Cooper, speaking at Columbia, was asked about the outrage and raw emotion he so famously displayed while covering the aftermath of Katrina. Normally, he said, “I don’t believe in wearing my opinion on my sleeve, Cooper said. “I do believe in walking in other people’s shoes and trying to see things from other people’s point of view.”
“To me, there’s a lot of phony outrage in TV news,” he continued—“it can very easily become cheesy”—“and I don’t want to contribute to that.”
What he saw in New Orleans and the other areas of the Gulf Coast, though, Cooper said, was overwhelming. He couldn’t help but react. Normally, he added, “I’m the least emotional person ever. (I’m a WASP, and was taught to squelch my emotions from a very young age.) So it takes a lot to make me really mad,” he said. But Katrina was more than a lot; he couldn’t help but react emotionally.
“I think the audience knows who’s faking it and who’s not,” though, he said, and the difference between “what reality is and what is not.” There are “some correspondents who are well known for grabbing babies and putting them in front of the camera and saying, ‘I want to help this baby!’” Cooper said.
“For me the best stories are the ones where you strip yourself away from them,” Cooper continued. “The camera turns to you, and you just talk to the camera.” Compared to the staged outrage so common on cable news, he said, “I think that’s much more intimate, and much more real.”
“The story is all around you,” Cooper continued. “You just need to figure out to where to point the camera.” And you have to remember that the mere fact of the camera “can change the reality” you’re meant to report on. (“It’s like the Heisenberg principle of TV journalism,” my astute Coop-companion, Kathy Gilsinan, noted.) The key thing to remember, Cooper said, is: “It’s not about you.”
Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.