How Anderson Cooper's old-school approach to journalism kept him in the closet professionally

Anderson Cooper may not have been out on TV, but he was hardly in the closet.

Instead he was living in this in-between world where old-school journalists used to spend most of their public lives. We can call it the Land of Few Personal Details or LFPD for short.

There was a time in journalism when the Land of Few Personal Details made perfect sense. We didn’t talk about our personal lives for lots of reasons, as Cooper explained in his coming out email to Andrew Sullivan:

Since I started as a reporter in war zones 20 years ago, I've often found myself in some very dangerous places. For my safety and the safety of those I work with, I try to blend in as much as possible, and prefer to stick to my job of telling other people’s stories, and not my own. I have found that sometimes the less an interview subject knows about me, the better I can safely and effectively do my job as a journalist.

I've always believed that who a reporter votes for, what religion they are, who they love, should not be something they have to discuss publicly. As long as a journalist shows fairness and honesty in his or her work, their private life shouldn't matter.

Embedded in that explanation is the obvious reason, as Cooper told his friend Kathy Griffin: "I want to report the news. I don’t want to be the news."

His network seems to agree. "CNN said it would not comment, and that Cooper was on assignment and there were no plans for Cooper to discuss it on the air," the Associated Press reports.

When we insert ourselves into the news, it sometimes comes off as an act of ego or arrogance. It’s a needless distraction.

Another more murky reason that journalists used to keep the details of their personal lives quiet was to guard against the perceptions of bias. The more people know about you, the more they can assume about your politics. If they know that your dad is in the union or that your spouse is a deacon in the church, they are likely to associate you with certain political positions that go with that demographic.

Many journalists still live in a world where their employers expect them to keep their politics to themselves so that they can speak to audiences with diverse political views. In fact, CNN is one of those places.

But journalism got more about the personal in the last 15 years. It’s hard to put your finger on the moment. Was it Katie Couric’s colonoscopy or the rise of "This American Life"?

We started using the word "I." We started letting our personalities become part of the product. And Cooper wasn’t above that. He famously tapped into his emotions during the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, tearing into Louisiana State Senator Mary Landrieu, and shedding the calm demeanor of a news anchor in favor of the unhinged terror that seems more appropriate in middle of an apocalypse.

While we are still arguing over how much of our personal lives (and politics) to reveal, no one is suggesting we go back to the sterile days of the everyman anchor.

There were also darker reasons that journalists didn’t talk about their personal lives. We wanted audience members to attach to their anchors with a level of commitment. It’s a lot easier to feel a close relationship to someone who is Just. Like. You. And if you don’t know anything about that person on the screen, then you’re likely to fill in the blanks with your own assumptions.

In the LFPD, no one is divorced or widowed, let alone gay. Everyone has 2.5 kids, who are all "above average" and play piano and baseball. No one gets cancer, suffers from addictions or even a bad sunburn. Nothing that could be moderately unappealing to anyone is ever acknowledged.

The Land of Few Personal Details was a deliberate device meant to lull the viewer into a false sense of camaraderie. It is a vestige of a time gone by, when we assumed the audience was in fact a homogenous group that could be reduced to its lowest common denominator.

Social media further accelerated this transformation. As journalists began to connect to their audience through Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest, the personal and the professional became even more intertwined. Nick Kristof celebrated his son’s graduation from high school recently on the same Facebook page where he chronicles stories of sex slaves and African orphans.

But Cooper and probably a lot of other journalists got trapped in this transformation. By simply not mentioning the details of his personal life Cooper was suddenly in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t place. Acknowledge he’s gay and it becomes a bigger deal than it should be. Continue to stay quiet and he’s hiding something.

In his eloquent email to Sullivan, Cooper stepped out of that place and into another.

Now that he’s out-out, CNN says there are no plans for Cooper to discuss his personal life on air. But that won’t stop the world from filling in the blanks. Perez Hilton welcomed Cooper to the party. The Huffington Post put together a slide show celebrating celebrities coming out in subtle fashion. And the Westboro Baptist Church updated their God Hates the Media page.

The great thing about Cooper being out and on the record, is that it really doesn’t mean anything at all. Maybe he’ll let a few more details about his social life slip out while he’s on the air. Maybe we’ll get to see an image of him on a date. But most likely everything will go back to exactly the way it was, proving that it really is no big deal that Anderson Cooper is gay.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.


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