CNN anchorman Anderson Cooper is riding about as high as you can in the TV news business these days. His cable news ratings for his nightly Anderson Cooper 360 are tops in his time period for November, and he's winning them with serious, fact-based journalism.
Then, there's his part-time job as a correspondent for the top-rated CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes, where he's doing first-rate newsmagazine journalism that ranges from a report on rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to a recent Michael Phelps profile that drew an audience of more than 18 million viewers.
Tonight at 9 on CNN, he will be seen in yet another role as investigative reporter traveling to Cameroon, Costa Rica and Rwanda to cover stories of humans, animals and ecosystems under stress on Planet in Peri l.
From tracking animals suspected of carrying the kind of deadly pandemic viruses that can spread to humans, to swimming with great white sharks, the 41-year-old newsman looks to be putting himself in some peril for the reports.
"I've been interested in viruses for a long time," Cooper said in explaining the background of his report from the jungles of Cameroon. "The idea that the ripple effect of a food crisis can lead to hunters going deeper into forest regions where there may be deadly viruses lurking intrigues me."
Cooper says his bosses at CNN have sometimes turned down his requests to track the viruses, but this time "it fit into what we were doing," and he got the OK.
As for another segment that finds him swimming with sharks off the coast of South Africa, Cooper only let CNN know about that the night before from the field.
"On the shark thing, I had planned on diving in a cage," Cooper says. "But when we got there, we found this guy who swims with great white sharks, and he was confident enough in my diving to take me out. I actually called back to CNN that night, and they were great. They usually leave it up to my discretion in the field as what is safe not only for me, but I'm certainly not going to do anything that will endanger anybody else."
Speaking of swimming, Cooper recently attracted quite a bit of attention - and some flak from bloggers like me at baltimoresun.com/zontv - for donning a pair of baggy swim trunks and challenging Olympic champion Phelps to a mock race during a profile piece for 60 Minutes that aired Nov. 30.
"On a celebrity profile - and I've done of few of them now for 60 Minutes - we usually try to come up with something that is different or something you haven't seen a celebrity do before," he says.
With someone like Phelps who has been interviewed extensively and made innumerable TV appearances, Cooper says "it's a real challenge to come up" with a new wrinkle.
"So, it was really interesting to me that so many people paid so much attention to me swimming against him - which was, literally, in a 13-minute piece, maybe a minute," Cooper says. "But that was the thing everyone commented on. I was just on David Letterman, and that was something he mentioned as well. It was the first thing he mentioned and he actually showed the race."
As much fun and energy as Cooper brings to such moments, it's the serious, fact-based journalism that dominates his work, and by which he wishes to be judged.
"I take the news very seriously. I don't necessarily take myself all that seriously, but I do take news very seriously," Cooper says.
"I think in many ways I'm sort of old-school," he says. "We're interested at CNN in having a news program, in reporting and doing journalism and doing it the best we can. That's one of the things I love about CNN: They're still investing money in sending people out to the front lines. We did a week of shows from the Democratic Republic of the Congo on rape and the civil war there. We did a week of shows in Niger on the child malnutrition crisis. This is something no other network invests the time or resources to do, but CNN continues to do it in a very challenging environment. And I'm proud to be part of it."
Planet in Peril airs at 9 tonight on CNN.