Method anchor

Star newsman Anderson Cooper is defined less by his experience than by an old-fashioned Hollywood marketing campaign.

Published August 23, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

The phenomenon that is Anderson Cooper stared soulfully with his limpid blue eyes from the June cover of Vanity Fair, thus creating two journalistic disjunctions -- the fact that he is staring soulfully when any other news anchor would have a cool, imperturbable gaze, and the fact that he is a phenomenon who makes the cover of Vanity Fair.

It is easy to make fun of Anderson Cooper, CNN's sleek, prematurely gray-haired poster boy and the star of its nightly two-hour program, "Anderson Cooper 360." The main knock against him is that he seems created out of whole cloth by a P.R. machine the way the old Hollywood studios once created stars through media campaigns -- an assertion that is hard to challenge since Cooper's face seems to be everywhere these days: not only on Vanity Fair and on billboards but on "Oprah," "The Daily Show," "Late Night With David Letterman," "The Tonight Show" and soon on "60 Minutes" where Cooper will be a correspondent. People magazine has named him one of its sexiest men, there is an "Anderson for President" poster for sale on the Internet, countless fan sites are devoted to him, and gossip sites record his every move. Walter Cronkite never did a fashion spread as Cooper has done in Details. Added to all this attention is the frisson of his sexuality and the hanging question -- hanging because Cooper refuses to address it -- of whether he is gay or not, which raises the possibility of his being America's first gay anchor. CNN obviously has invested a great deal in its new wonder boy, and the network has been marketing him aggressively, though no more so than CBS is marketing its new anchor, Katie Couric. In doing so, however, CNN is not just boosting an anchor. It is changing the very paradigm of television news.

Network anchors traditionally have been fellows who have earned their spurs. They worked their way up through the ranks, covering politics, wars and the White House, gaining seasoning and authority. The Murrow generation, out of which came Cronkite, the old anchor paradigm, was annealed by World War II, but even its successors -- Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings -- were newsmen with experience. Rather burst on the national scene covering the Kennedy assassination, and he did duty in Vietnam and as CBS White House correspondent during Watergate, leading to his famous confrontations with President Nixon, before he assumed the anchor chair. Brokaw toiled in local news in Iowa and Nebraska before becoming a local anchor in Atlanta and Los Angeles and then an NBC correspondent, pulling White House duty during Watergate just as Rather did. Jennings worked at the CBC and then CTV in his native Canada as parliamentary correspondent before joining ABC as an anchor (briefly at age 27), and then, when ABC realized that he was too green, he left to become a foreign correspondent, opening the network's Middle East bureau and serving as its chief for seven years. These men were not just pretty faces or good teleprompter readers. (Rather, in fact, was execrable at reading the prompter, and Brokaw famously swallowed his "l's.") The implicit idea behind them was that the news was a public trust, both in the sense that a network produced the news for the public good and in the sense that it needed individuals who had enough credibility they could be trusted.

And so it was, right up through Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson. Despite his relative youth at 39, Anderson Cooper is not exactly a novice, as his recent bestseller, "Dispatches From the Edge," is designed to demonstrate, nor is he just a pretty face. He has been in the field. After graduating from Yale, he landed a job as a researcher at Channel One, the teen-oriented network that is beamed directly into middle schools and high schools, then, after six months, he decided he would rather see the world and became a one-man television crew, visiting war zones like Rwanda and Myanmar and sending back video dispatches to his old company on an on-again, off-again basis for roughly five years, including a year he spent in Vietnam learning the language -- a far cry from on-deadline reports of most broadcast journalists. He eventually landed a job as a newsreader at ABC, then as host of the reality show "The Mole," and then migrated to CNN, where he has acquitted himself as something more than an airhead. But even so, this is not exactly the résumé of an anchorman, hoisting his way rung by rung and assignment by assignment up the ladder, which is precisely the point. Cooper was a free agent -- the journalistic equivalent of a soldier of fortune. He was a lone operator and a swashbuckler with boyish élan who worked on his own schedule and on his own terms. The news wasn't a trust for Anderson Cooper. It was an adventure.

This is the idea that CNN is trying to sell because the network has obviously concluded, along with everyone else, that the function of the news has changed and so must the presentation. The news is no longer regarded as a trust. It is just another competitor for viewers' time, another distraction in a world of entertainment, though what it is distracting the audience from is essentially itself. No one but old people watch the news today; the median age of the network news broadcasts on ABC and NBC is just under 60 and on CBS just over 60, and the cable network audiences aren't any different. The young people that advertisers covet apparently feel they have better things to do than watch news, which means, in effect, that the news providers are in the awkward position of finding a way to attract people who really don't want their product.

CNN's innovation (unless you count MSNBC's halfhearted attempt a few years back with bespectacled Ashley Banfield) has been to turn the news into a backdrop for its handsome young star, Anderson Cooper. London, Haifa, Sri Lanka, Baghdad -- these are locations for the movies in which Cooper plays, effectively foregrounding the anchor while backgrounding the news. Yes, young people may hate news, but they love celebrities, and Cooper is a celebrity -- or at least he is rapidly being made into one. Or put another way, CNN is trying to discover how to make the news not event-driven, which forces the network to rely on things it has no control over, so much as star-driven, which is something that can remain constant night after night. You tune in not because something happened. You tune in because Anderson Cooper is reporting it.

And how does he report it? With feeling but without gravitas. Most famously, when Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana thanked Congress for an emergency $10 billion appropriation during an interview with Cooper after Hurricane Katrina, he interrupted her in high dudgeon saying that there was a body being eaten by rats. "Do you get the anger that is out here?" he demanded, and then stammered for someone to take responsibility. It was great drama, but not exactly a distinguished moment. And then there was the fawning interview with Angelina Jolie where Cooper and Jolie traded sensitivities on Africa like two old friends at a kaffeeklatsch and where Cooper preempted Jolie to talk about his own feelings. Or there was the Mother's Day segment in which Cooper interviewed his own mother, saying afterward, "How many anchors would have their mother on the program?" Exactly.

This is a defining change in news because, among other things, stars do not behave as anchors have traditionally behaved. Indeed, when Geraldo Rivera tried the same gambit, making himself into a personality larger than the news, he was laughed off the stage and into syndication purgatory. An anchor intones impersonally, solemnly and objectively. While he may be a performer -- Cronkite was avuncular, David Brinkley wry, Jennings dashing, Rather alternately folksy and intense -- no anchor has exactly been movie star material because none has done what movie stars are paid to do: create identification between themselves and the audience by tapping their audience's emotions. The news was an oasis from emotion, and the great anchors were stoics. When Cronkite's eyes began to mist ever so slightly as he announced President Kennedy's death, it became a signature moment in our culture. One felt the magnitude of the event by the fact that Cronkite had to fight to keep his composure. Not so, Anderson Cooper, the new model of anchor. He is a professional emoter -- the "conscience of the nation," Vanity Fair called him. His job is to feel.

This isn't some waggish criticism. This is how Cooper sees himself. On a recent "Oprah," he told the host, "I had been searching for feeling for years," and said he found it in journalism. Journalism became and presumably remains his therapy, which has turned Cooper into the first Method anchor -- the first anchor to draw on his own life experience to infuse the news with feeling rather than authority. In a way, he was born to emote. Cooper's back story -- all stars have a back story -- is that he is the son of the heir to the Vanderbilt fortune and the former jeans maven, Gloria Vanderbilt, and of a handsome quondam actor and screenwriter named Wyatt Cooper. Wyatt Cooper died when Anderson was 10, leaving Anderson, his mother and his 12-year-old brother, Carter, bereft and numb. In 1988, when young Carter was 23, he inexplicably dove off a terrace of his mother's apartment and died in the 14-story fall. His last words were, "Will I ever feel again?" So Anderson Cooper knew hurt. He lived with hurt.

But if he was the putative Brando of news (or maybe the more sensitive Montgomery Clift), he needed his "Streetcar Named Desire," and New Orleans in the wake of Katrina provided it. Drawing, as he himself says in his book, on his personal tragedy, Cooper channeled the tragedy of New Orleans for the audience. Brian Williams and Shepard Smith at Fox emoted too, but Williams and Smith quickly returned to anchorman implacability when they returned to the studio. Cooper didn't. He personalized the anguish, and CNN turned his anguish into the story. "I feel connected to what's around me," Cooper has written, showing how literally he deployed the Method, "no longer just observing. I feel I am living it, breathing it." CNN head Jon Klein is effusive: "He brings such a passion to the storytelling that it is infectious."

That attitude has been infectious among news executives too, and CBS is certainly relying on it with its new anchor, Katie Couric. Like Cooper, Couric is being sold as a star, a person to whom the audience can relate rather than as an authority figure and someone to whom the news is subordinate. Peter Jennings had his romantic peccadilloes, but they seldom made the tabloids. Couric's romances are reported as avidly as any movie star's, which is certainly different from anything you would have read about Dan Rather or Bob Scheiffer, her CBS predecessors. And her approach is different too -- Anderson-like. She recently said, "My job isn't telling people what happened. It's getting them to understand why they should care." She's an emoter.

The only seeming problem with the Method approach to news is that no one much is watching "Anderson Cooper 360." He regularly gets trounced by Greta Van Susteren on the Fox News Channel both in total ratings and in the much-desired 25-54 demographic, and until the blitzkrieg P.R. campaign in June, his ratings were well off those of his predecessor, Aaron Brown, the personification of the middle-aged, saturnine anti-Cooper anchor who provided reassurance and comfort rather than heat -- 36 percent off in the young demo that Cooper seemed to target like a missile. As one cable news executive told the New York Observer, "I just don't get it. I watch the show and there's nothing there for me." Still, citing the "60 Minutes" gig, the executive said, "It keeps rolling along, this media-sensation thing."

The dearth of ratings certainly isn't lost on CNN, but it may not matter much either, because the promotion of Anderson Cooper, the "media-sensation thing," may not be about ratings, and neither is cable news generally now, which is another paradigm shift. When measured against the larger universe, cable news draws minuscule numbers; two weeks ago, on the day of the announcement of the foiling of the British terrorist plot, roughly 1.5 million people watched "Anderson Cooper 360," while roughly 2.5 million watched "The O'Reilly Factor," typically the highest-rated program on cable news. Last week, Cooper had 1.37 million total viewers during his first hour and 859,000 in his second, losing the first to Van Susteren and the second to an O'Reilly repeat. Those numbers are up over the nearly 700,000 Aaron Brown averaged during his last week -- but, then, Brown never got anything close to Cooper's publicity push. And lest one be surprised by how few people are watching cable news, the numbers on Chris Matthews' "Hardball" are worse. The show is lucky to break 200,000 in the demo, and 500,000 among the general audience at each of its two airings. In short, cable news is a very small niche even when big news is breaking.

But in the same way that companies now exist to drive up stock value rather than stock value's existing to drive up companies, it is entirely possible that CNN sees Cooper's stardom as its own reward -- a way to brand the network as hot even if no one is watching and to try to get advertisers aboard on the assumption that CNN as the "home of Anderson Cooper" is an easier sell than CNN as the "most trusted name in news." No one watches "Hardball" either, and yet Matthews, albeit a pundit rather than an anchor, is a big, ubiquitous commodity in the media -- the smiling face of MSNBC. Though, according to a Gallup Poll released last week, 40 percent of Americans had never even heard of Anderson Cooper, thanks to the media campaign he now has an aura, if not exactly a recognizability, that he can bequeath to CNN. And because cable executives (and advertisers) live not only in the world of ratings but also in the world of buzz, this is important. Of course CNN is hoping that people will eventually watch Cooper now that he has been anointed a star, but the fact that he has been anointed a star, even if they did it themselves, makes the CNN executives seem hot too and puts the network on the cutting edge of trendiness. In all this, Cooper's rumored homosexuality doesn't hurt; it gives him East Coast/West Coast media cachet as the hot young vaguely mysterious guy, just as it gives him more license to emote.

But if viewers don't matter much to cable news and if the pretense of media stardom is the new strategy to create heat, one might very well ask: Who needs the news at all when you've got the cover of Vanity Fair? The answer may turn out to be, "No one," which would be the biggest paradigm shift of all.

By Neal Gabler

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