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If Anderson Cooper Can’t Win After an Earthquake, When Can He Win?

Earlier this week, CNN came under scrutiny by media watchbirds for participating in the epic story that is the aftermath of last week’s devastating Haiti earthquake. After Anderson Cooper saved a child on-camera, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta put his medical skills to use operating on a girl whose life was in danger, critics like Poynter’s Bob Steele accused them of “muddling the journalistic reporting.” Mediaite wondered whether they had become, rather than reported, the story. But in truth, this is what Cooper and CNN do best. Their network leaders have made a conscious decision not to inject opinion into their shows to compete with cable news champion Fox News, or even MSNBC. But what they can do to add drama to otherwise staid news reporting is to give viewers actual drama, actual emotional and visceral responses from empathetic reporters.

While Gupta and Cooper used their unique talents (in Gupta’s case, his surgical skills; in Cooper’s, the bulging biceps he’s always careful to show when he’s on location in an emergency), at-home anchor Campbell Brown fought back tears while reading the news. This is television. It’s not taking one side against another: unless you count despair, death, and destruction as a “side.” It’s reporters acting as humans, and it makes for great viewing.

Cooper has made his reputation at CNN on his in-depth, sometimes difficult-to-watch reporting from disaster areas like Darfur and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Sure, he has other talents: He’s funny and quick on his feet, which makes him a good celebrity wrangler (the role he’ll be filling for tonight’s Haiti telethon), and a nimble co-host with Kelly Ripa on Live with Regis and Kelly. But in the ten to twelve o’clock hours, CNN has been selling him through his serious reporting. Billboards across the country feature his furrowed brow. Television ads feature him “keeping them honest,” whoever “they” may be.

So how has he done these past few weeks, during the aftermath of the Haiti quake? Great, by CNN’s standards. Cooper went from floating above half a million viewers each night to well over a million the subsequent few nights. He’s still performing at more than double where he was the week before, hovering over a million in his first hour. But at no point did he pull in more viewers than rival Fox News, which runs Greta Van Susteren’s program at ten. He didn’t even once beat the rerun of The O’Reilly Factor that airs at eleven. Usually pulling in about a third of the total audience of Susteren’s show, in the aftermath of the quake Cooper managed to nab two-thirds for a couple of days, and has sunk back down to near the usual percentage by the end of this week. (An aberration was Tuesday night’s Massachusetts special-election coverage, during which Fox absolutely killed, getting their biggest numbers since the 2008 presidential election.)

CNN president Jon Klein told the Los Angeles Times last fall that he doesn’t regard Fox News and MSNBC as competition. “They are in a completely different business than we are,” he said. “We are not putting out the same product as they are. And we shouldn’t be compared to them on that account.” But at the end of the day, all three cable news networks are aiming to present news in an engaging, lively fashion in order to attract viewers.

Disasters are CNN’s bread and butter, for Cooper more than anyone. But more and more, viewers turn to Fox News for coverage of ongoing, breaking news stories. The earthquake, Fort Hood, Balloon Boy … during all of the recent big stories that have audiences glued to 24-hour news channels, Fox has come out on top. If emotive, empathetic Cooper doesn’t retain even a small chunk of the 10 p.m. audience belonging to the stone-faced Greta Van Susteren after his stellar reportage from on the ground in Haiti, it’s got to send a message to CNN. Their star reporter Anderson Cooper, for all his skill and likability, just isn’t going to grow at the tail end of prime time.

If Anderson Cooper Can’t Win After an Earthquake, When Can He Win?