CNN anchor Anderson Cooper shares stories of life in journalism during talk at Smith College
NORTHAMPTON — Swimming with crocodiles in the Nile, interviewing the late Walter Cronkite and being sung to by Dr. Conrad Murray were among the many topics discussed during a lecture given Sunday night by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper to a packed house at Smith College’s John M. Greene Hall.
The talk, titled “Anderson Cooper: A 360 Degree Look at World Events,” was planned by the Smith College Student Event Committee as the first installment of an annual lecture series, which will replace the group’s annual concert series. The lecture took the form of an onstage interview, which was conducted by Smith College dean Jane Stangle and featured questions fielded from students around the campus.
During the talk, Cooper discussed his experiences traveling around the world as a professional journalist and the tragedies he has come face to face with along the way. A graduate of Yale University, he is the host of CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” newscast and the author of a New York Times best-selling memoir, “Dispatches from the Edge.”
Cooper said he got his start in journalism after he was turned down for a number of entry-level jobs at various news agencies after graduating from college, and decided instead to begin traveling to and covering war zones.
“Basically what happened was, when I graduated college I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I had watched a lot of TV news growing up. That was one thing I knew I was interested in, and I was interested in wars,” Cooper said. “I thought, ‘Well I’m interested in wars, and I want to be a foreign correspondent, so I’m just going to start doing that.”
During this period, he said, he borrowed a camera and sneaked into Burma, where he came into contact with a group of students fighting the Burmese government. Then he moved to Vietnam to cover the famine and civil war there.
“I basically spent three years going to wars. Amazingly, after three years, ABC heard about some of the stuff I was doing and asked for a tape, then hired me as a correspondent,” Cooper said.
Cooper also discussed his views on journalistic objectivity and how reporters should handle their own emotional reactions to the stories they cover, drawing on his own experiences during his coverage of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
“I think it’s OK for a reporter to be a human being and to express yourself as a human being,” Cooper said. “I don’t think that there is a conflict in allowing yourself to be a human — I think it makes you a better reporter in a lot of situations.”
He spoke of a situation in a Somali hospital where he witnessed the death of a child, and how events like that affect him as a reporter.
“Your job is to document that, to take some video of it, and that’s a horrible, horrible way to think. Part of your mind is thinking in that very cold, rational way and the other part is that of a human being, thinking ‘this is horrific, I can’t believe I’m witnessing this and standing by this bedside.’ It’s a very uncomfortable situation. It takes its toll,” he said.
Cooper also reflected on his family background and growing up as the son of famed fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt.
“I didn’t think I was any different,” he said. “In retrospect, I realize how unusual it was, obviously, but at the time it sort of seemed normal.”
Additionally, he discussed the effects of some of the family tragedies that he experienced early in life — such as the death of his father when he was 10 years old and his brother’s suicide while he was in college — had on his future career.
“I know how it is to have a camera pointed on you in your time of grief,” he said, “and that’s something that influences and informs how I operate. When I was in Newtown, I would never knock on a grieving family’s door.”
He said that those experiences drove him to go to wars and propelled him into what he does now.
“Anyone who experiences loss at a young age, it does change who you are,” Cooper said. “If you learn the language of loss early on, it shapes who you become and it made me much more empathetic, more understanding of and interested in loss.”
Toward the end of the talk, Cooper addressed the topic of his decision to go public about his homosexuality.
“Over time, I became aware that there were people that felt that I wasn’t being open enough, and that by not saying something publicly that I was sending a message, which was that there was something I was ashamed about, or that I was uncomfortable about, which was not true,” he said.
“I could not be happier being gay, I’m incredibly proud to be gay and I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s the greatest blessing in my life,” he said.
At the end of the talk, Cooper took questions from the audience, answering a number of inquiries about the role of print news in the 21st century, women in the media, how to make progress on the issue of acceptance of homosexuality, and how he processes some of the tragic events he witnesses.
“You should be moved by the things you see. They should keep you up at night and move you,” he said of those events. “Even in the midst of horrors, there is light. You expect to see darkness, but there’s light as well. It’s important to bear witness to the acts of compassion as well.”