1:05 p.m., April 16, 2009----News anchor Anderson Cooper, host of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 and contributor to CBS's 60 Minutes, came to the University of Delaware's Bob Carpenter Center on Wednesday, April 15, to talk about his experiences as a television reporter.
Cooper's appearance before an enthusiastic audience of about 1,700 marked the premiere of a new series called UD Speaks, dedicated to bringing world-class leaders and thinkers to the University of Delaware.
Cooper told the audience that after being unable to secure an entry-level job at ABC after graduating college, he decided to heed the advice of his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, to “follow your bliss.”
He said at the time he was interested in becoming a war correspondent, so he came up with a plan to create his own opportunities; to take a chance and go to war zones and witness what was happening.
During a trip to Somalia, where he experienced famine and civil war, while witnessing starvation and children dying up close for the first time, Cooper said he realized that he knew what he wanted to do for a career.
“In Somalia, I kind of knew that I had found my calling,” he said. “I knew that I couldn't stop the starvation, I couldn't stop the war, I couldn't save people's lives, but I could bear witness to their struggles. I could give testimony to their lives.”
“I may have gone to Yale but I was educated, I think, in Somalia and Sarajevo and South Africa and Rwanda and all the places that I traveled my first three years as a reporter; places where the boundaries aren't clear; where the dark parts of the human heart are open for all to see,” he said.
Cooper said in his first three years as a foreign correspondent, he saw more bodies than he could remember and more hate than he could recall, but he was surprised by what he saw in the truths that were revealed in the far reaches of the planet.
Life in the war zone
“Reporting in a war zone, your whole body, all your senses, are locked and loaded. There's really nothing like the feeling. The air, at times it seems to hum. It's like the molecules, the neutrons, the protons, are colliding about. It's like they're actually moving through you. You're literally on the edge of life,” he said. “And regular life starts to seem dull by comparison.”
Cooper said he is scared a good deal of the time while working in war zones, but added it is important to get to a place where he can still operate while being scared, and not allow fear to dictate the choices he makes.
“It's very easy in this day and age to kind of look the other way. It's very tempting to ignore the sadness of other people's lives,” he said. “But I think it's important that we not turn away, that we look directly into the things that scare us most.”
“You'd be a fool in a war zone not to be scared. It's very easy to get killed,” he said. “Anyone who claims to have conquered fear, I think, is a fool or a liar or probably both. You talk to soldiers who were in firefights and they'll tell you they were scared. There's nothing wrong with being scared; being scared is a smart bodily response. I think the important thing is to not allow fear to rule the choices that you make or stop you from doing things.”
When covering Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Mississippi, Cooper said he observed that great progress and remarkable changes can happen when people do not turn away from the plight of others.
“We all know that governments failed in the wake of Katrina, but individuals didn't, and that's what gives me hope because I see that every day in places all around the world. Individuals make a difference. It's the difference between life and death, the difference between success and failure, the difference between hope and heartache. Individuals standing up, not waiting to be told what to do by governments, but taking responsibility themselves,” he said.
“In the hustle and bustle of our busy lives, it's very easy to lose sight of the lives that many of our fellow human beings are forced to live,” he added. “It seems to me that too often we are encouraged by our culture and our media to focus on things, on the frivolous, to pay attention to the things that separate us rather than the things that draw us to one another.”
Cooper said that, more and more, the media prompts people to see things through a limited lens, but he believes people should not close themselves off to the viewpoints of others.
“It's funny that on reality TV shows, we see people swapping their wives on a weekly basis, but a genuine swapping of ideas and viewpoints isn't something we're encouraged to engage in by our media,” he said. “Seems to me, these days, people expect their news to have a slant and I think that's probably the fault of the media, but I don't think it's something that any of us should accept.”
Cooper also explained what he thinks about the roles of the news anchor and the news viewer.
“As a newscaster, I believe in facts, not opinion, and I know it's popular in cable news for anchors to wear their opinion on their sleeve and to shout it at the top of their lungs. I think there is far too much shouting on TV already. I think viewers want facts and information. Armed with that, I think you're all smart enough to make up your own minds,” he said. “I think the last thing you need is an overpaid, over-blow-dried anchor telling you what to think.”
Cooper said that with newspapers dying and partisan bloggers becoming more ubiquitous, and people having more access to information, it is more important than ever before to know where information is coming from.
“To know the forces that are shaping and delivering it, it's really the only way to know what's true and what's not,” he said. “In this instant age of information, it's more important to know if your information has been verified, checked and double checked, has it actually been reported.”
In the end, Cooper said the most important thing he has learned through his experiences around the world is that nothing is meant to last forever and that our frailty, our minds and our hearts are what makes us human and draws us together.
“The one thing I've learned is that the line that separates the living from the dead, the rich from the poor, the healthy from the sick -- the line is thread thin, as thin as the walls of the human heart. We want to believe it's not,” he said.
“All of us want to believe the tragedies that befall others will not touch down in our lives. There are no such guarantees. All of us dangle from a very delicate thread. All it takes is the blink of an eye, the squeeze of a trigger, a sudden gust of wind. Wake up and your life is perched on a precipice; fall asleep, it swallows you whole.”
Article by Jon Bleiweis
Photo and slide show by Kevin Quinlan