Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Honeymoon is Over, Anderson

Anderson Cooper is gay but not publicly out, that's the standard line. This isn't news, but there's been a long-term debate, particularly within the gay community, about whether he has a responsibility to be out, or not. Some say yes, some say no. Those who say no tend to believe that being in or out of the closet is a totally personal choice (one should never be outed) or that, since Anderson isn't actively working against gay people--like Larry Craig or Mark Foley or Ted Haggard--or pretending to be straight, then he should get a pass. It's none of our business. Basically, this is what Cooper himself has said.

When asked about the "sexuality issue" in New York magazine, he replied: "You know, I understand why people might be interested. But I just don’t talk about my personal life. It’s a decision I made a long time ago, before I ever even knew anyone would be interested in my personal life. The whole thing about being a reporter is that you’re supposed to be an observer and to be able to adapt with any group you’re in, and I don’t want to do anything that threatens that."

And at the top of Cooper's CNN blog, just to the left of his earnest, handsome reporter's face, his words of wisdom are, "Be honest about what you see, get out of the way and let the story reveal itself." Clearly, Cooper's aim is to objectively report stories without becoming part of them. Unlike the Geraldo Riveras or Bill O'Reillys or Sean Hannitys or Keith Olbermanns of the world (apologies to Keith for lumping him with the other morons), he chooses to seek answers rather than pontificate. And, unlike the FOX bullies, he's managed to keep a veneer of class because he listens to guests rather than yelling at them.

Yet, he's also not afraid to be a personality. He regularly makes the talk show rounds, giggles with Kathy Griffin, sits in for Regis and swaps silly personal (but not too personal) stories with Kelly--not exactly serious newsman fare. Which is part of his charm. Between his self-deprecating wit and silver fox looks, with a little Vanderbilt glamour thrown in for good measure, he's cultivated quite the dreamboat persona, one that can't be entirely accidental.

He charmed the pants off of me (or he could have, if he'd tried), and so I wasn't one of the ones clamoring for him to come out. In fact I rather enjoyed the wink-wink banter that seems de rigueur during his more frivolous gigs. It was kind of fun knowing that he was on the team yet also knowing that much of dim, mainstream America didn't realize this. Not unlike when Rosie and Ellen used to trade Lebanese jokes. Furthermore, he did occasionally take on gay issues on his show, not unsympathetically, so I was inclined to think he could have it both ways.

Then I watched an interview he did in the wake of the Lawrence King murder, and suddenly Cooper's reluctance to be open about his sexuality just seemed wrong. While Cooper deserves some credit for bringing attention to a tragic story that had been mainly overlooked by the mainstream media, it's odd, to say the least, to hear a gay man persistently say the word homosexuals (such the clinical media term) and talk about homosexuality is if it were no more intimately related to him than nuclear physics. He could have brought some authority to his questions, but he chose to play the naif.

In the course of questioning a child and adolescent psychiatrist about how to deal with bullying in schools, Cooper talked about how some parents don't want it (homosexuality) taught or discussed in the classroom. In replicating the language of bigots (any gay person knows that homosexuality is not going to be taught in schools--respect for and tolerance of difference is) and completely distancing himself from any personal connection to Lawrence King, he effectively became part of the silence and shame that still--in 2008!--surrounds gayness. Suddenly I saw what I should have seen earlier, if I hadn't been one of the smitten ones: Anderson Cooper is a coward. Lawrence King was brave, and he paid for his bravery, and as long as people like Anderson Cooper stay hidden in their professional lives they are perpetuating the myth that homosexuality is a dirty little secret that belongs to them, not us, not me. (A YouTube video of Cooper orchestrating the legitimacy of ex-gayness following the Ted Haggard scandal comes off like a Saturday Night Live skit; unfortunately, King's murder isn't as funny as Exodus-types pretending to be straight.)

By drawing the personal life (as if sexuality doesn't involve anything outside the personal) line in the sand, while willingly basking in celebrity's glow, Cooper is squandering whatever integrity he might have had. Part of his appeal was the angry humanity (and personality) he brought to his reporting in the aftermath of Katrina. But it will become more and more difficult for him to express his humanity when he's unwilling to reveal an essential part of his own.

I'm not necessarily talking about a flashy coming out à la Jim McGreevey (those forced outings do tend to be flashy) or even Ellen. There are ways to express one's gayness without shouting it from the rooftops. Celebrities like David Hyde Pierce have managed to do it without compromising their careers or dignity, so why can't Cooper? Because he risks becoming the story, risks getting the gay label, risks losing viewers whose fantasy bubble's been burst, risks getting shafted by CNN. But, at this point, it already has become the story, in part because of Cooper's stubborn refusal to deal with it like a man, suffer through some media brouhaha and move on. And the longer he keeps up the charade, the more he risks becoming a wind-up pretty toy without a key, observing from the corner he's backed himself into.

1 comment:

tt said...

I appreciate your analysis but I think you neglected to consider restrictions of employment. A number of people who claim to be in the know have said Anderson’s CNN contract prohibits him from discussing his homosexuality, so he just leaves everyone else to do it for him. It would be surprising if they hadn’t included one of the standard clauses for public figures allowing them to terminate him if public perception of him substantially changes. And as former anchor Aaron Brown is finally at liberty to say, when CNN lets an anchor go the anchor is contractually barred for years from working in news or discussing the circumstances of the termination. There’s only so many major news broadcasting organizations in the first place, and being out of the game for years is a career killer.

Before working at CNN Anderson was known to attend conferences for gay journalists and gay youth.

Being a gay CNN news anchor means that Anderson is in a position to bring world attention to these events at least. Being an out gay news man means that Thomas Roberts is no longer on CNN where he might of been able to contribute to the discussion about this hate crime, and instead on the Insider talking about the Oscars and Britney.

Anderson’s normally not as formal and stiff dealing with gay issues on the show as he was in this piece, but I imagine he’s more self conscious right now after taking a spanking from the public and probably his bosses over really obvious activism activity while moderating the Republican youtube debate. Choosing the retired gay general’s “why don’t you respect the people in the armed services enough to think they’re sufficiently professional to working with openly gay soldiers?” question, making the general the only questioner he invited to get up and speak, and then raking Mitt Romney over the coals with an old quote about gays in the military was unsubtle activism. Some of the criticism about it was ridiculous, but some even as a gay non-Republican I thought was valid. Anderson is a gay combat reporter and I’m sure this is an issue he’s passionate about and it seemed like the perfect question from the perfect questioner, but that was the wrong forum. The primaries are for a party to hear candidates discuss their stance on issues that are of major interest to their base, and the republican base has no interest in making policies for the gays the military more liberal. It was a question that belonged in a democrat or a democrat vs republican debate. As a journalist who is normally very strict about preserving a public perception of neutrality, who has refused to discuss his religious beliefs and political views as well as his sexual orientation, allowing personal interest to interfere would probably make a guy extra cautious about objectivity.

Putting aside any other factors, I’m not sure if stories of mini-Cooper’s own school experiences would have been useful since they would hardly be illustrative of what other gay kids endure. Anderson passes for straight, he attended a private arts focussed academy in New York, and when he decided he was tired of school he completed early and left the continent to go to Africa by himself. His parents were also very gay friendly and had famous out gay people like Truman Capote and Andy Warhol over at the house all the time.