And people watched. During the first week of hurricane coverage, Anderson Cooper 360° saw a nearly 400 percent increase in viewers. There had already been plenty of speculation about what Cooper’s future might hold, and since Katrina it has gotten only more intense. “I think viewers are so tired of cookie-cutter anchors with perfect diction and haircuts that there’s a growing market for television journalists who seem like real human beings, and Anderson Cooper is in that mold,” says Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz. Walter Isaacson, who ran CNN when Cooper was hired, gets right to the point. “I don’t want to get in trouble and second-guess my friend Andrew Heyward, but if I were running one of the big networks I’d make him the next evening-news anchor.” Cooper’s boss, Jonathan Klein, is just hoping to hold on to his new star. “I think other news executives are drooling over him,” he says. “He brings a new dimension to the job, which is a concept of an anchor as a kind of missionary. It’s a new model for thinking about what the anchorperson ought to be.”
For the moment, Anderson Cooper is not thinking about his future. He’s too busy covering a story. By Labor Day weekend, he’d finally made it into New Orleans, where there were fresh horrors for him to report on. At that point, CNN had brought in several RVs to serve as both living quarters and work spaces for their crews and reporters. As Charlie Moore, one of Cooper’s producers, told me, “We’re sleeping about six or seven people in each one, switching from couch to floor to bed and keeping our fingers crossed that the water’s clean.”
One afternoon, Cooper calls me. He’s closed the door to the RV and is finally alone and able to talk without distraction for the first time in days. “I was just out in the Ninth Ward in a flat-bottomed boat,” he says. “I was out all morning, and there’s bodies floating around and there’s people trapped in their homes. I watched two people being pulled out by helicopter, and they just became drenched in this water which has human excrement and human remains in it and gas and oil and all sorts of stuff. Anyway. Blah, blah, blah.”
I tell him that I need to ask him some questions that have nothing to do with the situation he’s in right now and he says, “Yeah, that’s okay. I’ll try to remember my former life.” We talk about his mother and growing up a Vanderbilt. And then he says, “It’s always interesting to me that people focus on my mom, and I get why, but my dad was born into a dirt-poor family in Mississippi and never made a lot of money in his life. I feel the Cooper Mississippi roots have far more relevance in my life and far more relevance to my worldview.”
His grandmother, he tells me, ran a general store in Meridian. “When I was there last week, a CNN crew got stuck on a road with some downed trees, and some people came with chain saws. One thing led to another, and the crew told them they worked for CNN, and it turned out they were my cousins.”
It is hard not to think of Cooper’s time in the South as a homecoming of sorts. After spending so many years traveling to exotic places steeped in death and suffering as a way to deal with his personal losses, he’s now covering a story of unimaginable death—in his father’s birthplace.
“I think I’m a lot like my father,” he says. “I reread his book, Families, probably once a year. To me it’s sort of a letter from him to me and sort of a guide on . . .” He starts to cry, but this time he doesn’t hang up. “Sort of a guide on . . . uh . . . Hold on a second.” Long pause. “You know, on how, uh, you know, how he would have wanted me to live my life and the choices he would have wanted me to make. And so I feel very connected to him. I’ve been told that we look a lot alike and that we have a similar sense of humor and a love of storytelling.” He takes a breath. “He was a pretty bad speller, though. I’m a better speller.” Laughs. “But I feel very connected to him, being down here. Maybe that’s part of why this story for me has been so . . . has had such an impact on me.”
So when are you coming home? I ask. “I can’t imagine leaving. I’m going to have to at some point, I guess. But it just feels like there’s no place else I should be.”