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.