A Q&A With Anderson Cooper
It's a big week for Anderson Cooper. The CNN anchor is coming to Portland for an appearance at the Arlene Schintzer Concert Hall on Friday; he's also covering impeachment proceedings on the sitting U.S. president. Those things would not ordinarily belong side-by-side with a semicolon between them, but Speaker Pelosi officially announced the impeachment inquiry while Cooper and I were on the phone. We didn't talk much about Trump directly, but we did touch on journalistic responsibility, Cooper's admiration for Portland, and his stint hosting ABC game show The Mole. Below is a transcript of our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.
Can you start off by telling me a little bit about what the appearance in Portland is going to look like?
I like these events to be as conversational as possible. I’ll talk for about 20 minutes about how I started in my career and what it's like be a journalist today, and then open it up to questions. Some people like to do an hour long speech or something, but this feels less pretentious. I feel very strange pontificating for long periods of time; I'm one of the few anchors who probably doesn't like to hear himself talk.
What's the strangest question you've ever been asked at one of these?
Some people are CNN watchers or news junkies or are supporters of one candidate or another and want to ask me a question or challenge me on something, and that's fine. Some of them know me from being on Andy Cohen’s show or watching me on The Mole, of all things. There's usually a small handful of Mole people in each audience.
I assume that we've dubbed them “Mole People,” right? That's their official title?
I dub them lovingly as that. It's a small, but a full and hardy group. And a very intelligent group, because it was very complex show.
You've recently aired some longer one-on-one conversations with Howard Stern and Stephen Colbert, which is a little unusual for you. Is there anyone you’d especially like to sit down with for a one-on-one? Could be pure dreaming.
You know who would have been great? Anthony Bourdain. He and I did a lot of interviews together over the years, usually over a meal, and he would torment me with foods that I would never eat in a million years. But certainly he's somebody who had been through a lot and was able and willing to talk about it.
Beyond the core principles of journalism: shine a light, tell the truth, pursue facts—do you think that journalists in 2019 have any unique responsibilities?
I think that the stakes are different. Certainly, the attention is different. The divide is very real in the electorate, and people are much more likely to see things through a particular lens.
Back before I was born and when I was a kid, there were three broadcast networks, and it was three middle aged white men doing 15-minute news reports that people, in hindsight, viewed as this "golden age of news." I actually think we're in a golden age of information right now. People today have more information at their fingertips than any generation in history, and that's an extraordinary thing. You can find out anything at any time, anywhere you are. And with that, I think it's more important than ever before to know where your information is coming from. Has it actually been reported? Has it been vetted? Is it real? Because of Twitter and things like that, it's very easy to start to think all this stuff has equal weight to it, and it doesn't. But from a journalistic standpoint—the truth matters. And when you have people who are not telling the truth routinely, or are shading the truth, it is your job to point that out. And it may not be popular and it may not be effective and it may not make any difference, but that is what the basic job is.
And look, I don't think reporters should be having tea with the people they are covering on a regular basis. I don't think there should be a cozy relationship between reporters and any administration. President Obama stopped giving me interviews early on after the BP oil spill 'cause I spent two months in New Orleans, and I guess they weren't happy with the coverage. It's just, you know, this is an administration which is targeting reporters and calling them the enemy people and that's certainly... disturbing.
You're not clairvoyant, but if we fast forward two or three years, do you see there being a turning point in this "golden age of information" that lends credibility to the quote unquote "correct" sources, or do you see that chaos that exists right now existing for a long time?
You know, I have no idea. The older I get, the more skeptical I am about anybody's ability to really know what's going to happen down the road. You can look at the evolution of technology—deep fake videos that, as AI becomes more widespread, can already be manipulated to have somebody saying something that they're not actually saying, and that technology is only probably going to improve. There are many ways you can look at the spread of information and see more chaos coming, because it's going to become harder and harder to figure out what is real and what is being manipulated. But I also think people are very intelligent consumers of information, and if you're genuinely interested in finding something out, you can find it out at any time of the day or night by doing a little research and going to a reputable organization. So I have no idea if it will reach some sort of a tipping point, or if this is a Pandora's box that can never be closed.
Have you spent much time in Oregon or the Pacific Northwest?
I have not. Andy [Cohen] and I did a show in Portland, which was one of our favorite shows, actually. [I've maybe been] one other time. But whenever I have been there, I've thought to myself, "Why am I not here? Like, why am I not living here?"
If I said “Portland, Oregon” to you, what are the first free-associative words that come to mind?
I think of red brick for some reason? I think of old renovated red brick buildings, and I'm obsessed with historical buildings, I live in an old firehouse from 1906. What else? Very hip people. Interesting people; not just hipsters, but interesting people who are actually living lives, not just working. Going for hikes and biking and having conversations in coffee shops and in restaurants. I work all day long and I go home afterwards to watch Netflix, and as I'm going home, I see all these people in restaurants in New York and I think, "Wow, this is what people do. That looks really interesting." I imagine that like to the nth degree in Portland.
On the Netflix note, what are you watching right now in your slivers of free time?
I just stayed up all night watching Unbelievable. Fleabag, of course, is great. I'm obsessed with Succession on HBO. Also Our Boys on HBO, which is a limited series about an incident in Israel and Palestinian Territories. Chernobyl is the revelation of the last couple of months. Also the second season of The OA, which I was disappointed by—I was obsessed with the first season.
What are you reading?
I'm actually writing a book, so most of the reading I'm doing right now is for that. It's a historical nonfiction.
Are you at liberty to discuss that?
I have a very strange superstitious belief about not saying what it is until it's done. I sort of feel like the evil spirits in the air will hear this and stop it somehow. But one of the last books I read for pleasure was A Little Life [by Hanya Yanighara], which I really liked.
That one hit me upside the head.
Yeah. Christodora [by Tim Murphy] is a really good book, and if you liked A Little Life, I think you'd like Christodora. It's set in a building in the lower East side of New York and it traces the life of a family over like 20 or 30 years, and it's great. I finished it on plane and burst out crying, which is not a good look on an airplane.
That is actually exactly how I finished A Little Life, so... solidarity.
I don't usually do a lot of novels, but I also read Song of Achilles [by Madeline Miller]. I loved it. I mean, most of my friends loved it too, but a couple of people made fun of me because they felt like it was like a gay romance novel, which it is! But it's not as cheesy as that sounds. Fabio's not on the cover.
An Evening with Anderson Cooper
8 p.m. Fri, Sept 27, $63–105