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''Dispatches From the Edge''

By RD Heldenfels Published: June 16, 2006

Near the end of Anderson Cooper's book ''Dispatches From the Edge,'' he writes that ''I've started to believe in signs and magical thinking.'' The line delighted me. More than once, reading Cooper's book, I thought of Didion, and her book ''The Year of Magical Thinking.''

I'll come back to that, after noting that I liked Cooper's book quite a bit, and there are plenty of passages that would-be journalists should study. He's especially good about the emotional component of covering disaster zones, and I was reminded that it was Cooper's personal connection to viewers that made him a CNN star. It also explains a lot about why he replaced the chillier, more professorial Aaron Brown. Cooper knows how to touch people viscerally.

One notable passage:

   It was my first trip to Sarajevo. 1993. The first year of the war. A woman was shot crossing the street, near Sniper Alley. .. I followed (the woman and people helping her) to the hospital and into the ER. The doctors allowed me to shoot footage for a while. They were well versed in the kabuki of cameras, but no longer believed that anything about the situation in Bosnia would change.

   "What picture has not already been taken?" a man in the ER asked me. "What haven't you seen? What don't you know? What remains to be said?"

Here's another section I bookmarked, from his Katrina accounts:

  I don't want to go back to New York, to my job, to the way it used to be. Stories about missing coeds in Aruba and runaway brides, stories that titillate but aren't as important. ... I want to yell at (friends), "Don't move on! Don't go back to your normal life, get caught up in the petty falseness you see on TV!'' It's the same feeling I had weeks after my brother died. I was back at school, and everyone else seemed to have forgotten.

Of course, as a host of a nightly news show, Cooper hasn't exactly gotten his wish about the stories he covers. Here's a recent CNN release: ''In her first U.S. television interview since the birth of her daughter, Angelina Jolie spoke with CNN’s Anderson Cooper about her work with refugees in Africa and around the world as well as the birth of her daughter in Namibia last month. The exclusive interview will air on Tuesday, June 20, as part of a special edition of Anderson Cooper 360° marking World Refugee Day from 10 p.m. to midnight (ET).  Jolie sat down with Cooper for nearly an hour earlier this week in Los Angeles.''

But here's another passage from the book:

   They die, I live. It's the way of the world. ... I used to think that some good would come of my stories, that someone might be moved to act because of what I'd reported. I'm not sure I believe that anymore. One place improves, another falls apart. ... No matter how well I write, how truthful my tales, I can't do anything to save the lives of the children here, now.

There's more, but you should just go ahead and read the book. I don't think the use of the word ''Dispatches'' in the title is casual, because it reminds me of Michael Herr's ''Dispatches,'' a classic memoir of Vietnam, which was also about covering a terrible situation. I don't know if Cooper has read Herr, or Didion, but they echo in his prose.

Didion especially. Part of that comes from the current of grief in Cooper's book, which has him facing the loss of his father and brother, blending his personal emotions (and withholding of them) with the agonies he has seen as a reporter. Didion's ''Magical Thinking'' is also about grief, from the death of her husband, but I also felt in Cooper's writing repeated nods to Didion's journalism, to her use of detail as social commentary. Didion was generally subtler, though equally barbed, as Cooper, but Cooper's on-page voice is just as compelling.

I also admire Didion and Cooper on a more basic level, because they are able to face their dealings in a forum where all the public can pay witness. Sure, a lot of people are willing to talk in a way about demons in their lives, notably celebrities indulging confessional urges about their (presumably past) substance abuse. But those accounts often feel as if they are still skimming over a surface -- I made a mistake, I paid a price, and now a clip from my new movie -- where Didion and Cooper are digging deeper. I envy them their ability. Plenty of us manage to avoid confronting our pain privately, let alone in a forum as lasting as a book.

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