CNN anchor Anderson Cooper is enthusiastic about the upcoming documentary series "CNN Presents: Planet in Peril." The four-hour special, which airs Oct. 23 and 24, takes viewers around the globe for a groundbreaking firsthand report on the many threats confronting the environment worldwide. TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman spoke with Mr. Cooper about his work on the series.
TelevisionWeek: How did "Planet in Peril" come together?
Anderson Cooper: I don't think we realized how big and difficult this was going to be when we were planning it. When we first came up with the idea, we thought, why not? This is not about advocacy; this is not pushing any agenda. There are a lot of other people that are doing that. We basically just wanted to check out facts and see what is actually happening out there in these places, these flashpoints. We decided to go to these places and see for ourselves, and that's when it became this huge undertaking, traveling around the world going to some very difficult places to get to, because they take a lot of time and it's very expensive to get there. The show took on a life of its own.
TVWeek: One of the things you learned from telling these different stories is that they are all interconnected in some way.
Mr. Cooper: Yes, I don't want to sound too "Kumbaya"; it's not all touchy-feely. But it was surprising to me how interconnected these pieces are. How the loss of one species in an ecosystem has a ripple effect on the entire ecosystem, and conversely how the reintroduction of something like the gray wolves in Yellowstone Park has had an incredible ripple effect on the entire ecosystem of the park. The beaver population to the height of trees to the elk herd, insect life, it's had an effect, this remarkable carry-on effect, that I certainly hadn't realized. We see that with deforestation and all sorts of problems that we address.
TVWeek: What was the toughest challenge you faced with this project?
Mr. Cooper: Certainly operating in Greenland is difficult. There are rugged conditions and we were literally in the middle of nowhere on an ice sheet with a team of scientists studying the shrinkage of the ice sheet, how much the snow is melting and how much the ice is melting. So getting to them and spending a week at the highest elevation or the highest latitude point on the map that CNN had ever done a live shot from was technically a very difficult shoot. Sleeping in subzero temperatures in a tent for days at a time is always a difficult thing when you're trying to shoot television at the same time. Probably on the other side of the spectrum would be operating in the Amazon, where we were for about two weeks, and just getting from point A to point B is a tremendous undertaking because there are no roads, so everything is done by helicopter. We were visiting tribes that rarely have contact with outsiders. We were going to areas deep inside the Amazon rainforest where we were on patrol with Brazilian State Police to hunt down illegal loggers. There was an awful lot of frontline reporting that took a lot of time.
TVWeek: When people say you have a glamorous job, is this the kind of reporting you tell them you're doing?
Mr. Cooper: It's funny because there's a line that I say repeatedly at times like those in Greenland, when we're in tough situations, and I actually said it several times in the Amazon, when we were sleeping on the floor of a mud hut in the village of the tribe called the Kraho who feel there are loggers poaching on their land and they go out every day trying to protect their land with bows and arrows. So we're sleeping on a mud floor and living off Clif Bars and Snickers and the rain is pouring down and there are tons of mosquitoes. I would turn to our group and say, "It's the glamour of the job that I love." One of my cameramen actually got bitten by some sort of a spider that implanted eggs in him and they proceeded to grow after he got home. ... Once he was hospitalized he was OK, but I reminded him then how glamorous our jobs are.
TVWeek: Do your friends and family understand what goes into getting the story?
Mr. Cooper: I don't know if viewers understand what we go through, and that's OK. It's not really about us and it's not about what we're going through to tell the story. We try to keep the focus on the people whose stories we're telling or the subject matter we're covering. But certainly my friends who are aware of my travel schedule know that I probably won't be able to make any event that they have planned. They realize the work I do, but I do think viewers can tell when you're just parachuting into a place to be there for the live shot, as opposed to when you're really there. Wherever we go, we have to do our shows at the same time and we're blogging constantly throughout the day, and so I think our viewers have a very real sense of where we're at. We try to give them as much a sense of behind-the-scenes as possible.
TVWeek: Do you have a different approach when you're doing pieces for "Planet in Peril," which are more documentary features, than when you go to cover a current event like Hurricane Katrina?
Mr. Cooper: I would say that the pieces in "Planet in Peril" may not be the headlines on any given day, but they are very pressing and they are very much things that are happening now. In the Amazon, people are getting killed over deforestation; there's a famous American nun who was executed because of her stand. So in a lot of these communities we were visiting, this is the news, these are the headlines. They may not make headlines in the United States often, but often in the places where we're going, these stories are very much on the front pages and are very much current events. ... It's a matter of going to a place and keeping your eyes open and keeping your ears open and going with where the day takes you and where the news takes you. It's going out on a mission with police in the middle of the Amazon to catch and arrest people who are animal poachers. It's very much like going out on patrol with police in New Orleans on any given night and seeing whom they catch breaking the law.
TVWeek: When the idea for "Planet in Peril" came up, what was CNN's response to such an ambitious and expensive project?
Mr. Cooper: They were gung-ho from the get-go. I was probably the most reticent of all just because of the amount of time it would take. I was worried that it was going to take time away from the nightly show that I'm doing, and I worried about just technically how we could broadcast from some of these locations, because if I can't bring the show with me to a place, then that limits what I can do on any given night for our program. I think that this is what CNN does; this is what we do. We find things that we think are important and we go and devote the resources to telling those stories. It just so happens in this case it's an enormous amount of resources. It's four continents, 13 countries, it's all shot in high definition, and so it's a huge undertaking. But frankly this is what CNN does and they do it better than anyone else.
TVWeek: You mentioned that "Planet in Peril" is all done in hi-def. Was CNN just as ambitious in the production as it was in getting the stories told?
Mr. Cooper: Yes, and we really tried to approach this as journalists, not as educators or storytellers necessarily, and certainly not as advocates. This wasn't about proving some agenda. It was about doing what journalists do, which is going and checking the facts, holding people accountable and finding out what is true and what is not. It's always easy to see things from afar and say this is why something is happening, but what you're supposed to do is go and check the facts. You have to see things with your own eyes and be changed by what you see.
TVWeek: How do you think the audience will react to the project?
Mr. Cooper: I think there's a lot of interest. We've been airing these ["Planet in Peril"] reports and will continue to air these reports in advance of the series and also after the show has gone on. There's a lot of interest in this stuff that affects everyone. ... There's a built-in interest in this, so I'm confident people will want to watch, and we want it to be an interesting and enjoyable viewing experience and something that is not a slide show. This is taking you to the front lines of these hot spots around the world, so I think it's going to be interesting.
TVWeek: Of all the stories that you've done, which one has had the greatest impact?
Mr. Cooper: Hurricane Katrina is one that had a lot of resonance with people. I continue to go down to New Orleans every couple of weeks. ... I believe very strongly in continuing that story and keeping it in the headlines and focusing on what's going on down there. That's a story that I think people related to. We just did a week of shows in the Democratic Republic of Congo and that is a place not many people know very much about, but I think once you take people on a journey to a place, even if they don't really know the place very well, you present them with stories about people who are very real and in some ways like everyone who's watching. People really do get involved, and I think there's a real connection. Certainly Americans have this remarkable desire to know about other places around the planet and a remarkable willingness to care about other places, even if they're very far away and the people seem very different than we are.
TVWeek: Who are the journalists who have influenced you the most in your career?
Mr. Cooper: There are a lot of different people, from a photojournalist I grew up with, a man named Gordon Parks. He was somebody who was a friend of our family and was the first African American photographer for Life magazine, the first African American to direct a major film for Hollywood. He just recently passed away, but he was somebody who I certainly admired personally. There are also a lot of reporters, like Bob Simon, who's now at "60 Minutes," one of the great writers on television. Jim Wooten, who works at ABC. Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel. I grew up watching all these people and really admiring them. I wanted to see what they had seen, and go to the places they had gone to.
TVWeek: Do you challenge yourself by taking on difficult stories?
Mr. Cooper: I think it's important to keep learning and keep improving. I feel I've been very lucky so far, and I'm very privileged to have worked with really talented people. I'm fortunate now to be at "60 Minutes," also a place where they are obviously incredibly talented. I'm learning different ways of interviewing people and different styles of shooting there, so it's like exercising different muscles, including those in your brain. I do think it's important to keep growing and to keep getting better. I think when you start to think that you know it all and you don't have any more room for improvement, then I think you start to become a bore very quickly. ... I want to keep getting better because I want to keep being sure that I'm doing right by the people of the stories I'm telling.
TVWeek: Is environmental journalism something you're especially adept at, considering that you covered Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami and now are doing "Planet in Peril"?
Mr. Cooper: I think it's just a coincidence. I mean, in some ways, the tsunami and Katrina were more akin to a war or a manmade disaster. Certainly Katrina, I would argue, started off as a natural event but it became a manmade disaster very quickly and continues to be. So I don't think the term "environmental journalist" is something I would use really to describe what I'm doing. The word environmental, I think, to some people has become associated with having an agenda, and it's not a term I ever really use. I think I'm a journalist, whether it's television or writing or whatever forms it may take, but I don't think there's any one particular subject. ...
TVWeek: What's on your agenda after "Planet in Peril"?
Mr. Cooper: I'm heading for Iraq in September, which I'm looking forward to. It'll be my fourth trip there. Other than that, I don't know where the news is going to take me. Last week I went to Niger and shot a story for "60 Minutes," so that'll probably be on in November.
TVWeek: How do you find the time for all these stories?
Mr. Cooper: Well, last week was my vacation, so I used it to shoot something for "60 Minutes," so that's how you do it. You use up all your vacation time. It makes it a little easier, I guess. But I really like what I do. I'm very passionate about it. I feel like there's a lot I need to learn and a lot I'm learning as I'm going, and I want to continue that process.
TVWeek: Do you feel that your work has an effect on people's lives?
Mr. Cooper: There's a lot of stuff I worry about in terms of getting a story and trying to make it right, to make it representative of what I'm seeing and what people are saying, and certainly it has to be accurate. I'm not an advocate and there's not an agenda I have. I don't have a political position that I'm trying to validate or buttress in the stories I tell. I don't have personal opinions I'm trying to ram down people's throats. There are plenty of other people in cable news today who do that and they do it very well. More power to them, but it's not something I want to do at all. I do believe that it's important to walk in other people's shoes and to see things from multiple angles. Even if you have strongly held beliefs, you need to consider other people's opinions and understand where they are coming from, whether you agree with them or not. ... I think there is value in learning about other people in other places, and so if what I do helps people and informs people in a way that they feel is useful, then that's great. ...
TVWeek: Has the new technology changed the way you do your job as a broadcast journalist?
Mr. Cooper: Absolutely. I think that's one of the most remarkable things about today. When you think about the access we have to information now, it's just remarkable. With a handheld device, you can have access to every song that's ever been recorded, every article that's ever been written on a given subject, and two or three years from now we'll have exponentially more access to information. I do think it's changed the way we work. Some things haven't changed, like storytelling. Trying to find out the facts, presenting the facts to a story, holding people accountable, you know, the core essentials shouldn't change, but certainly the platforms by which we deliver are constantly changing, and I think that's a great thing.
TVWeek: Is there one story you've done in your career that you're most proud of?
Mr. Cooper: I'm proud that I've been able to continue going back to the Mississippi Gulf coast and New Orleans in the two years since Hurricane Katrina. I made a promise to myself and to the viewers that I wouldn't forget what all of us had seen in those terrible days after the storm. CNN has been very willing to let me continue to go back, and that's something I'm glad that I've been able to do. All too often in news we tell stories and then we move on, and we never look back and we never follow up. It's just so easy to move on to the next big story, the next thing, but I think it is important when a piece of America has been decimated to not just move on. We have to continue to look at it and continue to bear witness to what's happening.
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- SEJ Picks Right Environment to Meet
- Q&A: CNN's Anderson Cooper on 'Planet in Peril'
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- NBC Launches Weeklong Green Event
- Ken Burns Goes Back to Nature on PBS
- Sundance Focuses on Green Documentaries
- SEJ Panel Aims to Get Scientists, Journalists Working Together
- The Greening of News Corp.
- CNN's Peter Dykstra Touts New Technology's Ability to Improve How Environmental Stories Are Told
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