There's a certain restlessness to Anderson Cooper, CNN's newest star anchor. That his iconically young-but-silver-haired visage gazes at you from billboards and magazine ads everywhere suggests a certain in-your-face-ness, but so, too, and more significantly, does his career path. There's a palpable desire to be where the action is. He went overseas with only a camcorder (and, granted, a family fortune; his mother is railroad heiress and designer Gloria Vanderbilt) as a freelance foreign correspondent when he was just 23 years old. When the reality-TV craze was just starting out, he abandoned a coveted network-news slot to join up with The Mole. Then, just months after September 11, when the nation's thoughts suddenly shifted back to serious matters, he signed on with CNN and returned to news world.
In September 2003, CNN launched Anderson Cooper 360°, which the network describes as a "fast-moving, surprising and provocative alternative to the typical network evening newscast." The nightly broadcast is sort of a magazine show about the day's news, reporting all the headlines, as Tom, Peter, or Dan's broadcast would, but presenting them in longer, in-depth personality and analysis segments. Like Keith Olbermann's Countdown on MSNBC, it's part of the cable networks' efforts to present news in a manner appealing to a non-geriatrics. (Have you ever counted all the denture-cream ads on the Big Three nightly newscasts?) So far, it appears to be working: 360° draws the youngest viewership of any CNN show.
Cooper spoke to mediabistro.com recently about his unorthodox route into the news biz, the future of news anchors, and his recent turn on the "Power Players" edition of Jeopardy! (which airs tonight).
Birthdate: June 3, 1967
Hometown: New York City
First Section of the Sunday Times: "The front section—kind of boring, but true."
Are you a news junkie in your free time as well?
I've been a news junkie since I was in utero.
Tell me a little about your career path. How did you get to where you are?
I started out trying to get a job answering phones at ABC and I couldn't get it—which I guess shows the value of a Yale education. Instead I got a fact-checker job at Channel One, Chris Whittle's 12-minute satellite news program broadcast directly to high-school classrooms. I was a fact checker with them for six months, and then I decided that I wanted to be a reporter but figured if I told anyone they wouldn't give me the chance
Because you didn't have the experience?
No. It's just that I find if you announce your intentions it's always easier for people to say no. Instead, I came up with this plan: I quit my job and moved overseas and started shooting with my own video camera. I figured if I put myself in situations where there weren't many Americans around and I shot little stories, then I could sell them to Channel One. I wanted to make it impossible for them to not put me on air.
Did you go by yourself?
Yeah. I had a friend of mine make a fake press pass on a Macintosh, and I snuck into Burma and hooked up with some students fighting the Burmese government. I had met the person who was involved in the Burmese student movement in New York, and they gave me the name of a contact in a town in Western Thailand. So I found my way to this town that was like a Wild West border town, and I contacted the person and said I was a reporter. We met in an ice cream parlor, and then they agreed to take me in, and they smuggled me across the border into Burma.
Would you do the same thing in today's environment?
It's a lot different. I wouldn't do it in Iraq, certainly, although—well, I don't know, but I probably wouldn't. I think it's a lot different now. I wish someone would do it again in Burma; there's still the same fighting going on. After Burma I lived in Vietnam for six months and studied Vietnamese, and then I started going to wars again. I went to Somalia in the early days of the famine and basically did the same thing. I used my press pass to hitch a ride on a relief flight.
All for Channel One?
Yeah. I ended up doing that for two years for them. Just going to wars. I became sort of fascinated with conflict.
What about it?
For one thing, it's witnessing history, which I think is the most understandable answer. But I also found that I felt that the molecules in the air were different. In all the places where there was conflict it was sort of a highly charged atmosphere and there was something about it that appealed to me. I found I was very interested in issues of survival and why some people survive and others don't. I wanted to see first-hand. I felt very comfortable in those places.
Has it been hard to transition into the anchor role? Now you're on the back of every magazine and on big billboards. Is it hard to become the personality of news in that way?
It hasn't, really. I was at ABC news for five years, and I started anchoring an overnight newscast there, called World News Now. That's where Aaron Brown started at ABC, and it's sort of an irreverent newscast. So I sort of snuck into anchoring; I never really planned to be an anchor.
I think the notion of traditional anchor is fading away, the all-knowing, all-seeing person who speaks from on high. I don't think the audiences really buy that anymore. As a viewer, I know I don't buy it. I think you have to be yourself, and you have to be real and you have to admit what you don't know, and talk about what you do know, and talk about what you don't know as long as you say you don't know it. I tend to relate more to people on television who are just themselves, for good or for bad, than I do to someone who I believe is putting on some sort of persona. The anchorman on The Simpsons is a reasonable facsimile of some anchors who have that problem.
Do you think your on-air persona is the same as your off-air persona?
Yes. It's very close.
Do you think that's unusual?
Well, I think that a lot of anchors become their on-air persona, as opposed to their on-air persona being a reflection of who they really are. I think it's very easy to become this image of yourself, and that shouldn't be the case. It's not my objective. My objective is to go the other way and as much as possible be myself, as opposed to altering who I am in order to fit someone's idea of what an anchor should be.
Part of the persona issue is also just branding. With all the competition in cable news now, there's a lot of focus on differentiating the brand of one channel from the next. Could that branding sometimes affect the news product?
I get the whole branding thing. I think that when it starts to affect what stories you're going to tell that's a problem. But for the most part, it shouldn't get in the way. I think it's more about packaging what you're doing than anything else, making it visually presentable. What you need to do is present the news in a way that is true to yourself and true to your sensibilities and true to what you think is providing the right amount of context. I think sometimes it's silly and just gets in the way, but I think you have to be wise about what you do.
So I've got to ask: Why go do Celebrity Mole a few years ago? Do you think it has helped or hurt your career?
I didn't do Celebrity Mole. I just did the first season, the regular Mole. I draw the line at Celebrity Mole. Frankly, I'd worked at Channel One for three years doing combat stuff and then at ABC for five years. My last year at ABC, I was working overnights anchoring this newscast then during the day at 20/20. So I was sleeping in two- or four-hour shifts, and I was really tired and wanted a change. I wanted to clear my head and get out of news a little bit, and I was interested in reality TV—and it was interesting. But two seasons was enough, and 9/11 happened, and I thought I needed to be getting back to news.
And you're one of the news guys on the current special Jeopardy! series. How'd that go?
I'm not allowed to say who won, but I was playing against Kweisi Mfume of the NAACP and Maria Bartiromo of CNBC. It was called the "Power Players" edition, though I'm not sure why I was in it because I'm neither a "playa" nor a person of power. The experience really made me realize how much of a loser I am, because of how much I got into it. I mean, it's kind of a no-win proposition. In what I do you're supposed to know a certain amount of things, and there you are exposing yourself to ridicule for not knowing stuff. I didn't consider it that much in advance, but that morning I woke up and was like "What have I got myself into?" But I feel OK about it now.
David S. Hirschman is mediabistro.com's news editor.