Dispatches from the Edge by Anderson Cooper (Book Review)

The Place of Corporate Media in Society: Should News Aim for Something Different?

Anderson Cooper, a popular news anchor for CNN, began his career as a freelance journalist and foreign war correspondent in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. I was not expecting Cooper to be a pacifist while reading his book, but after finishing it I think I expect a little more out of journalists.

However, this is not to say that Dispatches from the Edge was a bad book. Cooper definitely knows how to keep people’s attention, and his self reflection and authenticity keep me from judging him as a person. Cooper writes about how his father died when he was 10, effectively shutting off his emotions and connections to the other members of his family. Cooper’s brother dies when he is in college, further pushing Cooper’s emotions into a place that he is unable to access.

Cooper admits throughout the book that chasing the tragedy of life becomes a type of coping mechanism for him. There is a gallows humor to the book, laughing at death, as I’ve heard is the only way to really survive in this field. But who makes this standard? What kind of person is really drawn to this field in the first place? Who wants to be a war correspondent?

“I wanted to see the starvation. I needed to remind myself of its reality. I worry that if I get too comfortable, too complacent, I’ll lose all feeling, all sensation,” Cooper writes.

I can definitely identify with Cooper to some extent with this statement, but where I begin to differ is what you do after you witness. Do you try to change the system, or do you become a cog in the system and maintain its power by never truly questioning how things got this way in the first place? Are you chasing after change, or chasing sadism?

Cooper speaks about how sometimes journalism feels inappropriate. People are dying right in front of him, and all he’s focused on is capturing the pain in their eyes, and formulating a story in his head that he’ll tell on air in a few hours.

“…Kids start dying, then some reporters pay attention- usually freelances, men and women looking to make a name for themselves. They arrive first. Their pictures motivate someone from a network to come and do the story. Then more aid arrives. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s what the market will bear,” Cooper writes.

I think money might be the poison that distracts from real, change making journalism. Sharing knowledge through media has the power to transform culture, but if that media is part of the system causing the problems, they are not going to be transparent about real solutions. Major American news media networks are not always able to cover in the way that they want to because a lot of the time they must check with the powers that be first. The solution always becomes sending more money to those people in pain, instead of actually changing the systems that caused the problem in the first place.

Cooper has a different opinion, and thinks that change comes from huge media coverage, for which a media corporation is needed. Thus corporate media, in my mind, is not there to effect change, but merely to maintain the status quo, or even streamline the interests of the elite. However, part of this blame should rest on the public for not expecting more. I am reminded of a quote by Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist and human rights activist who was assassinated in her forties.

“…there is an increase in the number of those who prefer undemanding journalism, reporting which doesn’t involved prying where you are not welcome. Undemanding media cater for an undemanding public, read to agree with everything its told… and the less opportunity society has of seeing what is wrong with the circumstances in which it lives,” Politkovskaya writes in 2003.

This is not to say that Cooper’s career has not been demanding: he has witnessed some of the worst situations in the world and not backed down. Yet, reading his book I am filled with a sense that he is talking to the same people in every war zone, in every disaster- he is speaking to the officials (governmental, military, police force or rogue police force) and he is simply capturing the death of civilians of countries, not listening to the stories of the civilians or giving their opinions weight.

“People were here, they were doing drugs. People were having sex on the floor, shooting up… it seemed like just madness, uncontrollable madness,” Cooper quotes a military official as saying while he is covering the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

I was shocked that these were the kind of details that Cooper chose to highlight. People are people, and when you get a bunch of people in one area like the Superdome without proper care or personal space, people are going to be people. Law and order is not the same when disaster strikes, and it’s a farce for journalists, police and military expect it to be so. Also, when you arm yourself to the teeth with guns, people in crisis are going to try to get guns of their own. People who are getting food out of abandoned grocery stores in a disaster are not “looters” that the police heroically scare off, they are hungry and unable to pay for food in a normal way because no one is working at grocery stores.

While reading it I am continually surprised at his not mentioning he wants to change these horrible situations. In his mind, it seems they are merely red meat for him to cover as a journalist. He doesn’t dive into solutions based journalism, but merely reports the facts and leaves it up to the rest of the world to figure it out.

“War is hell, but hell, it’s also an opportunity,” Cooper writes

I don’t think that Cooper needs to change anything about his reporting style. The world can handle a range of people and so needs a range of reporters- people who want to capture dead bodies on camera, and people who want to think about saving those bodies before they are close to being dead. We need people to gather the facts on the ground, but we also need the people to fill in the larger story with these facts. The thing is though, a lot of the time journalists are censored from filling in the blanks, for showing the larger story, or for speaking to certain people. Working for a corporate media station, it might not be Cooper’s choice what he gets to cover, and how. That’s why we need independent media, like Democracy Now!

“There’s a reason why our profession is the only one explicitly protected by the US Constitution: journalists are supposed to be the check and balance on power, not win popularity contests. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. It’s the job of journalists to put our microphones between the bars and broadcast the voices of those inside,” Democracy Now! news anchor Amy Goodman writes in her latest book, Twenty Years Covering the Movements Changing America.

While Cooper is a really good writer and a brave and dedicated journalist, he is still working for the dominant American narrative, which glorifies war and “law and order” racist enforcement, which doesn’t take into account the human element of the story as much as it could, a media which plays off of death and disaster because that’s what gets the good rating so that advertisers will pay them good money. That’s the business. While I don’t blame Cooper for playing the corporate media game, a game he excels at, I realize that he is a not a journalist role model who I want to emulate.

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