Melissa Traynor and Charles Desrochers / The Recorder
Anderson Cooper is proud of the fact that he has learned to out-hustle colleagues and overwork himself to get ahead.
Despite his outward modesty and shyness in regards to giving his full-fledged opinion on issues other than himself, the “Anderson Cooper 360º” host exuded a confidence in what he does and how he does it.
He fully acknowledges the idea that perseverance and dedication, and especially his commitment to working weekends and holidays, have made him the anchor and reporter he is today.
At first rescheduling his Vance Lecture Series appearance due to work and original scheduling conflicts, Cooper spent the day on campus last Friday and concluded it with airing “360º” live from Willard Hall’s TV studio.
Between touring the campus, first in a meeting with President Jack Miller, then on to a more intimate question and answer session with students, a dinner and a lecture, Cooper allowed glimpses of the dedicated journalist who is otherwise recognized as one of America’s media darlings.
During the informal Q&A in Founders Hall, he answered mostly typical questions. In the same way that Dan Rather spoke candidly about his beginnings in radio during his Vance lecture in 2007, Cooper’s answers ranged from retelling his experiences in the field to his work habits.
His career sprouted from a general interest in war and a fascination with being on the other side of the lines – the generally unsafe side of the lines. Since he was young, he was interested in learning about the military and happened to read about war correspondence in Vietnam in college (Yale University).
While he reflected on his college years as political science major, a term he joked often about and admitted that he still hasn’t completely figured out, he credited his college education with learning exactly what he didn’t want to do.
“I didn’t want to stay in school any longer. Going to graduate school because I didn’t know what I wanted to do – as a fall back – didn’t appeal to me at the time,” he said.
His path or whatever prescribed plan was still working itself out.
“At the time I felt like I was flailing around in the dark,” Cooper said. He explained that not only does he see that despite whatever his initial reservation of confusion was, he understands that his path up until this point is very clear.
“What I think I learned in college is that you should make choices based on what your gut tells you and what your interest is now,” he said. “And if you do that, you’ll be doing something that you’re passionate about… and you’ll be successful at it.”
Hosting his “360º” on weeknights, Cooper’s Monday-though-Friday week belong to CNN, but he spends his weekends “60 Minutes” for CBS. He explained that he doesn’t really take weekends or holidays.
Advising that passion is the key to success, Cooper was able to draw from his own experiences working double shifts, into weekends and through lunch breaks.
“And that’s the only way to succeed,” he said, “by out-hustling and out-working everyone else around you.”
Looking back on his work with the news agency Channel One, Cooper said he took that determination with him when he decided to push his way into covering war with a forged press pass and limited protection.
Somalia is where he learned how to be a reporter, he said, and then spent the next two and a half years jumping from one war to another, including the Rwanda genocide in 1994 – an event he frequently remarked upon throughout the day.
Starting off as a reporter for the Channel One, Cooper said that his days covering wars beginning in Burma were spent traveling through war zones and looking for the opportunity to just happen upon a story where he could find one. He didn’t speak as though stories were too hard to find.
Cooper told stories of his early travels in Somalia, to which he credited a sharpened sense of self-protection and caution. Though, in between his quirky tales of “growing up reporter”, Cooper hinted at the massive tragedy and destruction that he has spent much of his career covering.
During his stay in Somalia, he hired a roaming band of gunmen for protection, for lack of other options. This story garnered a good amount of laughs from the small audience in Founders.
“They were my protectors, but I was actually more scared of them than anyone else,” he said.
“One day we were at a burial ground where about a hundred people were dying of famine every day in this town, so they were just mass burying people.”
“We were at this burial ground waiting for some bodies to come and I suddenly realized, ‘why don’t these guys just shoot me and dump my body in a pit and walk away and take whatever I have?’” he continued.
“So I kept coming up with all of these stories about all my journalist friends who were going to be coming on the next couple of flights,” he said.
Since then, he said, he’s enjoyed much more sophisticated and heavier protection as major media companies have hired private protection and afforded the expense of armored vehicles.
While it’s not so today, Cooper said he was able to wander around the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia looking for stories. He faced the occasional mortar shell or shooters, but was never specifically targeted as a journalist before.
“You never know how you’re going to react when someone takes out a gun and starts shooting, or when you’re in the midst of a mob and there’s a chaotic situation,” Cooper said, and added that luckily he was often able to operate well under pressure.
Treasurer of the Robert Vance Foundation Edward Young commented on Cooper’s audacity.
“[I’m amazed by] the fact that he’s gone behind the lines and done some pretty hands-on stuff on the battlefield,” he said. “It really amazes me when reporters put their own personal safety at risk for their minor duties.”
Cooper said that when he returns home to the States, his stay often feels boring and inactive. It makes regular life appear very dull upon return.
“When you’re on the front lines, when you’re in a conflict zone, it’s like the air hums,” he said. “You feel alive.”
He said that war zones, where he is frequently exposed to scenes of literal life and death, can not help but mark a different world and mentality than that at home.
Conversation often drifted towards the line between sensationalistic reporting and how journalism can accurately reflect the emotion involved in the moment. Cooper is often asked about his methods for keeping that emotion secure.
“I tend to focus on people, real people in circumstances that are out of their control,” he said. “For me the objective is to allow those people’s emotions to just come out and that you do that by just getting out of the way and not injecting yourself in.”
Cooper often emphasized the importance of objective and not volunteering any opinions, which is what at least some of Friday’s night audience showed up for.
“The impression I have of him is that he is generally objective, well-informed and alert,” said Ray Andrews a CCSU alumnus who was invited to attend the Vance Lecture dinner.
Cooper does, however, believe in the importance of being personally impacted by the stories he covers. Or else it would make him more susceptible to the common plight of unaffected journalists in keeping themselves completely detached from their subjects.
“And it’s a hard thing because when you’re out there the more you see of human suffering, the more you see of war and tragedies associated with it, the harder it is to allow yourself to be affected by it,” Cooper explained.
He stressed that while he is certainly affected by the scenes of horror he has witnessed, he acknowledges it as normal.
“You end up miserable a lot of times or sad or whatever based on what you’re seeing depending on where you are and that’s okay,” he said. “You’re supposed to be sad at least some of the time.”
Throughout the day, Cooper couldn’t help but reflect on his experiences as a reporter during civil war or ethnic cleansing, rape, famine, disease and the general hostilities and dangers associated with war. A cause he made a special point of, at least several times on Friday, was the conflict in Zaire, or what is known as the Congo.
He often reminded the audience that the conflicts are escalating to the point where they cannot be ignored. Cooper expressed without overwhelming sorrow the individual tales of rape in the region, where villains take pleasure in publicly humiliating and disfiguring women as young as 3 and beyond 85 years old.
It is one particular area he is interested in covering because he believes that even though the viewer demand for it is low, news agencies have a responsibility to tell these people’s stories.
Known for his experiences in reporting on Hurricane Katrina, Cooper also took time to acknowledge the great amounts of hope and desolation he saw in New Orleans.
“I’ve seen a lot of bodies out of the streets, but to see them in the United States was something very different,” he said.
On the flipside, he easily turned the depressed state of the flooded city into a reason to believe that hope exists.
“In the wake of the tsunami we saw complete strangers literally reaching out and saving other strangers,” Cooper said. “In the streets on New Orleans we saw tremendous acts and in the three and a half years since the storm we see tens of thousands of college students going down to New Orleans and volunteering their time instead of taking spring break somewhere fun.”
While Cooper’s “emo journalism” has been criticized, it is a great command of his emotions and sensibility that attracted more than a few of Friday’s audience members to his lecture and his CNN program.
Bryce McKinzie ’12 praised him for his level-headedness despite his chaotic surroundings and his ability to draw in otherwise uninterested viewers.
“They might be watching because of Anderson cooper but they’re actually listening to what he says,” McKinzie said.