Monday, February 12, 2007

Anderson Cooper's Private War




From Po:

Today, February 12th, I actually have two magazine cover stories coming out on the same day. One, on the science of praising your kids, is the cover of New York Magazine. (I'll blog about that in an hour). The other is a profile of the CNN Journalist Anderson Cooper, which made the cover of Mens Journal.

When I took this assignment, I didn't know much about Cooper. I had seen his Hurricane Katrina coverage, and I've obviously known he's been a big name since then. But I hadn't read his book, or even read the coverage about his memoir. He turned out to have quite a fascinating backstory, and a fairly fascinating psychology today. As has been well-told by himself and others, Cooper is the son of fashion maven Gloria Vanderbilt. When he was in college, his older brother committed suicide. Ever since, Cooper has had an almost primal hunger to be near matters of life and death. He was an adventurous war correspondent throughout the first half of the 1990s, and as an anchor at CNN goes everywhere around the world for stories.

I was to meet Cooper in New Orleans, but the day before doing so, he decided to fly to Turkey to cover the Pope's visit. So at the end of the week, he flew into Las Vegas to give a speech to Hudson Booksellers - they run 600 airport stores. I was able to spend the day with him in Vegas. Vegas is far from his idea of a good time. It's entirely unreal and distasteful, which is exactly why so many love it. He never left the hotel. Wait - that line lands a little hard, as if he were afraid to leave the hotel. The truth was, the hotel was connected to the convention center underground, so to get between he could just walk. He had flown in that afternoon from Jordan to London to New York to Vegas, and after giving his speech I wanted five or six hours to interview him. We did that in the hotel too. Afterwards, at about 9 or 10 o'clock, he had a choice between going out with me and his publicists, or finally getting some sleep. He chose the latter.

About twenty profiles of Cooper have already been written - most landed after Katrina or when his memoir was published last year - so it was tricky for me to carve new ground. One of the parts of his life I explored is his high school years, when he took a National Outdoor Leadership School course in Wyoming, and got a taste for travel and challenging himself. His senior year of high school, he graduated a semester early and then went to Africa, and rode on the back of a truck up through Africa for several months.

Once into Zaire, the lorry was delayed at roadblocks with drunk soldiers. The lorry turned north into the Ituri Rainforest, where Cooper spent some days with Mbuti pygmies. (That region is now a battle zone). Then they turned west towards Kisangani. “Crossing the Congo, I had an overwhelming feeling of dilapidation and lack of state control. There was really no government in that part of Zaire. People survived entirely on their own, without help, left to their own devices.” He could easily see it turning into a troubled region – which indeed, it did, over the next decade. His early experiences there are partly why he has such interest in Africa and The Congo today. In fact, in his reporting from The Congo last fall, he crossed into the DRC at Goma, on the same road and the same checkpoint he had done so when he was 17.

Just recently, FoxNews began running print ads saying Cooper was "The Paris Hilton of TV News." This was an exceedingly stupid and incorrect tag line. To those who don't know Cooper, and only know of him as pretty face and a celebrity, he might come across as such. But to anyone who knows the least bit about him - as I too learned - he's a very hard core journalist, having reported from almost every prominent war zone in the last 15 years, including Burma during their revolution, Somalia before the shitstorm, Rwanda before the world was listening. And while he may be a celebrity, unlike Paris Hilton he doesn't publicly discuss anything about his personal life.

In fact I was very interested in why Anderson Cooper talks about his family life growing up, quite openly, but doesn't talk publicly about his personal life today. Why? The more I studied him, the more I could see how watching his mother live her life in the tabloids decade after decade affected him. He vowed when young not to repeat that strategy. Unfortunately, this may be backfiring, and I got him to admit so. Not talking about his personal life today just makes those details more of a "get" for the tabloids.

Already, since the article has come out, the blogs and the tv-news press has been abuzz. Anderson is a good journalist who really likes to travel to stories in person. I think he feeds off the people he meets - they keep him real. Anyway, in the article is a fairly innocuous line about how Anderson, in considering where his career might go, felt that a traditional anchor position at a desk in New York (where he doesn't get to travel much) wasn't for him. In the tv-press, people are speculating what this means (what anchor job? at CNN? at another network?), when it doesn't really mean much. He also told me he wants to be a father, and if that day comes, it will probably mean he won't be able to travel so much. I was more interested in that choice - between work and family, hypothetical scenario. I was glad to hear that his family background hadn't made him scared of having his own family.

Many of the blogs have asked why the photographs of Cooper that run with the article are so somber. "Why didn't we choose a photo of him smiling?" they ask. Well, I wasn't at the photo shoot, but I'm told he didn't smile for the photographer. But he smiles plenty in person and has a quick wit. I've never smiled for a professional photographer either, to tell you the truth. Something about it just feels forced in that setting.


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12 Comments:

Anonymous Laura said...

Po,
You know what's funny? I saw Anderson Cooper in February 2006, and got much the same impressions. Namely, that while he's led a fascinating life, he by no means will ever be the life of a party. And I also asked him where he ultimately saw himself ending up, and he said that he doesn't think about that at all-he just looks out for the next story. Can't wait to go pick up Men's Journal!
Laura

11:57 AM  
Blogger Christiane said...

Hi Po,
I'm a journalist and communications professor in Latin America. We started a media literacy project based on the figure of Anderson Cooper and all the controversy that surrounds the coverage of his personal life. How gossip is passed as actual facts without the rigor or ethics needed, and how the proliferation of electronic media -like blogs - with its pro and cons actually endangers the life of journalists by the disclosure of private information. I'm really glad you approached the issue on your article.
EF
www.endi.com

1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Po,
I have watched Anderson Cooper and though I have not yet read his book, I will do so soon, along with your Mens Journal article. They both seem revealing and insightful.

What amazes me in your blog post is this line:"I was glad to hear that his family background hadn't made him scared of having his own family." Why were you glad and how is it that he can come away from all of his experiences and travels wanting to have a family? Having a family to me is the most positive value filled statement we can make about our lives, where we feel the world is either going or will go as we live our lives. Where and on what do we base our hopes I wonder, for such a bet against the odds?

I often wonder what it is that motivates people to have children. Do they have them because humans are programmed despite any 'reason' we may give the act after the fact?
Do they feel it is a service to the world? Do they feel drunk with happiness about life and therefore must engage in the act.
When I look at the world, I see hope, but I also see bleakness, that would make the act of having 'one's own family' a very difficult one. How can one 'gift' this world that is wrought with pain and anguish to one's own blood?

Germany and a few other industrialized nations, Japan among them, now have a negative population growth. It is believed that a high standard of education and high literacy has led to this phenomenon. So if modernity and its consequences (intended or unintended) has led to this state of affairs, what hope does it hold out for the future so that we can go forth boldly and reclaim it for our 'potential' children?
Humanity, it would seem from the perspective of one such as Anderson is certainly in great turmoil. To come away from all of his experiences and still "hope" to have one's own family is the most baffling and striking point made in your blog. Anderson's travels may have certainly given him perspective, but that they play so positively into his hope for a family and the future is intriguing to say the least.
I wonder what the great sociologist, Alvin Toffler would say on the matter. His book "Future Shock" made a deep impression on me as a tenth grader, and its themes still resonate with me.

What are your thoughts Po?
Your friend in Dallas,
-Fareed

10:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Mr. Po Bronson for your blog and article at men's journal about Mr. Anderson Cooper it's all well said. it is funny because every time I go out I always look for a magazine that tells a story about Mr. Anderson Cooper but this january it just pop in my mind how come that Mr. Anderson Cooper is not in Men's Journal he's been in all kind of Magazine but then a surprise february came then there's the issue of Men's Journal cover page Mr. Anderson Cooper. thank you so much!
actually I collect all The magazines which covers Mr. Anderson Cooper.
what I've seen in your article is a very different angle of Mr. Anderson Cooper it's nice, and I'll also look for your other articles.

JBchicago

10:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Po,

Thank you for the article and additional comments on Anderson Cooper. I don’t know what your final analysis was regarding Anderson, but no matter how much I read about him, or how often I see him on TV, I always get the impression that he deliberately maintains a distance between himself and the viewer or reader. Even reading his book does not alleviate this feeling. He always seems on the verge of revealing himself and then pulls back. I understand that he desires to be more like his father’s family than his mother’s, but I have read Wyatt Cooper’s book and unlike Anderson’s, he comes across totally open and uninhibited. I also think that Anderson’s continuing relationship with celebrities is very much a desire to connect to his mother’s lifestyle.

Although your article was approached from a different angle than most, it still left me with that same feeling of distance. I can’t really explain why. The only thing that may have been remotely revealing was his statement about wanting to have children. It left the impression that he is either already married or on the verge of it, and that he may have now satisfied his need to travel and report the way he has in the past. I was troubled by your statement: “I was glad to hear that his family background hadn’t made him scared of having his own family.“ It almost seemed that you thought this admission made him normal and anything to the contrary would have been abnormal. I hope I am mistaken.

JAM

3:00 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

JAM -
To your question of what I meant when I wrote I was glad he wanted a family, it did not mean that he was normal - far from it. He has anything but a normal past. Rather, that his painful past hadn't handicapped him or scarred him from other ambitions of his life. Contrary to being married, I also meant that if he is indeed a gay man - as is assumed by many - that being a gay man wasn't going to keep him from being a father, and I was glad about that.
As for why he seems distant, I can only say I didn't feel that way. As a journalist, his job is to keep some distance, so that's probably what you're feeling.
Po

8:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Po,

Thank you for your response. In regards to that same statement, I am relieved that you were not making a negative comment about being gay. I am not gay, but I empathize with the problems they face and hope that they will eventually have all the choices and rights that we do. I agree with you, that if Anderson is gay I am glad it will not limit his choices in life.

I think you are right about the feeling of distance that I mentioned. I think it is the difference between being a journalist as opposed to being an “author.”

No matter what, I think Anderson has great resilience and he will continue to be successful. I wish him the very best.

I hope you did not get the wrong impression from my previous comments; I thought your interview with Anderson was the best one I have ever read. I don’t know if anyone else has mentioned this to you, but this issue of “Men’s Journal” was very difficult to find.

Take care,
JAM

2:10 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

Thanks JAM. Good to hear the magazine's sold out. Glad the article helped understand him, even if he is indeed a bit behind the journalist's guard. Even as an author, I used to have that - I believed it was somehow necessary for others to take me seriously - until I dropped it. And I think Anderson definitely feels the sting of having been called "emo anchor," and his brief stint as host of The Mole is now the opposite of the direction he wants to head in, and his journalist-distance is something he's reinforcing to help reestablish his credibility. It's bizarre, but even his incredible reporting years with Channel One are not given their due, because it was for Channel One - not a major news network. So he won't be dropping his journalistic distance, I predict - only increasing it. So his anchor position is taken more seriously.

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Po,

It’s strange that you should mention the Channel One period because I was just looking at it recently and realized that Anderson’s style hasn’t changed all that much; the quality of his reporting was there from the very beginning. I don’t think it was something he learned; I think it just came naturally.

I agree that he wants to be taken more seriously and he will succeed if John Klein and CNN do not try to turn him into another Geraldo or Barbara Walters for ratings purposes. They should just stand aside and allow him to grow. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future.

JAM

3:44 PM  
Anonymous julia said...

Po,

It is one of the most insightful interviews with Mr. Cooper I've ever read. You deffinately provided a different perspective, and I greatly appreciate it. Reading your article I couldn't escape the feeling that he's at risk of a burnout some time soon, though he said it's not the case. Is that the impression you got and conveyed in your article or you don't find it to be the case at all?

Thank you

12:29 AM  
Anonymous Stevo said...

I was reading some info on Anderson Cooper and was surprised he is from a very prominent family. I work at night and used to see Anderson give late night news. His news co-workers used to give him a hard time, treating him like he was a wimp or gay. I know I thought that it was funny that he broke out from that pack and became the big journalistic star. Now I have been reading that there is a lot of speculation about him due to him being ultra-private, which is kind of ridiculous as he is now a big news star.

2:16 PM  
Anonymous Sanjay said...

He is good voice

3:57 AM  

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