Fifteen minutes with Anderson Cooper, and your questions
My fifteen minutes with Cooper left me buzzing. I wanted to go live in Anderson-world. It’s rare you’re in the presence of someone really imbued with the purpose of their work, but that’s how I felt after our talk. It made me want to work harder. Cooper is someone admits he works “all the time,” but what I emerged with from our brief interview was a sense of the importance of passion and social justice. (Ed note: the funny thing about CNN is that in the midst of its obsession with Paris Hilton and horses that fall off trails, and bland morning anchors, it maintains room for some iconoclasts, like Cooper and Lou Dobbs). And it’s ironic, because my primary experience of watching presidential candidates discourse has been one of numbness, process, talking points. So when Cooper told me the purpose of this new debate format is to “infuse questions with a new spirit and energy,” I believed him. I want to thank BlogHer readers for providing such good questions and helping to create a natural discussion.
I’ve summed up our discussions below, using quotes sparingly because I did not have a recorder and I don’t want to misquote. If I misconstrue, I apologize. In our brief discussions, three themes emerged:
Anderson’s take on the YouTube debate is that it’s an unknown quantity for both the network and the candidates. Unlike most presidential debates or forums, in which a moderator or panel of journalists pose questions to the candidates, on Monday night YouTube is the panel, and voter generated content provides question materials. (To watch some or submit your own, click here). CNN’s Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman said on air yesterday that there might be some tougher questions that challenge the candidates- implying other debates didn’t? I asked Anderson if that was true.
He said the thing that he thinks will be challenging is that not only are these questions a traditional moderator might not ask, but that the questions twist and turn. “You…think it’s going one way, then it turns around.” He noted candidates will have to listen to the whole stream, and not spout poll-tested talking points (well, at least not the whole time). He said he was struck by the quality of the questions and the diversity of those posing them (although early reports showed very few women submitted questions, he said he noted a strong diversity…I’m not buying it, but ok).
I then asked, is one of the goals of this debate to take candidates out of their comfort zone? Cooper said the major goal- - is to show a different side of candidates, and yes, to take people out of comfort zone. He said he thought the campaigns seemed “nervous…we’re all little nervous.” The debate should infused with “the spirit and energy of questions, the spirit of the voters’ questions should “infuse and inform entire debate.” Thankfully, Anderson admitted he didn’t know what this “infusion” actually meant, but I think I do.
I hope the debate echoes at least part of what we see online everyday, at BlogHer and on other sites: true discussions, questions off-book, questions that are the product of real curiosity.
Feely snarky, I asked Anderson if he wanted a seminal, “Boxers vs. briefs” pull quote to come from the CNN/YouTube debate Monday night.
He bristled and said, no, “it’s more serious than that…it’s a real bottom up process…” CNN is not “cherry picking” the questions they think are most appropriate. They’re going to pool the best ones and see what happens. He hopes it’s more of a “conversation.” And that he will facilitate dialogue by ensuring when a candidate responds, you can redirect the question to another.
I hope this isn’t the end of the feedback loop. If CNN wants to create a real conversation, they need to offer viewers a place to retort. Anderson did mention that many of the campaigns are preparing videos- but I think the YouTube channel devoted to discussion of the debate—CitizenTube—should have a stronger role and a more publicized “retorting” ability for voters.
The best thing about talking to Cooper was his complete sense of responsibility and respect for both his interview subjects and his audience. I asked him my favorite question, which was from our NGO and Social Change editor Britt Bravo:
She asked: how does he beat burn out and compassion fatigue? (Christiane's note: that is something I always wonder)
He took a minute to think. He said burnout is tougher, because his “tendency is to work all the time, work on weekends and vacation days for 60 minutes, with no time off. Echoing a sentiment many of us feel, he said if he does take a week off, he feels “torn.” Echoing a sentiment very few of us feel, he also added that invariably, if he takes time off “something happens.” Global crises have no respect for beach time, I guess.
Anderson did say that the best way to fight against burnout is to do a variety of different things, and to feel different things. This way, work feels fresh. Also, you need to try to keep a balance, to hang out with your dog and your friends and recharge. Amen. (Christiane's note: to those obsessed with Molly, she seems to be around...)
Cooper stated that if you suffer compassion fatigue, it’s a “copout.” If nothing really affects you, but you’re asking people to let you into their lives, you’re doing them disservice, and you’re doing your audience a disservice.
He noted: “When I was 23 and first started and spent 2 years in war zones…I found that my reactions [were] not what they should have been…” In Rwanda, during the genocide, he could no longer react in a "sensible" way. So, he “took a break from combat stuff for a year…and then started doing it again.” You owe it to those whose stories you tell, and to your audience to feel. Still, I cannot imagine that Katrina did not take a chunk out of his psyche. Or perhaps, it gave him an all new energy.
Next, I asked Anderson some of your questions about journalism, YouTube, and fame.
First I asked JoAnn’s question: since he has become famous, are there any types of reports that he finds more difficult to cover than when he was an unknown reporter? If so, how does he handle these differently now than he did in the past?
Anderson laughed and said, he deludes himself that he’s not famous. This helps him interact normally with people, because the celebrity makes him uncomfortable. But he acknowledged, it “cuts both ways- it helps to have people know you” if you’re in a war zone and you need to get on a chopper…you’ll get greater access.
Anderson did stress that being a journalist, for him, is being a blank slate. One must adapt to any situation, because you’re “telling a story…it’s all about the story.” It’s funny, because being a blogger is the opposite: good bloggers are anything but blank slates. They bring it ALL to the page (or screen, as it were).
To that end, I asked Anderson the second half of JoAnn’s question: he has suggested that he sees the future of news leaning towards the YouTube generation- and does he see a tension between old media and new?
He stressed that citizen journalists and professional journalists don’t battle against each other, and that it’s important to tell the story from as many angles as possible.
He said obviously there wasn’t YouTube 17 years ago when he started, but if there were, he would have probably taken that path, creating his own videos on YouTube.
That said, “there is something to be said for research, fact checking, standards of what they put on the air…a lot to be said for that. Getting it right does count.” It’s important to know where information is coming from. And yeah, people write stuff of the web, people believe it…some of it is completely off the wall stuff. ( Christiane's note: have he been reading the Freakspeaker Manifesto?)
In short, there’s a role for mainstream media, and it’s not a battle for supremacy. I don’t think any but the most obstreperous blogger would disagree with this.
Then I asked him about Paris Hilton. I asked Stacy’s question: Hello. I'm interested in how much control Anderson himself has over what goes into his broadcasts. For example, it was clear he was unhappy covering Paris Hilton, so was that something he felt he had to do to compete with the other networks, or something he was made to do by the suits?
Anderson said he has control over what goes on the air ( Christiane's note: so Anderson is the one to be blamed?) , and that since his job is “to tell stories…you are able to spend time on the one that matter to you.” He was just in Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan. The show covers Iraq (which Anderson noted is the “most important” story now) every night, which some other networks (ed: hello, Fox News) don’t even mention. Anderson said, you have to consider what people want to see, but if you do a show based on what people want to see, "you end up with nothing but true crime stories.”
He noted it’s a privilege to be in peoples’ living rooms...but there are lots of folks he’s competing against, so yeah, when Paris got out of jail and did Larry King... “if there were any two days to cover it, those were them.”
We closed by talking about the role of the Internet and politics in 2008. I asked him the million dollar question that everyone seems to ask: ok fine, we know the web can raise money for candidates, and it drives message, but can it get people to vote?
Anderson said he didn’t know. He said the big question for him is, “are people using it to reach just folks who would have gone to polls anyway”? We agreed no one knows the answer to this.
He continued, “What’s so interesting about time we’re living in is that nobody knows what’s next. He told me about how he makes sure he goes to a tech media conference once a year to keep up to date. Four years ago he went to fancy, Silicon Valley genius conference and no one predicted the impact of online video. We have “no idea what’s coming down the pike. Who knows? Who knows what kind of hand held device will be in people’s living rooms [four years from now]”?
Final question, from the audience: Will he try his hand at writing fiction?
He laughed and said “I don’t think I’m that good a writer to do that…I marvel at writers’ ability to tell stories and weave narratives.” Still, it’s clear Cooper is a storyteller, but a visual one.
Unlike many skeptics online, I’m looking forward to this debate. I think it signals a shift, a maturing of both voter generated content, and acknowledgement that online political participation is simply an extension of the ancient tradition of the forum, the commons, and the town hall meeting. Stay tuned for coverage Monday night. Like Anderson and, I'd wager, Hillary Clinton, I’m a little nervous!
Anderson Cooper Hopes Monday's Debate Throws Candidates out of Their Comfort Zones
Anderson Cooper and I spoke on Wednesday about Monday's Democratic CNN/YouTube debate in Charleston, SC. I asked him a variety of questions, including how the questions will be selected and whether the politicians may need to go drinking after the debate format, where the candidates won't have any idea what questions are coming.
A little delayed, but the interview has lots of valuable information about how the debate will play out. Will the range of questions be narrowly focused on science and technology as opposed to other broadly focused debates?
Read and find out.
Wired News: I want to welcome Anderson Cooper, host of Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN and also the moderator for the CNN/YouTube debate from the Citadel in Charleston, SC on Monday, July 23rd. How are you doing today?
Anderson Cooper: I'm good. Thanks for having me.
WN: Thanks for accepting the offer.
I was wondering, first of all, what percentage of the questions will come from YouTube? Will you ask them, or will they come from YouTube?
AC: Well, all the questions are coming from YouTube. I'll have the ability to ask follow-on questions based on topics raised by the YouTube videos, but I think the vast majority of the questions put to the candidates will come from YouTube.
We're trying to figure out ways to incorporate as many videos as possible -- not just in the original questions, but even in follow-up questions. Traditionally in debates there's the question you ask a candidate and then there's follow-up questions you ask based on that topic. We're hoping to incorporate other YouTube videos in those follow-on questions to maximize the number of questions that get asked by YouTube viewers.
WN: That sounds prety good. Are you going to have a variety of "What If" scenarios planned, that way you have a number of videos selected for whatever their answer is?
AC: Absolutely. A lot of this will be done on the fly, depending on where the conversation goes. Debates in general are best when there's an actual conversation -- when people are actually talking about substance, answering questions, and there's a real conversation going rather than just individuals giving stump speeches or talking points.
There's no way to predict exactly where it's going to go, so we want to have videos on as many different topics as possible on hand that we can call on, depending on where the conversation goes.
WN: Senators Clinton and Edwards recently got in trouble for suggesting that the current debate formats prevent candidates from giving substantive answers to questions. Given that the candidates agree on broad policies -- such as universal health care -- will the debates be run in a way that allows candidates to give more specific answers? i.e., "You all agree that x, y, and z need to be done, but what differentiates you on these issues?"
AC: I certainly think that would be a big hope for the debate. You definitely don't need to have everyone just agreeing on the stage on issues where they do happen to agree. I think you do -- in the questions that the YouTube users are asking -- you want to try to get to the specifics as quickly as possible.
WN: Are you going to, maybe, discriminate against questions where they mostly agree on policies?
AC: Not necessarily. If there's a great question or a great YouTube video that maybe is a little too broad, I might try to narrow it down a little bit in a follow-on question.
As much as possible, this is a bottom-up process as opposed to a top-down process. This is not just me and a few other people randomly selecting videos and then asking the questions that we want to ask anyway. We're taking our directions from the YouTube users and the CNN watchers -- the people that made the videos -- and are, as much as possible, honoring and promoting the videos themselves -- the questions that the people in the videos are asking.
I see my job as being there on behalf of all those who can't be there, but are there on video who are asking their questions. My job is just to make sure people get answers -- real answers -- to their questions.
WN: So you're facilitating the discussion between the American public and the politicians?
AC: Yeah. That's certainly the job.
WN: A lot of the debates thus far are very broad-based, topic-wise, with everything on the table. Is the CNN/YouTube debate intended to be similarly broadly-focused, or will the topics discussed be narrower in focus -- or does the American public get to decide?
AC: They're deciding. They're deciding based on whatever questions they put in. We're taking our marching orders from the videos themselves, and those videos are online now -- anyone can watch them.
Someone asked me the other day, "This is at the Citadel. Are you going to be heavy on military questions?"
The answer is no. We're taking our marching orders from YouTube viewers and from CNN watchers -- the people who are actually asking the questions -- and we're getting a broad range of topics. Some really interesting, insightful questions -- some really surprising questions -- and we want those to come to the fore.
WN: How will the submitted questions be picked? Will it be based on views? Popularity?
AC: No. There's a handful of people at CNN who will decide -- I'm one of them -- which videos will make it into the debate. Some of that will be done on the fly. We'll whittle it down to a reasonable number that we have on hand, and depending on the ebb and flow of the debate -- depending where the conversation goes -- we'll decide which videos to use.
A lot of this is going to be done right before the debate. People can submit videos until July 22nd, and we want a video that was submitted on July 22nd to have as much chance as a video that was submitted a month ago.
There's no final list already. I've seen most of the videos at least once; there's maybe a few right now I haven't seen, but for the most part I've seen them and we're all sorta putting suggestions in a virtual hat. We'll whittle it down to a number that is manageable and take it from there.
WN: Which candidates do you think will fare best in the CNN/YouTube debate?
AC: I have no idea. What I think is interesting about this is that I don't think the candidates have much of an idea, either. They're not really sure what to expect. I'm not really sure what to expect, and I think that's a good think. I think it should be interesting.
WN: Do you have any topics that you would like to hear discussed, or hope get discussed during the debate?
AC: I hope -- no, I don't have an agenda going into this that I want to hear x, y, and z. I think it would be a mistake and inappropriate if we got all these remarkable videos and then decide that we're just going to do the topics that we want to do.
I view this as I'm taking my marching orders from the YouTube viewers, and I'm honoring their topics and right now we're seeing a wide variety of topics.
WN: I wasn't suggesting that you have an agenda going into this, I was just wondering if you might have some personal interests that you hope gets asked.
AC: No, I don't. I hope that YouTube viewers and CNN viewers come away with this feeling that this is something different and that they have seen something different.
I was a little nervous about it at first because I wasn't sure just how it would all work; I had a hard time envisioning it. But once I started watching the videos, I absolutely understood how it would work, because I think there's something very compelling in these videos.
There's a cumulative effect to them that is really interesting. Watching all of them as a piece, it's just different than any... I've never seen anything like it in a debate, and it'll be interesting to see how it all flows together.
WN: Will there be any commercials in the debate?
AC: There will be. There will be a very limited number of commercial interruptions. I'm not sure how many breaks there are -- I think two or three -- but I'm not sure.
WN: I was just trying to figure out how long the debate schedule would last.
AC: Yeah, I don't know how long the commercial breaks would be that are there. My guess is that they won't be that long, because I know they want to keep that very limited.
WN: Would you mind answering why y'all chose Charleston, just out of curiosity?
AC: You know, it's a good question, and I don't know the answer to that. I'm not sure how that was determined. That process was decided before I got involved.
WN: Will the video of the debate be available on CNN or YouTube after it is aired?
AC: CNN would certainly repeat it later that evening, and I'm assuming that -- everything's available on YouTube -- so I'm assuming it would be ironic if this wasn't available on YouTube.
I'm assuming it will be. I haven't talked to the YouTube folks, but most things end up being broken down into chunks on YouTube, so I'm assuming the same thing would happen.
I know YouTube has a whole online component that they'll have a lot of debate reaction online to it, so yeah, I'm assuming you'll be able to watch chunks of it. I'm not sure how YouTube will be presenting that.
WN: I know a lot of companies, like Viacom, when their videos go online they get pretty mad and demand that they be taken down. I was wondering if CNN is going to allow them to be posted online.
AC: There's tons of CNN stuff on YouTube, so I think it would be a bizarre situation if this was the only thing that could not be on YouTube. I'm sure it'll be on YouTube.
WN: What do you hope happens after the debate? The candidates, do you hope that they have a broader understanding of what the American public really want, instead of them giving out their sound bites like they normally do?
AC: Yeah, frankly I hope that they're out of their comfort zone.
I think the most important thing is that they have to really pay attention to these questions, because some of them are tricky and some of them are unexpected and not what you think. The question seems to be going one way and then all of a sudden the end, another question is asked.
I certainly hope the candidates listen carefully and I hope that they get into the spirit of it. I really do think that there is something different about this debate, and about these questions. I hope that comes across in the broadcast, and I hope that comes across in the answers. I hope the candidates honor the passion that we're seeing in the videos.
WN: If the candidates give a dodge or a non-answer to a question, will you follow-up and ask them to really answer the question?
AC: Absolutely. I think that's my number one job. We have a lot of people here who have taken time to put together a question, and the least the candidates can do is answer those questions.
I'm not talking about giving a response, because -- as we all know -- politicians can give a response very quickly, but an answer is different than a response and my job is to make sure they answer.
WN: That would be good. I did read a few non-answer responses in the headlines recently.
WN: Your next debate will be in, I'm not sure where. For Republicans.
AC: Yeah, it hasn't been determined yet. It hasn't been announced yet. It will be somewhere in Florida.
WN: Are you hoping that -- well, not hoping -- but do you think that Republican candidates will have a better shot at knowing what they may be coming into?
AC: I'm sure there are going to be a lot of people in the Republican campaigns watching on Monday night. Yeah, they'll have the benefit of at least having seen it. I think that, I'm sure there will be some surprises, but they will have seen one of these before.
WN: Do you think the Democratic candidates have staff looking through the questions to prepare stock answers?
AC: I'm sure they do, but there's 1400 of them right now. They have no idea what's going to be selected. I don't think any of them have campaigns right now which are big enough to be pouring through on that level of detail.
WN: Do you think they'll all go get margaritas afterward?
AC: I'm not sure. We'll see. I'm not sure what's available, what'll be open late at that hour.
WN: Or maybe take some anxiety pills before and after?
AC: Exactly. Perhaps. Hopefully they'll take them afterward, because we don't want them all bushed out on anxiety pills.
WN: Well, you now, it might be interesting for some candidates.
AC: That's true. You're right.
WN: Besides having the candidates unnerved, what do you hope this debate accomplishes? You touched on it briefly earlier, but what do you hope the candidates take away from this?
AC: I think one of the unique things about YouTube in general -- and I think it carries over to the debate -- on YouTube, you see sides of people, and often public people that you don't necessarily normally see in tightly scripted television appearances.
That cuts both ways. You can see candidates making terrible gaffes and saying things they regret on YouTube, but you also see people showing sides of themselves they haven't already seen. I hope we see that in this debate as well. I think it's an opportunity for candidates to really interact in a way with people that they may not be able to interact with on the campaign trail.
It's only in Iowa and New Hampshire that people really get to interact with candidates on a sort of a personal level and really spend time and see candidates on a personal level. This is a democratization of the process to some degree, and I hope that this debate is a chance for candidates to show that other side of themselves and to have sort of a genuine interaction even though it's online interaction.
WN: Do you think some candidates will see, "Oh, I might need to think of a policy position on this topic that I didn't know was really important before"?
AC: It's possible. I think most of the topics they have certainly thought through -- I think there's some that they may be surprised by. I think it's always good to see people confronted with a variety of issues, and issues that they haven't been confronted with by voters in the primary states that they've been. So, yeah, I think it is an opportunity for education both for viewers and also for candidates.
WN: I know the final questions have not been selected yet, but will the questions you select be focused on actual issues or will you select YouTube questions that ask about their personalities and not so much their policies?
AC: Yeah, I think you want a variety of stuff. I think you want things which are interesting and that provoke discussion and/or provoke reaction which tell viewers something, and I think you want a variety of things. Again, that just all depends on the videos.
WN: It would be interesting to see the candidates answer a bunch of really random questions. Zune or iPod? Mac or Windows?
AC: Yeah -- I was just looking through a note I had and South Carolina was picked by the Democratic Party.
WN: Probably because we have an early primary for once.
WN: I noticed that a number of questions were submitted by politicians inside the state of South Carolina. Will non-politicians or non-professionals have priority over politicians?
AC: No one has any priority over anyone else in terms of the selection of questions. If I understand your question correctly, you're saying politicians have submitted questions?
WN: Yes. Some politicians in South Carolina have submitted questions and I was wondering if they...
AC: Oh no, they have no priority over anybody else. They have as good or as little a chance of having their question selected as anybody else. There's no secret channel of questions that come to us at CNN.
I can tell you, literally, I have spent the last couple of days just sitting in a room with a handful of producers and literally have the YouTube home page up on a big screen and we're just clicking and looking at each video. There's no secret pool of questions that we're getting somehow funneled to us.
If there's a politician asking a question, and they haven't identified themselves as a politician, we wouldn't know who they are unless we happen to know who they are. A famous person has just as much chance of having their question selected as someone who's not famous, or a school teacher has just as much a chance as a politician somewhere.
WN: I was wondering not that they may get priority over non-politicians or non-famous people, but moreso if the non-famous people and the non-politicians would get priority over politicians and famous people?
AC: No one has any priority over anybody. It's an even playing field. It's based solely on the merit of the 30-second question.
WN: I think I've pretty much exhausted my questions. I appreciate your time and I hope to see you in Charleston.
AC: All right, cool. Take care. It was good talking to you.