“But, I mean, do you not like gay people?” Anderson Cooper asked Marshall “Eminem” Mathers on “60 Minutes” Sunday night in regard to the rapper’s use of words like “faggot” in his lyrics. Eminem’s mushy, banal response — “No, I don’t have any problem with nobody, you know what I mean? Like, I’m just whatever” — was sort of beside the point. The mildly electrifying subtext of The Anderson ‘n’ Marshall Show was that plenty of viewers wished that Cooper had phrased his question a little differently.
Specifically: “But, I mean, do you not like gay people? Do you not like me? Because I’m a gay, have you heard? Do you read blogs, Em? Because it’s all over the Internet that I’m totally ‘mo, in case you don’t know.”
That subtext has been rising and falling as a media meme for years now (Perez Hilton, Gawker and the Village Voice’s Michael Musto have all been variously obsessed with Cooper’s sexual orientation), but it’s newly ascendant not only because of “60 Minutes,” but also because of Cooper’s in-depth CNN coverage of the bizarre anti-gay harassment of the University of Michigan’s student body president by Michigan’s assistant attorney general (who is now facing a disciplinary hearing). And then also, most poignantly, because of “Ellen.”
Last Wednesday on her show, Ellen DeGeneres interviewed Cooper by satellite about bullying, a topic he’s reported about a lot. But the segment was clearly inspired by the suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi after his roommate secretly webcast video of him hooking up with another dude. Cooper went on about how awful it is that teachers don’t respond to the use of gay slurs with the same alacrity as “the N-word,” and then complained specifically about seeing a trailer for the Vince Vaughn comedy “The Dilemma,” in which Vaughn’s character says, “That’s so gay.” Though Cooper didn’t actually name-check Vaughn or the movie (though it was clear what trailer he was talking about if you’ve been anywhere near a multiplex lately), he told DeGeneres that he was “shocked” that a movie studio considered a gay joke to be worthy preview fodder. Within days, Universal yanked the offending bit out of the trailer.
Anderson Cooper, accidental gay activist. Anderson Cooper, who has never shown up on the cover of Time magazine — as DeGeneres did on April 14, 1997 — next to the words “Yep, I’m gay.” Anderson Cooper, the most famous not-blatantly-out out person in the New York media firmament, becoming the leading journalistic voice speaking out about the recent rising tide of homophobia.
Yep, it’s all a little weird.
It’s worth noting that right after DeGeneres and Cooper discussed the Clementi tragedy — both seemed to agree that anti-gay bias was involved — DeGeneres asked, “Were you bullied, Anderson, growing up?” She had a tentative look on her face, almost as if she was maybe thinking she could prod Cooper into a break-through moment along the lines of “You know, Ellen, as a gay kid growing up in New York…” Instead, his response was: “I, I, you know, I’ve been thinking a lot, trying to remember this, a lot. And, and, I, I don’t think I was. I went to a very small school. I only had about a hundred kids in my graduating class. But I think I was more of a bystander.” Cooper then recalled that he witnessed a kid in his class being picked on for his stutter, and that he didn’t intervene because he was so relieved that he himself wasn’t picked on, given that he had a slight stutter and still sometimes does.
Of course, it’s entirely credible that Cooper’s sexuality in his youth, if he was even specifically aware of it back then, was a non-issue, which might well inform why it seems like such a non-issue to him in his adulthood. Cooper was, famously, a child of privilege: His mother, heiress and fashion icon Gloria Vanderbilt, was deeply connected to a fabulously artistic demimonde (Diane Arbus shot the infant Anderson for Harper’s Bazaar) and Anderson himself was a fabulous, good-looking kid who signed with Ford at age 10 and modeled for the likes of Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren “until age 13, when he quit because a creepy male photographer propositioned him,” as Jonathan Van Meter wrote in a 2005 New York profile in the wake of Cooper’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
Remember Cooper’s reporting from New Orleans? Of course you do. It was astonishing — deeply personal, career-transforming work, “a breakthrough for the future of television news,” as New York put it. Ironically, it also made him a pin-up of sorts — he landed the cover of Vanity Fair — and an obsession for that portion of the media that is, shall we say, less than journalistically inclined.
And therein lies the double standard. Because even in 2010, we generally don’t collectively obsess about the personal lives of even the very highest-profile journalists and broadcasters unless they’ve been conspicuously fringed with farce (e.g., Larry King and his gazillion wives) or tragedy (like when Katie Couric’s husband died of colon cancer), or are linked with another famous person (e.g., Diane Sawyer, who you’re probably vaguely aware is married to director Mike Nichols).
But Brian Williams? Meredith Viera? Matt Lauer? Do you care who they’re sleeping with? Did anyone ever care who Dan Rather was screwing? Or Walter Cronkite? Or Edward R. Murrow?
And for those who’d argue that Cooper, in covering gay-related news, has an obligation to reveal his personal connection to the story, well, sure, OK, fine. But then let’s also insist that the next time he interviews a rich person, he start by saying, “As the financially blessed great-great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt …” And the next time he interviews a good-looking celebrity, we should insist that he open with, “Given that I, myself, am a dashingly handsome hottie with piercing blue eyes …”
Simon Dumenco writes about culture for Details and is the "Media Guy" media columnist at Advertising Age.More Simon Dumenco.