He reports, he anchors, he blogs, he gets emotional. Wait, pause. Rewind. Old-school newsmen aren't supposed to react or feel, but Anderson Cooper is a new breed of journalist. He engages with the facts while being "emotionally accessible" to viewers.
Cooper says his job is to report what he sees, pursue the facts and demand accountability, but he rejects the idea—especially after Hurricane Katrina—that journalists can remain impassive while observing complex current events.
"The notion that one can see all this stuff and not have it affect you in some way is false," Cooper says. Emotions during war or in the wake of a disaster are palpable, he says, adding that he "wanted to honor that. It felt real. . . . That's part of the story, the emotions that people are going through and that you are going through."
Speaking from his car as he prepares to broadcast his nightly CNN show "Anderson Cooper 360" live from Nogales, Arizona, the "ground zero" of illegal immigration (he later wrote in his CNN blog, "It's fascinating to see the border patrol in action up close. For all the talk in Washington, this is where the rhetoric meets reality"), the unpretentious Cooper practically vibrates with the impulse to capture every intense or unspeakable detail of the stories he has covered in his award-winning broadcast career.
And he breaks through the "television artifice" and examines the tragedies of both his personal and professional lives and his nearly self-destructive desire to witness the world's worst in his new book, Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters and Survival.
"It's easy to overwrite, especially with this material," Cooper says. The son of iconic American fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt, Cooper experienced his own personal destruction after the death of his father and the suicide of his brother. "I tried to strip it away as much as possible and keep it as real as possible."
Dispatches from the Edge is a terse, spare script narrating highlights of Cooper's career written from journals he has kept and a document of the personal losses that he couldn't admit to himself even as he witnessed and recorded the shared anguish of whole communities and countries.
Cooper got an unorthodox start in the business, graduating from Yale with a political science degree, then boarding planes without assignments, armed only with a home video camera and running toward what repulsed him most, driven by a sense that he had to "figure these things out."
"I felt my options were limited," he says. "It was less about trying to make a career for myself and more about trying to understand things about myself and the way the world worked. I was willing to take a lot of risks to make it happen."
Cooper eventually sold his work to Channel One News, ABC News and then CNN, covering the Bosnian civil war, famine in Somalia, elections in Iraq, genocide and starvation in Africa, and later, Sri Lanka after the tsunami and New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
The memoir gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at many topics and moments Cooper can't explore in depth on TV ("I'm continually disappointed . . . it's tragic when what you see isn't transmitted completely") like the building in Sri Lanka apparently exhibiting a photography exhibit—until closer inspection reveals that these are gruesome pictures of hundreds of bodies being stored at the makeshift morgue before burial in mass graves, taken as a record for families still searching for their loved ones. Or the woman in Louisiana who tries to keep a beached seal alive after the hurricane by throwing cups of water over its skin—until police shoot the animal in the head after she leaves.
Working in post-hurricane New Orleans and Mississippi, where his father spent some of his life, surrounded by "all these places I had been to as a child with my father," Cooper found a way to honor his own personal traumas while recording senseless tragedy.
"It's easy to become overwhelmed by the things you see in the news," he says. "What I've learned, and what gives me hope, is that people are capable of anything. They're capable of horrific brutalities but also amazing acts of kindness."