NEW YORK — If Anderson Cooper were anchoring today the same 8 p.m. CNN newscast slot he inherited in 2005, executive producer Charlie Moore has no doubt what it would be like. "Obsolete," he said.
Instead, Cooper and Moore have fashioned a program that's one part breaking news and one part "truth-telling" squad and it is building momentum.
Through early June, "Anderson Cooper 360" had an average audience of 859,000 people, or 20 percent above 2010, the Nielsen Co. said. Within the younger demographic on which CNN bases its ad sales, the increase is 46 percent. Fox News Channel's Greta Van Susteren has twice the audience at that time slot, but has gone down 16 percent in a year.
It's impossible to tell how much Cooper's improvement is due to a busy year in news — the Japanese tsunami, Arab uprisings, deadly tornadoes and Osama bin Laden killing — and how much it is because of a sharper focus provided by his "Keeping Them Honest" segments.
The show is on top of big news when it happens, and Cooper has been on the scene in Japan, Egypt and Joplin, Mo. But news producers have to work with the assumption that most people know the headlines by 8 p.m. and want something more when they tune in on a slower day, Moore said.
Cooper's use of the phrase "keeping them honest" dates back four or five years, but has been emphasized most heavily in the past year. In a politically polarized time, he said he's struck by how many public figures make claims with little evident regard for accuracy. Cooper's team tries to cut through the maze of dubious reports in the same way news organizations deconstruct claims made in political advertising.
The task is simple but important at a time when Fox and MSNBC offer so many commentators with clear political points of view, he said.
"I'm not an opinion person," Cooper said. "I'm not interested in being a conservative anchor or a liberal anchor, a Republican anchor or a Democratic anchor. I'm much more interested in trying to look at things at multiple angles and trying to walk in other people's shoes and understand things from a different vantage point."
Producers who think it's enlightening to put two people with opposing viewpoints together and let sparks fly frustrate him.
Last November, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota claimed on Cooper's show that President Obama's trip to Asia would cost taxpayers $200 million a day. Cooper picked apart the bogus story the next night, finding it originated from one anonymous person quoted on an Indian news service. The New York Times' Thomas Friedman said Cooper "did the country a favor."
Another key moment for Cooper was when U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas claimed terrorists were sending women to the United States to have babies that are U.S. citizens who would leave the country and come back decades later to sow destruction. Cooper said he couldn't find anyone in the FBI aware of this, and asked Gohmert to outline what he knew.
"You're attacking the messenger," an angry Gohmert said. "Anderson, you're better than this. You used to be good."
Replied Cooper: "I've offered you the opportunity to present some form of evidence and you've presented nothing."
Cooper said the show is careful in how it picks topics not to consistently pick on one party or ideology. He went hard after a Florida Democratic candidate for unfairly trying to tie an opponent to the Taliban.
Some critics feel "Keeping Them Honest" is empty sloganeering.
"When it comes to 'keeping them honest' probably no one exceeds CNN's Anderson Cooper," said journalism critic Mervin Block. "Exceeds him, that is, in saying, 'keeping them honest.' " He counted nine uses of the phrase in one newscast, and said it often doesn't make sense.
Paul Levinson, head of the journalism department at Fordham University, said Cooper is "clearly the best that CNN has. He's as passionate as a Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann or Sean Hannity, but doesn't look for wrongs on only one side of the political spectrum," he said.
"I like the fact that he doesn't take guff from his interviewees," Levinson said. "He doesn't just accept the usual nonanswers that people like to give."
Cooper reported extensively on the Rep. Anthony Weiner's Twitter scandal, with a "Keeping Them Honest" segment showing how the congressman aggressively lied about his conduct. The show initially ignored the story about Sarah Palin's confusing comments about Paul Revere until she continued to defend herself, then brought on a historian to debunk her interpretation of Revere's rides.
There are often similarities between what Cooper and Comedy Central's Jon Stewart do, in their use of extensive research on public officials to point out hypocrisies and lies. Both took after Palin on Revere, for example, although Stewart went for laughs after showing Palin's words. Cooper's story about how often Palin complained she was tripped up by "gotcha" questions could easily have been a topic for "The Daily Show."
Most people want to stay informed and be given correct information about what is going on in the world, Cooper said.
"It just surprises me when we meet people who are misinformed and don't seem to be willing to alter their viewpoint," he said.
Surprising, maybe. And good for Cooper's business.