For some cable news viewers, it isn't a real breaking news event until Anderson Cooper gets there. CNN's prime-time host has been reporting this week on the crisis in Ukraine from Kiev, broadcasting live from Independence Square as tensions between Russia and the United States rise. Cooper spoke with Yahoo News on Thursday about the city, his approach to storytelling, and the time he slipped into Burma with a fake press pass — and found his calling.
Yahoo News: When you get to a place like Kiev, literally, what do you do first?
Anderson Cooper: It really depends. We got in Monday morning, and the first thing we did was we came to the square, where so much of the story in Ukraine has been, and we just started talking to people. You want to make the most of the daylight. And you shoot all day long. Then we went back to where we were staying and started editing. Then we set up for some live shots and set up for the show, which is on live at 3 a.m. local time, 8 p.m. in New York. By the time you're done it's almost dawn and time to go back out. You just hit the ground running.
How much sleep do you get?
Not much at all. We're really working around the clock. You try to catch an hour here or there. And you can do that for four or five days. Then at some point you crash for 12 hours straight.
How many people do you travel with? What's the size of the crew?
I travel with two people: a producer and a cameraman. I like to keep a small imprint wherever I am.
Do you get recognized in Kiev?
Well, CNN is global now, so yes, I guess I do. I guess with my white hair I tend to stick out.
Last night you said Kiev is the most extraordinary place you've ever reported from. That's a pretty bold statement coming from someone like you.
I was talking about the square itself. Visually it may be the most extraordinary place we've ever broadcast. You have protesters camping out here. You walk around these huge barricades of corrugated steel, metal and tires. Bottles that were used as Molotov cocktails everywhere. This fog and smoke sitting over the city. It almost feels like something out of World War II. I was in Sarajevo and there was some of that, but here it seems to be constant.
When you go on location, you normally go to where the action is. Did you try to get to Crimea? Was it too difficult or dangerous?
When we got here, CNN already had a crew in Crimea. It was really for logistical reasons — we wanted to maintain a presence on air for as long as possible, and this was the best place to do that.
Do you feel pressure to explain to American viewers why they should care about what they are watching?
I'm not a big believer in telling people what they should think or care about. People can decide for themselves. I'm not going to tell them to eat their broccoli. People have a lot of stuff, enough stuff, going on in their lives for me to tell them that. My job is to accurately describe what a place is like, what people are going through, and let [viewers] make up their own minds. As a storyteller, I know the best stories, like Africa or Sarajevo or Haiti, are the ones where you step out of the way and let the stories, the voices, the sounds tell it. It's all happening in front of you.
Do you feel any pressure, real or imagined, to justify reporting from a place like Kiev? Cable news is accused of playing up the drama for viewers.
No, not at all. I'm in a place where 85 people were killed a week and a half ago. Where thousands of people are refusing to leave to honor those who died, leaving flowers, creating a real shrine. There is more than enough drama here to not have to create something that's not real. It is very real.
What do we not see on TV?
It's a good question. The camera lens is pretty small, and you're trying to cram everything you're seeing and hearing into this little camera. You can't. You can't get the smell of charred wood and smoke into the camera. A block away from the square there's a TGI Fridays, where people are going about their lives. All you can do is take viewers on a journey. I hate that word, "journey." But you just let them in as close and as accurately as you can.
How long do you plan on staying there in Kiev?
I don't know. It's day by day. A lot of it depends on what happens here, if things de-escalate. I don't know if we'll stay or where we'll go next. You never really know in this job. You walk out your door and don't know where the day is going to take you.
When did you know you wanted to do this?
When I was in college I was interested in TV news, and I had read a lot of war correspondents in combat zones. When I graduated in 1989 there weren't many entry-level jobs in TV. In 1991, I had a friend make me a fake press pass and snuck into Burma and just started reporting. And from there I went to Somalia and Sarajevo in '93 and got hired by ABC in 1995. But I guess as soon as I snuck into Burma, that was when I realized what I wanted to do. These people in Burma rose up and had been crushed the year before Chinese protestors were crushed in Tiananmen Square. No one was telling their story. I found telling their story was meaningful, and telling the stories that nobody at the time would.