The new face of news at CNN

Anderson Cooper just might be its ratings savior

October 13, 2003|By Verne Gay | Verne Gay,NEWSDAY

If you poke your head out of Anderson Cooper's spartan office on the fourth floor of Time Inc. headquarters in Midtown Manhattan and glance to the right, you will see a seemingly endless row of offices stretching off into the distance. Far down the corridor, workers dart in and out of doors, en route to meetings or bathrooms or water coolers or copiers.

Seems like an incongruous place for a guy who spent a big chunk of the '90s on the African savannah with a 35-pound beta cam on his back and reporting on third-world hotspots for Channel One, the high school news network. Over those years he was also struggling to comprehend the death of his brother, Carter, who had thrown himself off a Manhattan balcony in 1988. This tragedy brought him to Africa, so it's tempting to see Cooper, 36, as some character from the fiction of Joseph Conrad, who once searched for clues to the mysteries of life on the dark continent.

But a lot can happen in 10 years, and for Cooper, a lot has. His new nightly news program, Anderson Cooper 360M-0 was launched Sept. 8 on CNN. Before that, he was a news magazine reporter, overnight anchor, documentary producer and reality show host (ABC's now-buried The Mole). These days, he's a contributor to Details magazine and - oh, yes - the once and future savior of CNN.

An inscrutable career, and by way of explanation, he says his mentors told him "they could never have predicted where they would end up, so I've found it beneficial to ... go more on my gut." Indeed: In the spring, when Paula Zahn told management she had no interest in anchoring a two-hour nightly program block, Cooper (holding down the weekends for CNN in Atlanta) got the call for the 7 p.m. hour, and now he and 360M-0 are among the linchpins of the new CNN. Engineered to lure younger viewers, the job is tough and the numbers are bleak (about 417,000 viewers on average), although 360M-0 is one of the network's more promising launches.

Friends and colleagues describe an anchor who is engaging and hard-working, but also enigmatic and even diffident. Most know he is the son of Gloria Vanderbilt, and until the September issue of Details carried Cooper's piece about Carter's death, few others knew his older brother committed suicide just before Anderson entered his senior year at Yale. Most also assume some Gatsbyesque tale lurks in Cooper's background. Problem is, Cooper insists his upbringing "seemed normal at the time." His father, Wyatt, a writer, died in 1978, and long before she was an icon of the '80s fashion world, his mother was also a respected writer and object of the most famous child-custody battle in history.

In person, Cooper is polite and (yup) diffident. He seems more artist than anchor, more introvert than extrovert. Unlike other anchors who have spent a career carefully preening their public image, Cooper remains a work-in-progress. His air of confidence is complicated by the slightest hint of insecurity (his next piece for Details? On nail biting).

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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