PSU hosts Q&A with Anderson Cooper

Many prominent figures have graced the stage of the annual Simon Benson Awards over the years, and 2013 was no different. This year, unlike others, Portland State students and faculty were given the opportunity to pick the keynote speaker’s brain firsthand, during a private Q&A held before the awards dinner in the Native American Student Community Center.

This year’s keynote speaker was CNN news anchor and journalist Anderson Cooper, who engaged in a panel discussion with over 80 attendees of the Q&A. Audience members were able to ask him a variety of questions about his career and personal life, including how he made a name for himself in the world of journalism.

“From the time I was very little, I wanted to be independent and forge my own path and not be somebody’s son,” Cooper said. “I’m blessed in that I was able to figure out relatively early on something that got my heart beating, and it got my pulse quickening. And I found that I loved telling stories.”

Along with his passion for journalism, Cooper also exhibited determination, which landed him his first official job as an anchor.

“I’m not polished; I don’t really deserve to be on the air,” he said. “I just kept working harder than anyone else around me. Finally they were like ‘Why are we paying these other people so much money when we can pay this kid less?’”

During the discussion, Cooper touched on how he avoids getting emotionally involved in stories that he’s reporting on.

“I don’t really believe in having distance,” Cooper said. “The fact that you have feeling shows you’re a human being and a good person.”

Cooper added that he believes people who don’t express empathy while working on tough stories overseas have no business reporting at all.

“Those are the people who…can’t really walk in somebody else’s shoes, and they can’t feel it,” Cooper said. “I think to be a good correspondent you want to be moved by something.”

However, though he stated it’s important to be empathetic to what others are going through, he understands that journalists have a job to perform. He used an example of when he was in Niger documenting the malnutrition crisis, where children were dying all day long.

“With one side of your brain, your job is to document the death, and to document and bear witness to what’s happening,” Cooper said. “So [with] one side of your brain, you’re thinking ‘Okay, I need to find some characters for my story.’ You’re thinking in this kind of strange, parasitic way almost…then with one side of your brain you’re essentially waiting for somebody to die so you can document it, and make it part of your story, and that’s a really sick thing in a lot of ways.”

Cooper expressed that he’s had several moments while reporting where he has had to step back and leave potential sources alone.

“There’s been plenty of times when I thought, ‘You know, this is inappropriate for me to be here. I’m going to stop taking these pictures. I’m going to stop video taping. I’m not going to ask any questions. It’s inappropriate for me to intrude in this moment.'”

Cooper says that his own personal experiences help him empathize with those who have experienced tragedies.

“I had a brother commit suicide right before my senior year of college—it was a very public event in New York,” Cooper said. “He killed himself in front of my mom and so, for a week, reporters were camped outside our house.”

Cooper said that reporters followed him and his mother to the funeral home to see his brother’s body, and that he thought of the reporters as “vultures.”

“That experience has informed the way I carry myself in a lot of these situations, because I know what it’s like to be on the other side of that camera, and it’s sometimes not a very pleasant place to be.”

Cooper also attributes his empathy to his largely publicized coming out.

“[Coming out has] made me much more empathetic of…where people are coming from and [the] experiences that people have,” he said.

Cooper said it’s made him more compassionate and able to see people whose voices aren’t always heard on television, and to see people who are not always represented.

“I’m very happy that I was born gay, because not only has it allowed me to love the people that I love, but it has allowed me to see society from a different vantage point, and I think that’s very valuable as a reporter.”

Cooper added that coming out hasn’t really impacted his reporting, as he thought it might. But he has had to become more concerned with his safety overseas since.

“Because I was overseas and by myself, travelling in extremely dangerous areas, especially in places where people are killed or outlawed…I was concerned for my physical safety and also the safety of people I was travelling with,” Cooper said. “And that continues to be an issue.”

Cooper says regardless of these concerns, he’s happy he finally decided to make a public statement.

“I don’t want people to think there’s something I’m not comfortable with, and I don’t want to give the impression to anybody that it’s something I’m ashamed of or not proud of,” he said. “I think that things will change.”

One question asked by an audience member was how Cooper thought journalism has changed over the years, and if there’s an ethical code that he believes journalists today should live by.

Cooper expressed that he feels strongly about journalistic ethics and the act of being truthful and unbiased.

“I don’t want to only ask tough questions to a conservative person,” Cooper said. “I want to be equally hard on anybody. And equally fair to anybody.”

Related to the topic, Cooper said that people now have access to infinite amounts of information. He jokingly mentioned that when he was in school, he “actually had to go the library.”

He added that with all the information available, it can be difficult to differentiate fact-based news from opinion-based news, which he says social media has played a big part in.

“I think a lot of people…equalize what they get online in blogs and what they get from the New York Times or from the Wall Street Journal,” Cooper said. “People start assuming that it’s all sort of…the same.”

Cooper added that while he thinks blogs are important and that he does read them himself, it’s important to know the difference between opinion and fact.

“Consumers of the news need to be very well aware of where their information is coming from.”

In terms of what he believes people should be watching for news, Cooper didn’t have a direct answer.

“I don’t tell people what to watch. It’s like telling people to eat their broccoli.”