Richard Bradley is the former executive editor of George magazine. He is author of American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World's Most Powerful University.
Is there anyone who watches television news who hasn’t yet seen Anderson Cooper cry?
As has been lovingly detailed in media columns all over the country, the CNN anchor had a difficult time covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina without letting his emotions get the better of him. Most lauded was his testy exchange with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu. When Landrieu started to blather on in politician boilerplate, Cooper, “approaching tears of fury,” as Slate’s Jack Shafer put it, said:
Excuse me, senator, I'm sorry for interrupting. …For the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated. And when they hear politicians slap—you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there's not enough facilities to take her up. Do you get the anger that is out here?
The response—from Cooper’s peers, if not from Landrieu—was rapturous. New York magazine said that “Cooper’s on-air breakdown was an honest expression of his complicated personality—and a breakthrough for the future of television news.” The usually snarky website Gawker sighed, ““Was it possible for us to love Anderson Cooper more than we already did? Yes, it turns it out, it was possible. Our love grew at about 7:30 last night, in the middle of 360°, when Coop . . . finally, well, flipped out. Mad as hell, you say? Madder.”
Nor was Cooper the only network reporter to get emotional while covering Katrina. Fox’s Shephard Smith raged against government incompetence with such intensity that he freaked out his colleague, Neal Cavuto, back in the GOP-friendly Fox studios. Geraldo Rivera held up a baby and cried. CNN’s Jeanne Meserve just cried, and ABC’s Robin Roberts almost broke down. For TV journalists, choking up had become the new Blackberry.
And everyone seemed to think that all this emotion was a good thing: The more of it, the better. Thus inspired, CBS Marketwatch’s Jon Friedman posed the oh-so-important question, “Who do you think has emerged as the biggest media star throughout the Hurricane Katrina tragedy?”
For most media types, the answer was Cooper. “Mr. Cooper's heart-on-his-sleeve demeanor has been anything but slick and packaged,” Elizabeth Jensen wrote in The New York Times. So profound was his humanity that “CNN's camera occasionally has caught him playing with stray dogs.” (Why CNN would consider such shots worthy of being aired is another matter.) Cooper’s CNN boss, Jonathan Klein, told New York: “I think other news executives are drooling over [Cooper.] He brings a new dimension to the job, which is a concept of an anchor as a kind of missionary. It’s a new model for thinking about what the anchorperson ought to be.”
Forgive me for not salivating, but is crying on television and castigating U.S. senators really what a television news anchor “ought to be”? I don’t want my newscasters to be missionaries—there are too many missionaries in this country already. I want them to be reporters. And given how influential they are, I want them to at least try to be objective.
I don’t mean to beat up on Cooper, who, I’m sure, was genuinely moved by what he saw in New Orleans—who wouldn’t be?—and seemed a little embarrassed by all the attention. But just because we empathize doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for reporters to get so emotional. It is, after all, a lapse in objectivity. It turns the hurricane story into serial drama, infotainment, rather than a news event to cover. We may like the tears of rage this time, and be appalled or irritated or skeptical the next. Emotions are like that. Sometimes you trust them, sometimes you don’t.
In the long run, Cooper’s tears discredit both himself and CNN because they subvert the ideal of objectivity. Reportorial neutrality may be an impossible goal, but it’s still the best way to be fair, accurate and credible over the long term. Instead, Cooper’s emoting buttresses the idea that a television anchor needs to be a “personality,” whose credibility stems from our trust in his persona rather than the depth of the reporting he undertakes. It’s all about Anderson.
Consider again his interrogation of Sen. Landrieu, this time with some italics added: “For the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.”
If you read that passage carefully, you can hear Cooper catching himself. Instead of saying that “people here…are very upset,” he’s on the verge of saying, “I am very upset.” Cooper is presenting himself as an advocate for the people, a mediator between the helpless and the powerful. The voice of the victims—like Phil Donahue, Jerry Springer or Rush Limbaugh. He’s just a voice that many in the Manhattan media elite happen to prefer. But he’s put himself on the slippery slope to becoming a highbrow tragedy host, running up the aisles—or down the streets—to cry with one more victim of yet another tragedy.
Cooper (and Smith and Rivera and so on) could have reported just as thoroughly, and just as well, without making their feelings part of the story. Their tears were, simply, unprofessional, and the fact that their bosses seem to approve is a sign of how corrupted TV news has become, how insecure it is of its own relevance. Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather were not without their flaws. But it is impossible to imagine Jennings and Brokaw, at least, so utterly abandoning the ideal of objectivity, and that is why Americans listened to them respectfully for as long as we did.
But of course, Anderson Cooper isn’t the anchors of not-so-long ago. He’s more like Oprah, with richer parents and no weight problem. As Jonathan Klein points out, Anderson Cooper may well be the next-generation anchorperson. Assuming network news makes it that long.