CNN's Anderson Cooper accepts award from Haiti: Does it further blur line between reporter and advocate?
The hope of CNN's future explained his decision to accept an award from the government of Haiti Monday this way, according to the Associated Press:
"I thought a long time about not accepting it," anchor Anderson Cooper said, after accepting a medal and certificate from a Haitian president fending off criticism that not enough has been done to rebuild the country since the devastating earthquake six months ago.
"We finally came to the opinion that it was recognition by the country for all journalists," he told the AP. "I don't think this in any way impacts the desire or willingness to be critical of the government."
Perhaps not. But it does put a question on the table again about Cooper's reporting style, which has become a kind of misery advocacy that can veer too much about promoting his own brand as a reporter for comfort.
It's hard to argue with a news anchor who heads straight for the globe's worst disasters, asking tough questions about the inevitable dysfunctions and horrors. Still, there is a bit of discomfort in the best journalism from tragic events -- all involved know the journalist is getting an amazing story because someone else is enduring unimaginable misery -- and Cooper's brand has become a high-profile embodiment of this unfortunate dynamic.
Rather than ape the ideologically-slanted presentations of competitors on MSNBC and CNN, Cooper offers news coverage as a morality play -- where victims are given a voice and "they" are held accountable.
Before returning to Haiti, he kept a regular countdown of how long BP officials were dodging his show, while spotlighting the grievances from an endless stream of local government officials, business owners and working stiffs negatively impacted by the ongoing oil spill. He's won many awards for his coverage of Haiti, which kept the spotlight on the horrors there longer than most of his competition.
But I wonder about the simplistic narrative of victims vs villains; some officials complaining about the effectiveness of big government's response in the Gulf oil spill deserve tough questions of their own -- particularly politicians who know the best way to deflect questions about their own effectiveness is to complain about the ineffectiveness of others.
I also wonder about the publicizing of moments when Cooper and CNN's medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta put aside their roles as journalists to just help people in disaster areas. As I've written before, it makes simple, human sense that a neurosurgeon would help save lives in an area that desperately needs doctors; it makes less sense to keep the camera rolling while he does it.
And that's ultimate reason why Cooper's award in Haiti makes me so uncomfortable. In a space where the line between reporter and advocate is blurrier than ever, it might have made a much stronger statement for him to decline the award and stand in the press gallery with everyone else covering the event.
It might not have served the brand much. But it would have affirmed that the work in Haiti is about journalism, where telling the best story is the highest reward.