Could Anderson Cooper be the new Oprah?

The CNN anchor may seem an unlikely fit for the "fluffy" daytime hours, but he's the perfect man for the job

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published October 1, 2010 7:02PM (UTC)
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Anderson Cooper isn't one for hugs and tears and drawling out his vowels for dramaaaaaatic effect. In fact, the dapper blueblood would appear about as far removed from an African-American lady from Mississippi who grew up wearing potato sacks as you can get. So as the doyenne of daytime, Oprah Winfrey, embarks on the long goodbye that is her talk show's final season, who'd have thought Mr. 360 would emerge as her leading heir apparent?

On Thursday, Time Warner announced that Cooper is set to launch a new daytime talk show that will begin airing in local markets in the fall of 2011 -- just in the nick of time to fill the O-sized hole in our hearts when Winfrey closes shop on Sept. 9.  The Cooper vehicle will feature such traditional daytime staples as celebrity interviews with a twist of harder investigative reporting. Cooper will also, meanwhile, keep his night job at CNN.

The move to daytime would, at first sight, appear as peculiar as Piers Morgan filling Larry King's shoes. Cooper is, after all, a Peabody and Emmy award-winning newsman know for his vivid, on the scene reports from some of the most ravaged corners of the globe. His "360" is one of the most comprehensive and well-respected programs on the sinking ship that is CNN.  Why would a serious journalist like him even want to move to daytime, that bastion of ultimate chili recipes and celebrity chitchat?  Why would a guy like that want to go slumming?

It's because Cooper is a smart cookie -- if you think that anything that airs before the nightly news is all soap operas and fluff, you haven't been paying attention. In the last several years -- and in their own unique and opinion-driven ways -- shows like "Oprah" and "The View" have become indispensable in bringing depth, disagreement and humanity to the national conversation on topics that otherwise only get a skimming of attention on the evening headlines. In among those top secrets for dressing slimmer, there's plenty of impassioned disgust for the homophobia that led to the death of a gay teen  and fury over the state of public schools. Daytime viewers care just as much about the state of the world as "Nightline" watchers do, they just bring a different sensibility to the way in which the issues are covered.

It was Cooper who, in the wake of the horrors of Katrina, provided a much-needed emotional response -- freely expressing his grief and horror, and calling BS on Mary Landrieu's wishy-washy enthusiasm for the Bush administration's handling of the situation, by telling her, "Excuse me, Senator, but for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets of Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other … I've got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset and very angry." It was Cooper who, after the Haitian earthquake, carried a bleeding child to safety through a pack of looters.  And it's Cooper who, again and again, brings an utterly fearless morality to the pressing topics of the day.

As high-profile, unmarried television personalities, both Cooper and Oprah share a persistent amount of speculation about their sexuality. But while the public isn't entitled to know everything about why Winfrey never tied the knot with Steadman or why Cooper is so tight-lipped about his dating habits, it's relevant that part of the appeal of both is how unromantic their personas are. It's not about being gay or straight, it's about how successfully they both project the image of individuals whose primary relationship in life is with their audiences, and whose chief passions are the causes they champion. While Cooper is unlikely to provoke his audience into swag-induced fits of europhoria, why should women be the only television personalities who bring the human touch to news? When it comes to saying to hell with objectivity, Cooper has proven himself master of the form. We shouldn't have to wait till 6 p.m. to enjoy something like that.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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