Of course there had to be a question about the tea-bagging remark.
"On April 15th, as many as 700,000 Americans gathered to protest government spending in what were called tea parties," a young man in the audience begins. "Now, you dismissed these voices with a crude sexual joke saying, and I quote...."
We don't really need to repeat the joke, now do we?
Anderson Cooper, the globetrotting anchor of CNN (or, as my daughter prefers to call the dapper journalist, "The Silver Fox") is fielding questions from some students at UCLA. Cooper uttered the infamous line in a conversation with David Gergen one night. And the journalist, who, in addition to his nightly anchoring duties, also reports from vacation spots like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq, has been getting flak ever since.
Is that kind of tasteless remark really the best way to promote discussion, the young man wants to know.
Cooper says he wasn't trying to belittle the tea-baggers or discourage them from protesting. And he's sorry if anyone got that impression. Or took offense at his "stupid, silly one-line aside." When you're on TV as much as he is, sometimes you say things you regret.
On the other hand.
"I do think, in this case, it's odd and mildly humorous that this one phrase happened to be adopted. And if a group is going to adopt a term that has an alternate meaning already established, it's not completely out of the norm that you would comment on the fact that there is an alternate meaning to the phrase."
Well! And with that the audience bursts into applause.
Cooper is at UCLA giving the 7th annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture, in honor of the Wall Street Journal reporter who was brutally slain in Pakistan in 2002. The Daniel Pearl Foundation, the Burkle Center, and Hillel, a student group devoted to Jewish culture, are sponsoring the event.
Cooper actually has a photo of the late journalist on his bulletin board at work. As he talks, that same iconic image of Pearl appears behind him on two screens. It's the one where he's wearing a dreamy beige suit, white shirt and gold tie. And smiling.
"I've been made a different person because of Daniel Pearl," Cooper tells the crowd, "because of his life and his strength, and his ability to love and laugh and to seek out understanding wherever it may be."
About 900 people are packed into the auditorium. Ruth and Judea Pearl, who invited Cooper to speak, are sitting in the front row. LA's media-happy mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is here too, introducing Cooper. (Not to nitpick, but why not a journalist? Especially considering that Villaraigosa thinks the show is called Anderson Cooper Three Hundred Sixty Degrees!)
Needless to say the 41-year-old Cooper is quite popular with the young people. (Last year's event with the smart but notably un-hip David Brooks didn't draw half as many.) At a reception before the lecture, when the small, slender journalist strolls in wearing a dark pinstriped suit, you'd think he was Jon Stewart. The students swarm him. Snapping their cell phone cameras. Begging to take their pictures with him. When he comes to the podium, they shower him with hoots and hollers. "You're gonna go there already?" Cooper quips.
He pokes fun at himself, too. When Cooper recently interviewed President Obama, it was his first time in the Oval Office. Which apparently the president likes to keep as humid as Miami. Within minutes the impeccably groomed anchor was "more drenched in sweat than Albert Brooks in Broadcast News."
Then there's his famous mom, Gloria Vanderbilt. Who is a "remarkable lady, and a very talented lady, but practical she is not," he says. When he asked her what he should do after graduating from college, she told Cooper "follow your bliss." A phrase that was actually coined by Joseph Campbell, and which his mother had heard on a Bill Moyers special.
"So basically my mom's big life advice was cribbed from some guy on television," Cooper jokes. "I'm thankful she wasn't watching, you know, Montel Williams."
But Cooper isn't all witty repartee. He despairs over how the decline of newspapers and the closing of foreign bureaus means that many stories aren't being told. For instance. Did you know that one of every five children in Niger dies of malnutrition before the age of 4? "It's not the kind of thing that make headlines anymore. But it's the kind of thing we ought not to accept."
Or that more than 5 million people have died in Congo in the last decade, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II? Or that in the last few months hundreds of thousands of Congalese have had to flee their homes? Or that tens of thousands of women have been violently raped? Including girls? "Virtually no one in the media or in Washington has paid much attention to this horror," says Cooper, who did a little-watched special on the rape story for CNN.
"It's very easy I think in this day and age to look the other way, very tempting to ignore the sadness of others, the reality of their lives. But I think it's very important that we not turn away."
Sure, it's not as exciting as watching the finals for American Idol. Or covering Lindsay Lohan. But, people, can we at least try?
Then there's the problem of covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Which has gotten a bit more challenging what with bombs exploding and journalists being targeted and needing big beefy guys with guns to guard them. It's hard to wander around Kabul or Baghdad and interview people unnoticed when you've got a security team in tow. Or to get out much at all.
To wit: "You can't eat in a restaurant. You can't see a movie or hail a taxi or go out at night. You can't stand in a crowd. You can't stand in one spot too long. Or use the same route or get stuck in traffic. "
You get the picture.
As for Cooper's chatty colleagues and the rise in cable news of liberal and conservative anchors to attract viewers, don't get Cooper started. He thinks it's an awful, awful trend. Not only because it divides people and slants the news and encourages, say, right-wing viewers to believe that Nancy Pelosi is a socialist. But because he believes in the quaint notion we used to call facts.
And really. "The last thing this country needs is more overpaid, blow-dried anchors screaming at the top of their lungs."
With new media taking over the world, Cooper says he doesn't know where journalism is headed. He thinks the economics of newspapers don't make sense anymore. Though he's not sure what will replace them.
Lest you forget, the anchor's not one for giving advice. "That's Sean Hannity's job," he quips, "and he does it very well."
But in this age where we're confronting unfamiliar ideas in other parts of the world, it would be good if we were all more open to various points of view. Even those of our enemies.
"That of course is something Daniel Pearl lost his life trying to do," Cooper says. "Trying to understand. Trying to help us all understand."
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