Vanderbilt agrees that her son is especially sensitive and emotional and that he was shaped in some way by losing both of the other men in his family. “These are the two events that affected him at gut level. Later, when he became a reporter, it enabled him to do this with compassion and maturity way beyond his years. I’ve always thought that TV is like an X-ray. And when you see Anderson on TV, what you see is what you get. He really is like that.”
The first thing you notice upon entering Cooper’s newsroom on the seventh floor over the new Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle is a vast wall of glass that offers a breathtaking view over the tops of the trees in Central Park. Even if Cooper has to share the space with Paula Zahn, it’s quite a tasty piece of real estate dedicated to putting him on the air every night. The second thing you notice is Cooper himself. Though he has a roomy corner office, he prefers to hang out at a desk on the fringe of the newsroom so he doesn’t miss anything.
He takes me into his office, which is filled with souvenirs and keepsakes from his travels—a MANDELA FOR PRESIDENT poster; a piece of a car that got blown up in Sarajevo; a photograph of Cooper slumped on the pavement, waiting for Hurricane Dennis to make landfall—but only one personal memento: a framed family portrait taken in 1972. Carter, Anderson, and their mother and father are all casually dressed in white and navy and happily draped across one another on a gingham-covered couch.
His brother’s suicide was the precipitating event for his career as a journalist, Cooper tells me. Not long after graduating from Yale, he went out on his own—armed with just a home video camera and a fake press pass—to places like Burma and Somalia, and then edited his video journals into reports, which he sold to Channel One, the closed-circuit classroom news network. He wrote about one of these early trips in Details: “I’d come to be a reporter. At least that was the excuse. The only thing I really knew is that I was hurting and needed to go someplace where the pain outside matched the pain I was feeling inside. Somalia seemed a good place to start.” Over the next couple of years, Cooper traveled to Thailand, Vietnam, Rwanda, Bosnia—basically anywhere there was conflict or suffering in the early nineties. “Loss,” he tells me, “is a theme that I think a lot about, and it’s something in my work that I dwell on. I think when you experience any kind of loss, especially the kind I did, you have questions about survival: Why do some people thrive in situations that others can’t tolerate? Would I be able to survive and get on in the world on my own?”
His work for Channel One led to a job as one of the youngest correspondents ever at ABC. But the network didn’t quite know what to do with this young guy whose reports were often six minutes long and shot on camcorders. He eventually wound up in the purgatory that is World News Now, the overnight newscast that, Cooper says, “no one within ABC actually watched.” Cooper thought his career as a newsman was going nowhere, so when ABC offered him the job to host the reality show The Mole, he jumped at the chance. His justification: “Frankly, I didn’t see much of a difference between the stuff that I was seeing on news shows and reality TV.” But it seemed doubtful at the time that he could ever go back to serious news.
He managed to, though, landing a gig in early 2002 co-hosting CNN’s morning show with Paula Zahn. More than a few people at CNN thought it was unseemly that the host of The Mole was given such a prominent slot. “I don’t think they liked me very much,” he says, “and I don’t think I was very good.” He realized he was in trouble when he got sent to Afghanistan—without a dedicated camera crew. “I got to Kabul and I was like, ‘Hey, wait a minute. This is how you get pushed out. You get sent far away without any backup.’ ”
Finally, he caught a break. When he returned from Afghanistan in May, Cooper was asked to fill in for Aaron Brown on NewsNight, and something clicked. “I loved working that show,” he says. “It was a better format for me. The week I was there, they let me play with stuff and morph things around, and the audience responded because I was just being real, being myself, because I had nothing to lose.” Anderson Cooper 360° followed in September 2003.