Tuned In

At CNN, the Post-9/11 Era Becomes the Post-Katrina Era

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When CNN announced that Anderson Cooper would take over Aaron Brown’s 10 p.m. slot and that Brown would leave the network, it was tempting to call it youth over experience. Or male-model looks over, well, less-than-male-model looks. (No offense to Mr. Brown. The present author will not be doing any Details spreads anytime soon either.) But really, it was a deeper shift: the era of post-9/11 emotion giving way to the era of post-Katrina emotion.

Brown became a star (well, for cable) after 9/11, for his musing, waxing anchor style–especially, for musing and waxing over how conflicted or moved he felt about delivering sad or difficult stories. Either you thought it was humanizing or self-indulgent, and while I usually went with the latter, Brown was, at least, trying to inject some reflection into a medium that’s mainly about volume and bullet points. But after Hurricane Katrina, Cooper had his own Aaron Brown moment, getting ratings — and oodles of swooning media coverage — for lambasting federal officials for the response to the disaster.

I’m a big fan of Cooper’s, and yet I’m afraid that he’s getting his break for exactly the wrong reason. One of his greatest strengths as anchor of Anderson Cooper 360 was that, unlike many cable anchors, he didn’t pander. He was dry-humored, cerebral and self-deprecating, but he didn’t claim he was just like you. (Which would have been a hard sell for the Manhattan-bred son of Gloria Vanderbilt, anyway.) CNN shoehorned him into American Morning for a while, but thankfully moved him; he wasn’t the morning show, let’s-pretend-we’re-having-a-cuppa-coffee-together type. On the other hand, he was one of the few anchors who could do pop culture stories without embarrassing himself, covering subjects like reality TV without condescending or pandering. (As you might expect from a newsman who once hosted ABC’s reality show The Mole.)

Like Peter Jennings, Cooper would inject his intelligence into every story, not himself. But after Katrina, CNN seemed to want to roll with the momentum of Hurricane Anderson, sending him off to do showy on-site coverage of Wilma. His outbursts over Katrina were understandable, but also uncharacteristic, and it will be a shame if CNN tries to turn him for ratings’ sake into Anderson Cooper, The People’s Crusader.

I shouldn’t overstate the shift’s importance in the larger media world; Cooper, like anyone else CNN would have put in the slot, will most likely continue to get trounced by Fox News for the foreseeable future. But it does show how the formula of cable news has changed over four years–from feeling viewers’ pain to feeling their outrage. I wish Cooper the best anyway, as long as he gets to be Anderson Cooper, and not just play Hurricane Anderson on TV.