane Ike in Galveston in 2008, he was knocked off his feet by a wave and finished his broadcast with clothes sopping and moustache wilted—an authenticity bonanaza!

Cooper is no Rivera. His style is sensitivity rather than theatricality, and he is charming where Rivera is brash. But refracting disaster through the prism of personal experience inevitably makes the story, at least somewhat, about yourself, and Cooper has emerged from each crisis zone with a new and affecting chapter in the adventures of Anderson Cooper, global everyman. In his memoir, he writes that he quickly learned that it was impossible to “go through the motions [in interviews, to] not give away pieces of myself in return.” This can sometimes make his vast reporting background seem less like credentialing experience than like psychic baggage. “One of the things I found during Hurricane Katrina, which I felt bad about after several days, is just referring to these people who are dead as bodies,” he said in Haiti. In Somalia this past August, he reminded his viewers that he had once covered another famine in the same country. It was his first big reporting assignment, almost two decades ago, for the teen-oriented program Channel One. Then he rolled a clip from that original broadcast. “I was walking down this road and came upon a family whose son just died as I was standing there,” said young Anderson, looking exactly as he does now but without the silver hair. “You wanna do something, you wanna cry out, you want to grab someone and get them to help, but there’s no help to be had and there’s no one around.”

There are moments on Anderson when Cooper tries to distance himself from the cheapness of the genre while, at the same time, embracing it. “When I hear people on TV use [the word “closure,] it’s like a TV word,” he said in his interview with his mother. “We’ve all seen a lot of DNA testing on daytime talk shows,” he joked as one of his guests took a DNA test. In fact, he could be accused of similar pretense in his reporting: Why turn the camera off to give a devastated storm survivor privacy, but then roll the footage of his decision to do so, as he did in Waveland, Mississippi? Why not just carry the Haitian boy to safety without filming it? But human interest is powerful stuff, and this paradox has always been at the crux of journalism. So it is not surprising that the daytime talk show host and the disaster reporter, taken together, could represent the logical conclusion of the tradition of televised news.

These days, of course, TV is obsessed with phony intimacy and the illusion of personal acquaintance with stars. Katie Couric’s upcoming daytime talk show has already released ads featuring the anchor in a pale pink sweater beside the name of the program, “Katie,” in girly purple script that looks suspiciously like the “Barbie” logo. Perhaps the age of YouTube and reality television inevitably demands transparency—“He is transparently who he is,” to quote The New York Times—even with regards to the inner lives of our news anchors. After all, this is the era of breaking, overexcited, character-driven news, able to instantaneously redirect its energies—and the attention of the public—from tragic events to petty ones, or from one catastrophe to the next. And so Cooper, jet-setting from the dire streets of Mogadishu to a window-paneled Manhattan studio with a live audience primed to empathize along with him, may indeed be the anchorperson of the future, if the future is now. Watching him share stories from his childhood on that ivory couch, or tip his microphone attentively toward a guest, it is hard not to think that he looks very much at home.

Laura Bennett is the assistant literary editor of The New Republic.