Anderson Cooper anchors Weis Center

Morgan Gisholt Minard, Editor-in-Chief

Anderson Cooper on American politics, alternative facts, and the language of sorrow

“Let me guess the first question: What the f*** is going on?”

In a plucky start to the evening, CNN anchor and critically acclaimed journalist Anderson Cooper addressed both moderator Provost Barbara Altmann and the crowd with the politically-focused rhetorical question that elicited thunderous applause and howling from the audience.

The snowy conditions on the evening of Jan. 31 didn’t preclude a full house in the Weis Center for the Performing Arts, where 1,200 ticket holders sat in anticipation of hearing a keynote address and Q&A-style format from Cooper on the current state of American politics. The event was part of the Bucknell Forum speaker series, which since 2007 has featured “nationally renowned leaders, scholars and commentators who have examined various issues from multidisciplinary and diverse viewpoints.” Past speakers include Dr. Jane Goodall, Laverne Cox, Common, David Simon, and Ellie Kemper.

Tickets were free to University students, faculty, and staff, as well as the general public. Lines began forming as early as two hours prior to the release of the tickets, and distributors at the Campus Box Office and the Weis Center cycled through their stores of available tickets quickly, allotting two tickets per person. The high demand for the event led to live-stream overflow sites in Trout Auditorium, the LC Forum, and the LC Gallery Theater.

Altmann introduced Cooper as an award-winning journalist made famous by his on-site coverage of natural disasters, war, and famine, a driven storyteller, and an invaluable staple of many Americans’ lives on his nightly show, “Anderson Cooper 360.” Cooper took the stage to noisy applause, opening with the deeply serious question at the forefront of many minds across the country.

“Shouldn’t you all be watching ‘The Bachelor’ or something?” Cooper said.

Cooper’s keynote address weaved a tale of humility in the face of a self-indulgent news industry, uncertainty when tackling the prospect of identifying a career path (“Anyone here a political science major? Yeah, I feel really sorry for you guys.”), and his lifelong pursuit to “follow your bliss,” as his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, had advised him.

“I never really expected to be a television anchor. It’s not anything I set out to be, and I’m always deeply suspicious of any kid that I meet that says they want to be a TV anchor; it’s like a kid who tells me they want to be a politician—I think you should set out to be a real person before becoming a fake one,” Cooper said as his humility, real or affected, elicited a ripple of laughter from the audience.

He also revealed that the early death of his father and the suicide of his older brother had impacted his career path early on, especially in his decision to travel to Somalia during a time of famine toward the start of his news career.

“I couldn’t stop the starvation, I couldn’t actually save people’s lives, but I could bear witness to their struggles. I could tell their stories,” Cooper said.

Cooper’s own grieving was, in part, why it was so important for him to cover these atrocities.

“I wanted to, in fact, go to places where the language of loss is spoken—where life and death wasn’t something people feared talking about or whispered about, but it was something they faced every day and that was talked about openly,” Cooper said.

The Bucknell Forum Task Force, which is made up of students, faculty, and staff members across academic disciplines, “collectively decided to invite Anderson Cooper to discuss American politics because we felt he would offer our community an engaging, timely, and interesting perspective that would spark good discussion on campus,” Chair of the Task Force and Chief Communications Officer Andy Hirsch said.

Cooper was originally intended to speak on campus in the fall, but scheduling conflicts with the final presidential debate in October, which Cooper co-moderated, rendered that impossible. The contract for this speaking engagement was ultimately signed in November, and the Weis Center was chosen as the location because of the logistical, financial, and acoustic advantages over other venues such as Sojka Pavilion, where there is a larger audience capacity.

Altmann then joined Cooper onstage in an informal Q&A where the interviewer became the interviewee, taking questions from audience members and those in overflow rooms. Most of the questions pertained to CNN’s coverage of the 2016 election before and since Nov. 8, and the recent claims of “alternate facts” and a “war on the media” made by members of President Donald Trump’s team, including the president himself. Cooper emphasized that he doesn’t seek any relationship with the White House, because his responsibility as a journalist is to press our public figures on tough topics, not to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner or have a picture “shaking hands with the president.”

Cooper remained staunchly neutral on his own politics, even alluding that he doesn’t care to have personal politics. An audience member who posed the hypothetical circumstance that Cooper became president and had the opportunity to pursue his top domestic issues was perhaps left wanting following his response:

“I don’t really think it’s my role to be telling people what issues they should be focused on the most, or are [that] the most important. The last thing I want is some overpaid, blow-dried anchor telling me, the viewer, what I should care about and think,” Cooper said.

Audience members were surprised by the neutrality expressed by the famous anchor.

“It wasn’t what I was expecting. I went into it thinking I would hear a lot of opinionated conversation on politics, but instead it seemed like Mr. Cooper wanted us to understand that the value of the free press is that it is unbiased,” Nate Riggins ’17 said. “His commitment to his role in providing facts and to letting the people decide their opinion was admirable.”

Not everyone lauded his dedication to keeping personal politics out of it.

“With the Q&A he was extremely bipartisan, which I understood, but he’d give his two cents on Trump or Hillary and then at the next moment [say] ‘Well, I can’t say either way,’” Sedona Boyatzis ’17 said. “He could’ve spoke his actual mind and still have been just as respected.”

In an exclusive interview prior to the event, Cooper told The Bucknellian that he wouldn’t change anything about the coverage he and his network did leading up to the election, despite President of CNN Worldwide Jeff Zucker expressing regret over “showing so many Trump rallies early on.”

“I don’t think you can say in this past election that people didn’t have enough information or that enough critical stories weren’t done on all the candidates,” Cooper said, complementing his main sticking point on being responsible for laying out the facts while not leading his audience toward one side or another.

On Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” and the Trump administration’s “war on the media,” Cooper expressed little concern that the already-contentious relationship between the White House and the media will be to the detriment of his job and industry because, as he mentioned later, his job is not to be friends with our elected officials.

But if you’re wondering if Cooper will attend any event in place of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that he has vowed he’ll never attend again because he is “a social recluse,” you won’t find him at political satirist Samantha Bee’s “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” in April, because “it seems to attend that would also be making a statement.”

Cooper was impressed by the sheer turnout of the Women’s Marches across the country on Jan. 21 following Trump’s inauguration, though he questioned the long-term effects of the events that drew millions and whether ideas of activism are skewed by some.

“Activism is doing something that’s actually going to affect change. Like, sending Facebook messages to your friends, all of whom are in agreement with you, that you’re protesting, I mean it’s nice, I understand it’s communication, but it doesn’t actually affect change,” Cooper said.

Cooper emphasized the importance of being humble and staying humble.

“Never underestimate the value of out-hustling everybody else and outworking everybody else … I think it’s important to be the first one in the office in the morning and the last one to leave,” Cooper said. “There is this expectation—I think it’s from watching a lot of reality shows—that you’re just, like, a minute away from getting your own reality show and becoming a huge sensation, and I think that’s not a very beneficial way to look at things… I didn’t expect to be successful.”

It’s hard to take his words at face value—how could such a hugely successful and critically acclaimed journalist not have set high expectations for himself early on? But Cooper’s advice to the generation of students currently in college, especially those beginning to consider their post-graduation future, was a cautionary tale in assuming a linear trajectory.

“I was in a panic when I graduated. I had no idea what I wanted to do and I could not imagine how I was actually going to support myself and make a life, but it’s interesting because one thing leads to another,” Cooper said. “I used to think, well, I have this clear path ahead of me and this plan, and I had this paralysis because every choice I made didn’t feel like it led to something else, it just felt like it was cutting off other options for me, and what I didn’t realize at the time, and it was only later on that I realized that most people are happy [with] where they are in life, but when they look back it’s not a clear path.”

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