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Anderson Cooper Cronkite Luncheon Remarks

Thank you so much. I had no idea any of those people [in the tribute video] had been interviewed, I didn’t know any of those people actually knew me, none of them have actually talked to me for years… no, I’m kidding. That was really, really extraordinary.

It’s really an incredible honor to be here and it’s quite intimidating knowing the remarkable roster of journalists and broadcasters who have been here before me. I’m old enough to have grown up watching Walter Cronkite and the incredible team that he assembled around him at CBS News, and it was Walter Cronkite and that team and Bob Simon and Eric Sevareid who really sparked my interest in the world and my earliest thoughts of perhaps one day being a foreign correspondent. So it’s kind of surreal for me, quite frankly, to be standing here receiving the Cronkite Award.

I should point out, I actually met Walter Cronkite a number of times when I was a little kid, and I met his wife, I didn’t know him very well, but he was always very sweet to me. I did have rather a strange experience with Walter Cronkite that I will just briefly tell you about. In the later years of his life, I was asked to introduce him onstage at a Jewish university in Los Angeles – this was several years before he passed away – and then to do a little interview with him about his career. So he arrived and he and I met backstage and he was lovely and he was just fantastic, and he had somebody with him who I went over the questions with, just to make sure that he would be comfortable with everything. And at that point, his hearing wasn’t very good, so when he was on stage, he had a double IFB system – he had an IFB in both ears that was connected to a microphone that his assistant had offstage, so when I would ask him a question, she would repeat the question into a mic that went directly into his ears. So he came out, I was so thrilled to do this, you know, to be on the same stage with Walter Cronkite is incredible. He sits down, he says something very sweet about my work, people applaud, I ask him the first question, he answers the question, he’s funny, he’s charming, it’s a great story. I ask him the second question, and he looks at me, and I ask the question again, and then he says, “My ear system isn’t working, the IFBs have broken.” So it ended up with me screaming at Walter Cronkite on a stage in front of five thousand people. And it got to the point where I was screaming one word like “Vietnam!” to spark him to then tell the Vietnam story, or like “Kennedy! Shot! You! Cried!” And thank God this was in the days before Twitter, because people would have been tweeting like, why is Anderson Cooper screaming at Walter Cronkite, of all people? Anyway, Walter was fantastic and so generous afterward, he was like, “Wow, you handled that pretty well, that was impressive.”

I probably shouldn’t actually tell you this, but when I was first asked to come here today, I actually declined. And I was saying my schedule was really tough with the election coming up and working for CNN and 60 Minutes, I didn’t think I could do it. And then I got a call back informing me that told nobody has ever declined this, and I realized that I’m a complete jerk, and so I instantly of course said I would be very honored to come, which in fact I am.

I like full transparency.

But to explain, it’s not that I wasn’t honored by the very thought of it. The truth of it, and I know this may sound like I’m being falsely modest, but I really truly do not believe I deserve this recognition because I still feel like there’s a lot I need to learn and can learn and there’s a lot I can get better at. When I look at my career thus far I see a few things, literally just a few things here and there that I’m content with, but more often than not, I see moments that I missed, or questions that I didn’t think to ask in the moment. I think of words that I failed to write or sentences that I failed to think of. I wanted to be a correspondent because I wanted to bear witness to events around the globe. I wanted to go to places and shine a light on something that was surrounded in darkness or something that had been hidden. I’ve reported in more than 40 countries in the last 18 years, but I’ve only rarely ever been satisfied with my ability to truly convey what is happening somewhere.

When you’re in a place like Port au Prince in the hours after an earthquake, the morning after an earthquake in which some 200,000 people have been killed, and you are surrounded by mothers who are searching for the bodies of their children, or you see a father carrying his infant child in a wheelbarrow looking for a place to bury him and there’s no place to bury him, or you see people digging through rubble with bare and bloodied hands and you can hear the faint cries of children who are trapped beneath tons of concrete. And you try to capture all of that. You try to convey all of that. Not just the facts and the numbers and the names, but the sounds and the smells and even the silences. You try to find words to convey the horror and the humanity that you’re surrounded by. And more than anything else, you just want to do justice to what is happening. Not just get the facts right, that’s the first step, obviously. But you want to do justice to the lives that have been lost and do justice to those who have survived and whose lives will be forever changed. You want somebody who’s watching, whether they’re watching at home or on a mobile device or on a treadmill at the gym, you want them not just to understand what is happening but for those few minutes, to feel what is happening. And you hope that what you do creates some sort of understanding, some kind of reaction. But the truth is that more often than not you fail, because that camera lens is so small, it’s this little piece of tiny glass, and it’s so hard to kind of cram all the stuff that you see and you feel and you hear into that little camera lens. Sometimes I feel I’ve come close to doing justice to what I’ve had the often painful privilege of bearing witness to, but more often than not, I feel like it’s not good enough. These are not just stories that we cover, it’s real life and it’s real death.

The other reason I was reticent to be here is because those of us I think in front of the camera get far too much recognition as it is. Behind the camera, in the field and in newsrooms around the globe right now there are women and men whose names will not appear on an award or a plaque, women and men who work long hours for far less pay than I’m making, who are make tremendous sacrifices and often take personal risks to make it possible for me to do my job. I’m talking about photojournalists and producers and researchers and engineers and editors and satellite truck operators and executives. And I wish they were here with me today, I wish they were the ones here – well, actually maybe not the executives. They’re not really that fun a group. (Pardon me, there are a couple of TV executives right here – I’m talking national, not local… Anyway.)

The Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication is obviously world renowned and I’m so impressed by how many of the students that I’ve met so far have a vision for what they want their careers to be and who they want to be. I should point out that when I graduated college, I really had no idea what I wanted to be or what I wanted to do with my life. In desperation my senior year of college I asked my mom for her advice, which is something I rarely did growing up. As my executive producer Charlie Moore mentioned, my mom is Gloria Vanderbilt, so I come from a long line of layabouts. But my mom is a remarkable lady, but practical, she is not. So she wasn’t really the parent you would go to for actual, practical advice. The only time as a kid I can remember honestly asking her for advice I was applying for my first job as a waiter one summer and I was going for a job interview, I hadn’t had a job interview, and I said what should I do. And she thought about it, literally for two days – it took me a while to realize she’d never actually had a job interview – and she came to me after two days and said, “Wear vertical stripes because they’re slimming.” So, tells you a little bit about the way she saw things.

So it was a sign of my desperation my senior year of college when I actually went to her to ask what do you think I should do when I graduate. And she thought about it, thankfully for a much quicker period of time, only for like a couple minutes, and she said “Follow your bliss.” (You laugh. I know.) It’s actually not original advice, it’s not even a term my mom came up with. Bill Moyers, who received this award in 1995, was interviewing a professor named Joseph Campbell on public television. And this professor, Joseph Campbell, had come up with this term, “follow your bliss.” So my mom just gave me life advice she had cribbed from watching television. So I’m thankful she wasn’t watching Maury, because she would have told me to get a DNA test or something.

The problem with “follow your bliss,” as I think any students who are in this room may know, is that it is difficult to figure out what you bliss is, and certainly at the time I wasn’t very sure. I hadn’t studied journalism, I had a liberal arts degree, which means I graduated without an actual skill, but I’d always been interested in news and television – as I said, I grew up watching Walter Cronkite, and I’d been really interested particularly in the experiences of war correspondents in the Vietnam War. And I’d left high school a semester early and I’d ridden in a truck across sub-Saharan Africa for about five months. And Africa, it had opened my eyes and it had quickened my pulse. And it was to Africa that I decided to go a couple years after graduation to try to become a reporter. I hadn’t been able to get an entry level job at CBS News or at ABC News. I had worked for a few months at a thing called Channel One, which was a show seen in about half the middle schools and high schools in the United States at the time, so I had been a factchecker there, but no one would give me a chance to be on air as a reporter. So I figured if no one was going to give me a chance, I would have to take a chance. If no one was going to give me an opportunity, I was going to have to create my own opportunity.

So, because I had read a lot about the Vietnam War correspondents, I decided to just start going to wars. I quit my job at Channel One and the director kindly made me a fake press pass – which will no doubt probably please the president – and armed with this press pass and a home video camera which I borrowed from Channel One, I moved overseas, snuck into Burma and Myanmar and hooked up with some students fighting the Burmese government. From there I went to Somalia in the early days of the famine and also a civil war that was going on in 1992. And until I had been to Somalia I had never seen somebody die in front of me. I had never seen starvation up close.

My first night in Somalia I was in a town called Baidoa, where about a hundred people were dying every day. You’d see their bodies along the road, or you would see them piled up in makeshift morgues like stacks of kindling wood.

I remember my first night I was sitting in a hut made out of twigs, watching a man and wife fill a kettle with what little water they had left. And they’d come to Baidoa because they thought there was food there, but there was no food to be had. Between them lay their young son, who had just died while I was there. His body covered in a shroud, in a dirty cloth. And I’ll never forget this, the little boy’s legs were as thin as some of the twigs which made up the outer layer of the hut that we were in. The man held his son’s head in his left hand and the woman poured the contents of the kettle over her son to wash his body to prepare him for burial. They had already watched three of their other children die. This was their last child, and he was just five years old.

It was in Somalia in that moment that first trip that I knew I had found my calling. I knew I couldn’t stop the starvation, I couldn’t actually save people’s lives, but I could bear witness to their struggles. I could learn their names and I could tell their stories, so at least they weren’t dying in silence.

In those early years as a correspondent in Somalia, and then in Sarajevo and then in Rwanda and in Haiti, I saw first-hand how easily societies fall apart, how the thin veneer of civilization, to use a term that general Michael Hayden has used recently on my broadcast, how thin the veneer of civilization really is. It doesn’t take much for the institutions and the values that we like to think are rock solid to begin to crack and to crumble. It happens sometimes before anyone realizes, and it happens in the broad light of day. Leaders manipulate divisions, they attack the press, lies are called truth, truth is called a lie. Societies divide along ethnic, religious or political lines, and chaos ensues.

I’m speaking of what I’ve seen overseas, but I’m also speaking of what can happen here. Truth, as we’ve heard today, is under assault. Facts are called fake. Lies are used to divide us, to weaken confidence in journalism and in the core institutions that are essential to maintaining our democracy. Thousands of Americans died in Puerto Rico in the wake of a devastating hurricane, and they died because of a lack of electricity and access to medicines and doctors that they would normally be able to go to. They die but their deaths are not recognized by some because it does not fit their agenda.

Politicians and their families right now are heckled in restaurants by people who are so convinced of their own righteousness they feel someone who disagrees with them must be evil and attacked. Reporters are labeled the enemy of the people. This is where we are.

There is certainly much to criticize in the media, much to analyze and to improve upon, but this I know: I know that the kids who are studying here to become journalists are not the enemies of the people. Nor are the people I know who work every day to report facts. Tim Hetherington, who was a friend of mine, a photojournalist killed in Libya, who bled out when a mortar landed nearby him, he was not the enemy of the people. Nor was Marie Colvin, who was assassinated in Syria several hours after I talked to her, nor was Dan Eldon, who was killed by a mob in Somalia, nor was Jamal Kashookji, who was killed and likely dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

These were people seeking the truth, asking questions, doing their job. A job so important that it is protected in our Constitution.

So the question is, what is to be done. Unlike many in cable news, I’m not a believer in wearing my political beliefs on my sleeve. I don’t look to be a liberal reporter or a conservative reporter, I don’t want to be a Democratic reporter or a Republican reporter. I believe that all of you, all audiences are smart enough – and smarter than many of us on television – to make up their own minds about who to vote for. People want facts and they want information and given that, they can make up their own minds.

The answer, in my mind, to the attacks on reporting is more reporting. And I’m not the first person to say this, but I believe it with all my heart. There is truth and there are lies. There are facts and there is fiction. And it’s our job to point that out, even if at times it seems no one is interested or no one is listening.

It is very easy in this country, no matter what side of the political aisle you are on, to feel angry or scared, to feel that the problems of the world maybe are worse than they have ever been. Many of you in this room may feel that way. There certainly is a lot to be concerned about, but I also just want to quickly give you some facts that often get lost in the day-to-day coverage of our world. Facts that show while we may feel like the world is more dangerous than ever before, the truth is actually the opposite. The truth is that all of us in this room right now, are lucky to be alive right now. Life for humans on this planet is better than it has ever been in the history of mankind. It’s better than it’s been for any previous generation that’s ever lived.

I am by no means saying there are not tremendous dangers and problems, disparities of wealth, poverty, access to medical care, threats to the planet, concerns over where the country may be headed, climate change, but by nearly all markers life for humans is the best it’s ever been and it’s just getting better.

Despite the slaughter we see in a place like Syria, or the barbaric acts of terrorism we witness, often on a weekly basis, you and me and everyone else is less likely today than ever before to die a violent death. Wars are less frequent and not as deadly as they once were. The first day of the battle of the Somme in World War I, 60,000 British troops died. The first day of the battle. That was one day, one battle. It may not seem like we are safer than ever before since we see violence up close now in ways we never could because we all have cameras, but just because we see it doesn’t mean that it’s actually worse.

Around the globe human beings are living longer, healthier lives. The quality of life has improved. In the 1820s, as many as 94% of the world’s population lived in poverty. 94% of the world’s population lived in poverty. In 2010, which is the last year figures are available, that global poverty, that’s down to 21% of the world’s population.

Nick Kristoff of the New York Times has done a lot of assembling of these facts. He pointed out recently that back in 1981, 44% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, which means they earned less than a dollar a day, they don’t have basic access to water, food or shelter. So 1981, 44% of the world’s population was in extreme poverty, that’s down now to less than 10 percent, according to the World Bank. And every day the number of people living in extreme poverty drops by 250,000.

I just learned that for all of human history up until the early 1960s, most adults in the world were illiterate. Now just 15% of the world’s adults are.

I was in field hospital in Niger several years ago during a malnutrition crisis, and one of the heroic doctors named Milton Tectonidis who works for Doctors Without Borders talked to me about what he called “stupid death.” And “stupid death” is a child dying because of lack of access to an antibiotic that would cost 10 or 15 cents. Well, today fewer kids are dying today than ever before, they are saved by simple things. Again, according to the Times, since 1990 more than 100 million kids have been saved just by vaccinations, by diarrhea treatment and breast feeding promotion.

We may not feel like the world is a better place today than in the past, but I think part of that is that we are more aware than ever before about what’s happening. We see it. We have more information at our fingertips than any previous generation in history. When I was in college, there was a library that I had to go to and there was microfiche – does microfiche still even exist? You actually had to go to the periodical room and look at old magazines. I tell this to kids in school now and they look at me like I’m, you know, dead. It’s nuts. And I’m so pale, I do look like I’m dead, so.

The thing that gives me the most hope, the thing that I’ve seen all around the world in the 18 years that I’ve been reporting is the power that each of us has to reach out and care for someone else. In the midst of tragedies and disasters I have seen so many acts of bravery and selflessness by individuals. During the tsunami in Japan, people at risk of their own lives reached out to save complete strangers being swept away by flood waters. In the earthquake in Haiti, citizens who had been abandoned by their own government spent days digging through the rubble to save those who’d been trapped.

Individuals make a difference. Each of us can make a difference. And it’s the difference between success and failure, the difference between hope and heartache. It’s the difference between life and death itself. Individuals standing up, not waiting to be told what to do, but taking responsibility ourselves.

Too often I think we dwell on the things that separates us, and certainly in the media too often we dwell on the things that separate us, rather than the bonds that tie us to one another. And those bonds truly are at the core of who we are or can be, when everything else is stripped away.

That is the truth and there is strength and I think hope in that.

Several months ago, I’ll conclude with this, I found online an old radio interview that my dad had given when he wrote a book in 1976. My dad died when I was ten years old and he was fifty – which I used to think was a really old age, but now I’m 51, and I’m like, the clock is ticking. But I found online this old radio interview that had been restored and put online that my dad had given on public radio in 1976 talking about his book. And the company that had restored it sent me an email and said, we restored this interview, you should listen. So I clicked on it in my office a while ago and it was the first time I had heard my dad’s voice since I was ten years old.

And one of the things he said stayed with me. He said “we are, all of us, separately and together, engaged on the same tough journey. Each of us alike tastes of its joys and sorrows. Each of us gets by as best he can, and we must, whenever possible, reach out to each other, tentatively to touch, with our hands, with our minds, and with our hearts.”

And that’s what I try to do in my work as a reporter. And I think that’s what happens every day at ASU. Undergraduates and graduate students, alumni and faculty, reaching out. With hands and minds and hearts. So thank you for that, and thank you very much for inviting me to be here today. I appreciate it.