On a network that now features the antics of anchor Don Lemon -- whose latest stunt involved holding up a sign with the word “nigger” written on it to spark a discussion about race -- Anderson Cooper, who has anchored his eponymous show “Anderson Cooper 360°” since 2008, seems cast from a different mold.
“I’m pretty old-school; I’m not a very emotional person,” Cooper told The Huffington Post. “I generally try to stay out of the way of what’s happening and be like a fly on the wall. That’s what I’ve always liked most about reporting.”
It’s this “old-school” ideal of the reporter as an impartial, level-headed transmitter of information that made Cooper’s impassioned coverage of Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago so remarkable. When he broke journalistic decorum by cutting off then-Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu’s tribute to her fellow politicians’ handling of the disaster, it signaled something out of the ordinary -- the magnitude of what had happened was simply beyond the scale of politicians’ usual cant. And Cooper came off as genuine.
“There are times when it’s impossible; you’re a human being as well, and to see some of the things that many of us saw, you can’t help but react to it,” said Cooper, who remained in the Gulf Coast region a month after the hurricane struck.
“If a story doesn’t affect you -- if your eyes aren’t open and your mind isn’t open to what you’re seeing -- then you kind of have no business being there, because you can’t do justice to the people you’re reporting on.”
Cooper’s emotional coverage of the devastation wrought by the storm quickly came to be viewed as a defining moment in his career. New York magazine's Jonathan Van Meter heralded it as a "breakthrough for the future of television news," while The New York Observer dubbed Cooper the "emo-anchor."
Yet the CNN anchor resists such characterizations.
“This is something I’ve been doing for 20, 25 years,” he said. “Maybe more people heard of me after Katrina, but I would never want anyone to think I approached a story like Hurricane Katrina in that way.”
Cooper, who has returned to the Gulf Coast dozens of times since the hurricane struck, said he has kept in touch with and become friends with some of the police officers and other disaster-relief personnel he met when first covering the storm; some he hears from every few years, others he communicates with regularly via text.
For the disaster’s 10th anniversary, he filmed a documentary special for CNN titled “Katrina: The Storm That Never Stopped,” and anchored his program from New Orleans. In a telling manifestation of the current media environment, CNN bumped his special to cover a Donald Trump press conference.
“I find it incredible to think that that much time has gone by,” Cooper said of his return to New Orleans. “It doesn't’ feel like that much time.”
The city has come back in some ways; in other ways, it hasn't. Having returned so frequently, “it’s hard to see radical changes,” Cooper said. “You see small changes here and there that add up.” The city now boasts more restaurants than it had before the storm, but it is a different city altogether: It’s smaller -- by 120,000 people -- and whiter. Much of the Lower Ninth Ward, Cooper noted, has not returned.
“A lot of the people I interviewed 10 years ago ... their lives are still very much impacted by the storm,” he said. “In many cases, their lives have been forever changed.”
People’s natural inclination is to forget, Cooper said. “That’s the way of the world -- it continues to spin forward.” With his CNN special, Cooper said he hoped to remind people of the “human cost” of the storm and retell the stories of some of the victims he encountered on his first trip.
He recalled, for instance, where 91-year-old Ethel Freeman’s dead body sat in a wheelchair outside the convention center for days, covered in little more than a poncho. Photos of Freeman’s corpse -- which her family watched over for four days, but had to abandon when they were ordered onto a bus -- became a searing symbol of the government’s shameful response to the tragedy.
Cooper has said repeatedly in interviews that he feels privileged to bear witness from such close range to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
“It validates everything I’ve always believed about reporting, about the importance of being in a place to really understand what’s going on,” Cooper said. “You can be told by politicians all day long about what’s happening on the ground. In Katrina, what they were saying was happening was not what was actually happening.”