Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper

Given the buckets of ink devoted to Anderson Cooper last year, my goal was to leave CNN’s new poster boy alone for awhile. In fact, the more pressing cable-news question seemed to be which holiday Bill O’Reilly would fixate on now — Violating Valentine’s Day? The Siege on St. Patrick’s? — to fuel his jihad against “secular progressives.”

Still, it’s Cooper who kept coming to mind, both because of what he has come to symbolize and CNN’s relentless push making it difficult to avoid him, running promos that bill the one-time host of ABC’s “The Mole” as “the future of hard news.”

What really stood out, though, was the obnoxious full-page ad in the Dec. 28 edition of the New York Times, which showed Cooper videotaping smiling kids on a faraway Southeast Asian beach.

“I’ll never forget the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve told, the places I’ve been,” the text, attributed to Cooper, read. “I am changed by the stories I do.”

Hey, I sympathize. I’ll never forget the canceled sitcoms I’ve watched, the reality shows I’ve savaged, the junk food I’ve eaten on deadline. But, does (or should) anybody care?

On New Year’s Eve, when paranoids check CNN to make sure nothing dreadful has happened, Cooper presided over the ball-drop coverage. (Did that change him? Hard to tell.) Finally, there was last week’s tragedy surrounding the West Virginia miners, which Cooper anchored live for hours on end and, thanks to misinformation from mine officials, initially got the outcome wrong.

The truth is after stripping away the bluster and extraneous nonsense like People’s “sexiest” list, Cooper is generally smart and polished, distinguishing himself with a wry on-air persona in addition to his boyish good looks. (That’s not to underestimate his appearance, since MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann is wry, too, and no one peppers billboards with his mug, though his recent guest shot on NBC’s “Surface” was an exercise in dubious judgment.)

If the mine disaster underscored the pitfalls of live coverage, where the hunger to advance a story can easily trigger a loss of perspective and restraint, Cooper has previously proven adept at flying without a net, vamping through breaking events without resorting (mostly, anyway) to wild speculation.

The problem, alas, is that he’s being positioned as a new breed of anchor in an evolving world of TV news — an environment already dangerously close to the parody of “The Colbert Report’s” Stephen Colbert, who pledges on his Comedy Central show to “feel the news at you.”

The line here doesn’t fall between hard and soft news, but rather significant and immediate, between that which makes us think and that which makes us feel. Under that calculus, government spying, Social Security and congressional corruption will lose to missing teenagers, freeway chases and perilous rescues every time.

The roots of this emotive anchor pal reside in local news. Indeed, the promotional machinery marshaled behind Cooper echoes another dashing-looking fellow with a mane of prematurely gray hair and plenty of folksy charm.

The name then was Nick Clooney (yes, George’s dad), whom KNBC-TV brought to Los Angeles in the 1980s and pitched to viewers via ads in which Clooney stared into the camera and soothingly said, “Let’s get to know each other.”

In other words, Cooper’s image is less about the “future of hard news” than the past of personality-driven local news, furthering an Oprah-ization process that exalts plucking heartstrings over explaining complex issues — at a time when the public can ill afford to be less informed than it already is.

The irony is Cooper’s own pronouncements sound at odds with the way he’s being sold. Last week, for example, in a Web interview, he dismissed injecting reporters into stories as “very artificial,” adding, “I don’t care what some blow-dried anchor thinks about a political position.” OK, so why should we care about Cooper being “changed” by the stories he covers?

Scot Safon, CNN’s senior VP of marketing & promotion, says the campaign “does depart from a lot of traditional ways of promoting a journalist” but that it responds to what viewers appreciate about the first-hand manner in which Cooper handles a story. The aim, he says, is to “let him speak for himself, and his reporting speak for itself.”

Bonding talent to the audience through emotional pleas is an understandable marketing device, but an insidious effect on news content goes with it. That’s why CNN should tread carefully or risk squandering its investment in Anderson Cooper, turning him into the reluctant star of a thriller with a highly promotable title, “Real News vs. the ‘Mole’ Man.”

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