Anderson Cooper on a reporting trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Anderson Cooper on a reporting trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Credit: Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty Images for CNN
Carter Cooper committed suicide the summer before Anderson's senior year at Yale. It was a hard year, and after Anderson graduated he took some time off, traveling to Southeast Asia and renovating an old house on Long Island. Then he got a job as a fact-checker with Channel One, a show seen by more than 7 million high school kids during homeroom. During that year Cooper met a political activist in Washington involved in the Burmese student movement. Sensing a story about pro-democracy student groups that had fled Rangoon, the capital, after Burma's ruling junta crushed their demonstrations, he quit his job, borrowed a Hi-8 camera, and had a friend mock up a fake press pass on a Mac.

Cooper flew to Thailand, and in the border town of Mae Sot met with a contact provided by his friend from Washington. The contact smuggled Cooper into a rebel camp, where the pro-democracy students had apparently linked up with an armed uniformed militia engaging the junta in violent clashes. From their camp Cooper could hear constant mortar fire. At a field hospital he watched as a doctor amputated a teenager's leg with a handsaw. When he got back to Bangkok he sent his video to Channel One, and they bought it immediately. He called his mom to tell her he'd found his bliss.

Cooper is quick to point out that this bliss didn't come from his being an adrenaline cowboy. Adventure sports, for instance, are not for him. "Jumping out of a plane I have no interest in. It seems like an unnecessary risk for me. I wouldn't rock climb, really. I hate heights." In his memoir he describes the first time a sniper took shots at him, in Sarajevo, and admitted that the moment brought a hint of a smile to his face. On September 11, 2006, while broadcasting from a base in Afghanistan, Cooper didn't duck while Bravo Company troops ran from six incoming rockets. He considers the danger to himself just part of the job; it's not risk he's after, it's gravitas.

That Cooper cares about his subjects when he's on camera has been well-chronicled. He choked up during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, and again when 11 miners were found dead at the Sago Mines in West Virginia. To some, Cooper brings to mind William Hurt in Broadcast News, crying for the camera on cue. That kind of criticism is easy to lob from the safe haven of a news desk. To be fair, those few incidents are the only moments of rising emotion Cooper has shown in more than 15 years of covering wars and disasters. He was labeled the "emo anchor" by the New York Observer, and the term has been batted around since in media circles. However, it misses the essential dynamic with which he struggles. It's not that Cooper cares too much. If anything, his challenge is that he cares little about the humdrum pitter-patter of daily American life. He speaks to a mass audience for two hours each weeknight, but only the weightiest domestic issues raise his pulse. It's hard for him to find domestic stories that match international ones on the grand scale of human suffering.

In the 24 hours before we met up, Cooper had been in Jordan, Lebanon, and London. Earlier that week he'd been in Turkey and Brazil. His secret superpower of sorts is his ability to get 40 winks anywhere, anytime. He can sleep on planes or in noisy hotels. In Somalia he slept on a hotel roof when no rooms were available, and while staking out Pope John Paul II's funeral he napped on the sidewalk with his jacket over his head, amidst tens of thousands gathered in St. Peter's Square. In each case he could have just let a local correspondent file a story from the locale du jour. But Cooper felt a need to be there in person, on the scene. Why?

I expected him to tell me that being on the scene makes a difference, that his personal, earnest style of reporting gets the world to care, to intervene. But Anderson Cooper claims that is not how he feels. This is probably the most surprising statement he made to me: "I wouldn't make any claim to actually having any kind of impact at all on anything. I mean, I've got a little TV show, but you know... It's very hard."

He didn't proclaim this just once, in a self-deprecating way, but many times. He's quite pessimistic about the world's affairs. He believes New Orleans has been all but forgotten. Sixty percent of greater New Orleans, he points out, remains a ghost town. In Afghanistan the conflict is growing much worse; Pakistan pulled out of border checkpoints, allowing Islamic militants to cross over and launch attacks on American and NATO troops. His coverage of the famine in Niger, he notes, didn't lead to international relief. Other American media has not shared his interest in the DRC.