Anderson Cooper: The Full Interview

Outside editor Chris Keyes sits down with TV's most adventurous anchor.

Anderson Cooper     Photo: Jeff Hutchens/Reportage by Getty Images for CNN

Why I Do It: Ivan Watson

Read what motivates the CNN reporter to travel to some of the world's most dangerous places. Coming Soon...

Christopher Keyes: You just got back from two weeks in Haiti after the earthquake. What's going through your head when you leave a place like that?
Anderson Cooper: It's really hard leaving. I stayed an additional week, and so did my team. You feel very privileged and frankly lucky and honored to be in a situation where you're working on a situation that is clearly important. It's life and death, its every real and it's happening all around you and around the clock. It feels like you're in the place you want to be and need to be and leaving the people you're been following or you've met… they can't leave, they're there and it's a strange thing to come back to you life and for me its been 2 and a half weeks of life changing momentous events, and you come back and you see your friends, and for them its been just another 2.5 weeks that have gone by and it's a strange adjustment that I've made before, but it's always uncomfortable. I've already started planning to go again in the next 2 or 3 weeks.

Your last Twitter posts were about seeing bodies being stacked up on access an road. I don't want to read into a 140-character tweet, but it sounded like a combo of exhaustion and exasperation. Is that fair?
Once they collected the bodies of people who died, we wanted to see what they were doing with them, so we tracked down what they were doing with the bodies, where their mass graves were dug. We went back to follow up on another story two weeks later, and I was stunned to find that some of the people were put into pits and buried over, but a lot of people were just dumped on the ground. I mean, literally dumped on the side of this road. I've seen a lot of really bad things and this was truly horrific. A bulldozer could have at least bulldozed these bodies into a pit and at least buried them. They went through the trouble of blocking the access roads so people couldn't see it, and it took a little work to be able to see it, and there's no reason for that.

I get the sense that, when covering these natural disasters, that at first there is no one to blame—it's not a human conflict or a war with two sides—but that over the course of the story, you begin to see things that you feel are being handled wrongly? How does that influence how you cover a story?
There's a learning curve for a lot governments and people on disasters like this and something like an earthquake is more unexpected than a hurricane is, and I think there's the shock and horror of it all, and when you see how things play out, it doesn't get better, and the local government is completely not meeting the needs of its people and frankly wasn't meeting the needs of it people before the earthquake so there's certainly a lot of things that anger people who are suffering through this, and those are the people we talk to all day long, and we let people know how people on the ground are feeling about it. It's not so much what I think about it, its more what I'm hearing form people. Why are people dying stupid deaths that don't need to occur; a child doesn't need to die from an infection from a broken leg.

Is part of your role there to broadcast that rage?
It's not so much that I'm broadcasting rage. I try not to take positions or allow the way I see something … I'm expressing people's frustration and giving voice to what you see. The reason I'm there is to bear witness to what's happening. There's really nothing sadder than a child dying and no one knowing that child's name and not knowing the suffering and pain of the loved ones left behind. And I think there's value in documenting that and giving voice to it and letting people around the world know that this person died and they didn't have to die, and this is the impact it's had on their family and this is the impact it'll have on the rest of their lives and tomorrow more people are going to die and tonight more people are going to die.

You have a studio that allows you to report regularly from the field. What defines a story that makes you want to jump on a plane and leave New York City immediately?
I personally tend to be drawn to stories that aren't paid much attention to, or stories that aren't on people's radar. The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one I've traveled to a lot both on my personal time and for CNN and 60 Minutes. There are six million people who have died in the Congo in the past 10 years. It's the deadliest conflict since WWII but very few people know much about it. When I was a kid I used to look at old maps with unexplored regions on them. I was always interested in central Africa and places that no longer exist or have changed names. But I was interested in sort of learning about the places on the map that were not really filled in. I find it interesting in this day and age that there are places that remain… not talked about. They don't make headlines. To me, six million people is extraordinary, it's horrific, and hundreds of thousands of women being gang raped, things which we become, people become immune to it, and we shouldn't become immune to it.

Why do people become immune to it?
There are some things which are so horrific that some people feel they can't do anything about it… that the natural, understandable response is to tune it out. If you feels there's not much you can do about it and it's truly horrific… a person being gang raped by a group of solders and then have a solder pulling the trigger and blowing them open, looking at that and dealing with the aftermath of that—these are things no one wants to have to think about. Yet, it happens to people, and I think it's important to bear witness to that, to shine a light on it, to learn who's doing that and what happens to survivors and show their strength and their courage.

We ran a piece recently by Nick Kristoff, about compassion psychology, and how he came to learn over time how to tell certain kinds of hopeful stories that had a better chance of motivating readers. Research has shown that people want a hopeful story, and that if you give them the bare facts of the tragedy, they are too liable to tune out. Does that influence the kind of stories you seek out when you go out to report? Beyond bearing witness, do you feel the need to tell a hopeful story?
I think it's sort of in the mix of stories you end up telling. I have the benefit of a two-hour program where we have the space to tell a variety of stories. Frankly I gravitate toward things which are – I believe in telling the reality of what's happening. And some nights there isn't much to be hopeful for. And it's hard to find that. I'm ok with that – you don't want to package things in a way that gives the wrong impression, ever, and I don't think nick does that at all. There are always hopeful things that you find. Even the first day after the quake, before the rescue crews got there, people rescued a little girl and that was a positive hopeful thing – she was dug out by her family, friends and neighbors. I do think it's an important thing to show that even in the midst of darkness there is light, and people do survive things that many of us think no one could possible survive. I think those stories should be told as well.

How do you deal with the psychological effects of what you're seeing through your reporting? Do you have to take time to deal with the emotions of it?
For me, it hasn't really been an issue, but I know plenty of people in this profession who do. It depends—if you're on a steady diet of doing this kind of story, war correspondents, they spend years covering it, that takes a toll. I think news organizations are opening up and learning how to deal with it. People need time or need to talk to somebody.There was a time when I first started when I made a fake press pass and borrowed a camera and headed into wars, and for three years, that was the only kind of story I was interested in doing. It definitely takes a toll. After a time, I decided, look, I need to tell a variety of kind of stories and do stuff here in the US and not just overseas and focus on having a good life, not just an interesting professional life. So I do think you have to be very conscious of its effects and try to take a break when you need to, or whatever it may be.

You've said you have a warped sense of danger. How much of that is innate, and how much is a tolerance built up by experience?
I have a pretty acute sense of danger, I've noticed that I'm far more acutely aware of my surroundings than my friends who have regular jobs. I'm very acutely aware of who's around and what the possibilities are. It changes the way you see your surroundings. I don't seek out dangerous situations, I'm pretty much a chicken, and I don't want to endanger any of my colleagues, producers, or anyone like that. I think we're pretty conservative in any risk we might take. Truly, I don't believe we've taken any risks. I'm pretty careful about how I organize stories.

What about when you were younger and it was just you and a camera?
There's ton of stuff I look back on…my first three years I think, I can't believe I did that. For instance, the idea of going to Somalia alone, not having a place to stay or security. It was the first major breaking story I did. I literally had a fake press pass. There was fighting between different clans in the city. I literally landed on the air strip there and had no place to stay, had no idea about the town, and it ended up a truck load of gunmen approached me, and I ended up hiring them as my gunmen, and we ended up going around and going to the burial grounds where all these bodies are being dumped, and there were all these empty pits, and I was thinking, they could just shoot me and put me in a pit and no one would ever know. I gave them all my money, but they could want my backpack. I had journalist friends coming the next day and we needed translation and security and a car, and it was just ridiculous, absurd stuff. I look back on that now and – the situation in Somalia is worse now bc you do have armed Islamic fundy groups – the level of kidnapping in the early 90s is nothing like what it is now.When the US got involved in Somali, There was a caravan of reporters drove by and asked me who I worked for, and I said I worked for this educational TV show, and the guy said, you're fucking risking your life for educational TV? It never really occurred to me, frankly. It was interesting and important and I wanted to see what was happening and I wanted to be a workhorse, so I figured I'd start covering wars.I got arrested in Iran in '93 or '94, and was held for three days, and once you're under arrest in a place with no embassy, you suddenly realize how alone you really are. I hadn't really done anything wrong, I just kind of made a mistake, but nevertheless, that was pretty eye opening.I flew into Sergievo during the first year of the war when the airport was still open, later I had to drive in, and finally, after a year, the company I'd been working for gave me a bulletproof vest. And it was like, the lowest level of protection you could buy in a bulletproof vest. It was for pistol fire only, and didn't do anything for rifle fire. I read the warning label as I was landing, and it said, “warning: this vest does not protest against sharp projectiles" and I remember thinking I was an idiot feeling pleased about this bulletproof vest and I realized it was completely useless. I didn't have an armored vehicle.

Do you think you we are naïve?
I don't think I was naïve, I just didn't allow fear to stop me from going to a place. I don't believe you should be ruled by fear in anything in your life. I don't like anything that scares me, and I prefer to face it dead on and get over it. Whether it's public speaking… I wasn't fond of it a couple of years ago and I just forced myself to do it and now I'm fine with it. Anyone who says they're not scared is a fool, or a liar, or both. I don't want that fear in my stomach to be part of my life, so I work to eliminate it.

With some of the athletes we talk to, it's almost as if they seek out fear because of that feeling of empowerment they achieve after getting through it.
I think it's a little different. For example, I would not bungee jump. I have no interest in jumping out of an airplane, or any of the things people do for thrills to push their limits and all that. To me, that seems foolish, and there's no point. If people are suffering in a place, the question isn't, why should you go? It's, why wouldn't I go? Why shouldn't I be there? I assume that everyone would want to be in Haiti if they could, to be doing whatever they could, and I don't have any skill other than putting stuff together for television. That's what I bring to the table, and I'm not saying there's much skill in that. I'm aware it's a potentially dangerous situation, but it's not part of the appeal, and it's certainly not something I would do unless there was a reason behind it.

But you must have friends who view what you do as crazy.
Yeah, but, anyone who knows me and sees the work I'm trying to do, they get it. My mom gets it, my friends get it. Part of them may not want me to go

Does that frustrate you?
It doesn't frustrate me. Everyone has things they like and don't like. To me, its not a question of whether I'm going to go or not, it's a question of how fast can I get there, how quick can we make it happen, can we broadcast from there, can we get a satellite, can we actually do the kind of stuff we want to do? Some friends get surprised, but anyone who knows me knows... I feel very lucky to be in the situation I'm in now. For a long time I worked without a vehicle and now I work with this organization that wants to go wherever I'm interested in going and can help make it happen. There's nothing better than being in a place and actually having the resources and capabilities to get in and start doing what you're supposed to be doing.

I'm curious about the logistics. Describe what you were doing when you first got word of the quake and Haiti?
I was in the office. I get in around noon and spend the day prepping for stuff and doing research and writing, and the quake happened, and right away we knew this had potential, so we started looking into flights. I'd been to Haiti once, so I knew there was a jet blue flight that would leave really late to the Dominican Republic, but I knew if it was really bad they'd shut the airport, so I instantly booked the 1 am flight out of New York to Santa Domingo so I left my show an hour early, someone filled in, and we got on the flight with minutes to spare. We got in at 5 AM, drove an hour to a small airport, and tried to find some way to get in. If you have to drive from DR to Port au Prince, it's like a 7 hour drive. I thought there would be a lot of flights and relief work there already, but literally it was my team and another from CNN and one team from the Int'l Red Cross.We were the second chopper into PaP. I was the first reporter, I think. I'm not sure. I basically communicated with a government official who was taking off in some company helicopter to go assess the needs in PaP to see what the DR could do, and they had an extra seat, and he invited me in, and we touched down. And my team was able to get flown in too. But we were prepared to drive, we didn't want to get in the way of any relief efforts, but we thought there would be lots of equipment and maybe they'll take all the flights, but an empty plane agreed to take my team over.We got in at 10 am on Wednesday. We got loaned a truck for awhile from a construction co. we drove out of the airport and we had satellite phone. I was sick for the first 24 hours, I was projectile vomiting for awhile. Anywhere you went it was just unbelievable. We found this girl who was stuck and we stayed there for a half hour while they rescued her and we told her story and we needed to find a place that was safe for everybody. We needed a secure environment where we had access to electricity or where we could use our own generators. We found a motel and worked with the people who ran it.

With tragedies on the scale of Katrina or the tsunami or Haiti, where do you start?
You just turn the camera on and open your eyes. You cover where you point the camera. It is literally all around you. No matter what direction you move in, you turn on the camera and keep the camera rolling. It's all happening in real time and goes on for days like that. You're editing and packaging, and you try to get a little sleep if you can, but the next morning you go out and think, ok I'm going to look for a rescue, or I'm going to go to a cemetery, but invariably, you never get there bc so much happens that just comes across your path, you see someone carrying the corpse of their child and they want to talk to you and you end up following them/

Do you sleep?
The first couple of days, you really don't. you try to get a little here and there. But because of CNN international, which bc of time zones, you're constantly going. On a story like this, there are days where we shot three of four stories in a day, and sometimes it's a question of, can we edit all those stories on the laptop and air time? You shoot all day with daylight, spend nighttime editing and writing, and for a couple days, you don't sleep much. But frankly, you don't even think about that stuff because it's so overwhelming.

There has been criticism of your team because of the way some of you helped people out during your reporting. At one point you helped pull a boy out of a looting mob after he'd been hit in the head. The critics say that a journalist's role is to not get involved in a story. What's your reaction to that?
I don't think that you can be… I think technology allows us to be in places now that other people have not been able to go in generations past. To be places before relief workers are, before large scale involvement has arrived. That presents some very unique challenges. You suddenly find yourself in a situation where, in the case of say, a doctor, what do you do? There are some journalism purists who say that you do nothing, that you just go watch and to report and serve, and I certainly understand that and I have done that most of my career. I do think occasionally that the sit presents itself where you can do something very easily that can make a huge difference in someone's life, and I don't have a problem with that. There's rarely a case where I intervene, but in the case of a little boy who got hit in the head with a cement block, no one was helping him, he couldn't get up, he'd try to get up and collapse, blood was pouring from his head… it was a split second decision to take him out of a situation where cement blocks are being thrown around where he'd get hit again and killed. To me it didn't seem like… I think anyone would have done the same thing if they had the opportunity. There was one sit where someone had been rescued from the rubble and no vehicle to get her to the hospital. They used Chris's vehicle (CNN team) to transport her. Do you say, I'm a purist and I'm not going to let them use my vehicle? To me, the answer is you do whatever you do based on what you feel your gut feeling tells you is appropriate. I think there is a line and I think it's important not to cross that line, but I've been in these situations now for 20 years, and it's a case by case basis, but when you get in the field, you know what's appropriate and know what's not. C: looking back, any situations where you wish you'd acted?

What's your sense of how this story is going to play out in the news cycle? What's your role in keeping it on people's minds?
It's already dropped off. People are bored with it, it seems. I was surprised, quite frankly, how it captured people's attention. It's one of the difficult things when you're reporting, in terms of, you can feel the story start to slip away from you. You can feel viewers starting to move on to other things. That's a hard thing. Everyone there is aware of the need for international attention. I'll be going back repeatedly. I'm not worried about CNN's commitment to it. I went back to the Gulf Coast after Katrina 20 or so times. I worry about how much people will continue to pay attention to it.

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