The Anderson Cooper on display for attendees of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s second distinguished speaker discussions of the year Saturday night wasn’t the serious-faced, hard-bitten news anchor that’s become the most recognizable face at CNN over the past 15 years.
The Anderson Cooper UTRGV students and staff welcomed virtually into their homes Saturday evening was candid, quirky and frequently self-effacingly modest, joking and quipping while sharing heartfelt anecdotes from a lifetime’s worth of experience as a journalist.
“For all you to spend your Saturday evening with me, it’s an honor. I don’t know if when I was in college I would have listened to some old guy rambling on a Saturday night — although frankly I wasn’t doing anything on a Saturday night anyway. I was probably just napping,” he said during the chat.
Cooper spent almost an hour and a half speaking with communications professor Aje-Ori Agbese and responding to questions from the UTRGV community.
Much of the discussion revolved around current events, particularly politics and the pandemic. In other parts Cooper talked about his personal life: his brother’s suicide; coming out as a gay man; reporting from war zones.
Wars, crises and disasters were Cooper’s first foray into journalism.
“I couldn’t get entry level jobs at the time, so I decided if no one was going to give me a chance I would have to take a chance, and if no one was going to give me an opportunity then I’d have to try to create my own opportunity,” he said. “I had some money saved up and I had a friend make a fake press pass for me and I borrowed a camera and I started going to wars by myself, because I thought if I went to places that were really dangerous that other people weren’t going to I could probably find some incredible stories and it would also be personally something I really was interested in, in how people survived.”
Cooper talked about working his way up to where he now is in the media industry and detailed what’s contributed to his success.
“I think the most important thing — probably in life, but certainly if you’re a journalist — is to listen. And I cannot tell you how important in an interview listening is,” he said.
The veteran journalist also gave advice specifically for people looking to get into the field.
“At the core of journalism is storytelling. And at the core of it, it’s trying to understand someone else’s perspective, and that’s, I think, more important than ever before. We are so divided,” he said.
As enlightening and eloquent as Cooper’s insight was, none of it was particularly revelatory. You could learn most of the facts he shared about himself by searching his name online.
What you couldn’t get so easily anywhere else was the sense of intimacy between Cooper and the students and staff who spoke with him. Despite happening on a Zoom call, you could tell the journalist was connecting with his audience.
You could tell Cooper was following his own advice and listening to the people he was talking to — he would use their name when he spoke to them, graciously shrugging off their compliments and focusing on answering their question. He told one student she could direct message him another question via Instagram if she needed to.
The subject of the conversation was often grim. Cooper’s faced difficult times personally and professionally, and most of the questions he fielded were shaded by the current state of world affairs, politically and pandemically.
Nonetheless, the tone of the discussion remained positive. Cooper believes in people, and that buoyed the grim talk with an air of positivity.
He believed in his audience Saturday, too.
“When I was in college, I always thought it was really cheesy when older people said this, but your generation is so much more, so much better educated about the world. You just have access to so much information, you know it’s overwhelming obviously at times, but your life perspective is so much broader, I think, than a lot of the older generations who are around now making the decisions,” he said. “And so I’m optimistic about your generation and younger people.”