He eventually found his way to a satellite truck that had arrived ahead of him in Gulfport, near Bay St. Louis, and that is when the scope of the disaster began to dawn on him. Two hours after arriving on the coast, he was on the air, and it was obvious from that first show that the lid on his pot was already beginning to rattle. He looked spooked. He sounded like he was on the verge of hyperventilating. He was given to rambling, at a loss for words. “I just don’t know how to describe it,” he said over and over.
After sleeping in the crew truck, the next day, as promised, he made his way to Bay St. Louis, where the destruction was so complete that he appeared even more distraught on the air that night. At one point during a live remote, he blasted Michael Brown from FEMA, his sense of outrage breaching journalistic decorum. Earlier that day, he had gone on a search-and-rescue mission in the nearby town of Waveland, holding his own camcorder and whispering intense commentary as the volunteers went from house to house. Ultimately, they realized that they weren’t going to have much success with the rescue effort—there were far too many dead bodies for one tiny town.
But it was on the fourth day of coverage, at the most dire and terrifying moment of the crisis, that Cooper came unhinged. He was interviewing Mary Landrieu, the senator from Louisiana, who had a big, sweet, southern smile spread across her perfectly made-up face. In a nonanswer to one of Cooper’s questions, she thanked President Bush for his “strong statements of support and comfort.” Finally, Cooper boiled over. “I got to tell you,” he said, “there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated. And when they hear politicians . . . thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now. Because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats, because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there’s not enough facilities to take her up. Do you get the anger that is out here?”
Landrieu looked stunned that a CNN reporter—that any reporter—would embarrass her in front of millions of viewers. Almost immediately, bloggers lit up the Internet with Go Anderson! cheerleading. “Was it possible for us to love Anderson Cooper more than we already did?” wrote Gawker. “Yes, it turns it out, it was possible. Our love grew at about 7:30 last night, in the middle of 360°, when Coop . . . finally, well, flipped out. Mad as hell, you say? Madder.” A few critics argued that he had gone too far, but mostly people were thrilled. What none of them noticed was that at the top of the very next segment, Cooper’s emotions finally got the best of him. He was talking, off camera, with a group of exhausted evacuees, one of them holding up a tattered American flag. The show came back on the air with the image of the flag and then panned over to an unprepared Cooper, his face twisted up with tears. For a second, it looked like he was not going to be able to carry on. But he pulled himself together, his voice tremulous through most of the interview that followed.
The next day, when I get him on the satellite phone, he sounds dispirited, his anger from the night before tamped down. He is distracted and a little impatient with my question: Did you go too far with Landrieu? “I didn’t really plan on that. I just, uh, I guess I was just surprised.” He takes a breath. “Yeah, I would prefer not to be emotional and I would prefer not to get upset, but it’s hard not to when you’re surrounded by brave people who are suffering and in need. I feel like the people here deserve to have some answers.”
Once the bodies are counted, the Katrina aftermath will probably turn out to be the worst natural disaster in American history. It’s also the first one we’ve had to endure without the three sonorous authority figures—Tom, Dan, and Peter—who explained unfathomable events on the nightly news for a quarter century. With the field wide open, the two anchors who have defined the coverage of the Gulf Coast nightmare are Anderson Cooper and NBC’s Brian Williams, who was the first of the network anchors to broadcast from the storm and who became the main news filter for most Americans. In many ways, Cooper and Williams defined a fork in the road for the future of broadcast journalism. Williams responded to the anguish of Americans with the reassuring, authoritative presence of past anchors (though even he had to fight back his emotions to steady himself). When it feels as if the world is unraveling, the appeal of such a father figure is obvious. Cooper did the opposite. He didn’t calm us down; he made us feel even more unsettled. He became a proxy, both for the victims of Katrina and for his viewers, building a bridge between the two. He reacted the way any of us might have—raging against government officials when help didn’t come fast enough, and weeping when it all got to be too much. But it wasn’t just his raw emotion that set him apart; there are plenty of hotheads on television, and tearing up became more and more common as the tragedy continued to unfold. It was his honest humanity; he comes off as genuine because he is. He connected to those in the hurricane’s path, and to the people watching at home. He removed the filter.