Anderson Cooper, Dan Rather Jr., Emotes in Sri Lanka

Against a mise-en-scène of blue surf, swaying palm trees and a tsunami-flayed beach, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper looked like Jim Caviezel in the Terrence Malick epic The Thin Red Line-an earnest soldier gone AWOL in a remote, tropical hell, searching for meaning in a cruel, unforgiving world.

“You stop and talk to people, and if you’re in a town and you smell something, if you smell death, you stop and ask how recent it is,” said Mr. Cooper, standing on the beach in Beruwala, Sri Lanka, describing the reporting process by satellite phone between stand-ups. “It’s the most elemental kind of reporting. It’s the kind I really like the most.

“I’ve basically gone back to what I did when I first started,” he continued. “I was walking around with a D.V. camera and shooting like when I was on my own. It’s exactly like when I was 22 or 23. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it feels good.”

It was Monday, Jan. 3-Tuesday morning, Jan. 4, in Southeast Asia-and exactly 212 hours after the first undersea earthquake was recorded, killing an estimated 150,000 people and eventually waking American television from its holiday slumber and sending it into a mad, New Year’s scramble for tales from the edge of disaster. The day before, Mr. Cooper had taken the 16-hour flight from John F. Kennedy airport to Colombo, Sri Lanka, arriving just as other big news guns like ABC’s Diane Sawyer and NBC’s Brian Williams were touching down with crews in tow. To date, CNN has been acing the coverage, mainly because it had a well-equipped news organization in place and wasn’t dependent on fill-in pundits or second-stringers in Beijing to keep the story spinning.

“My sense of it was everyone was on vacation and they just didn’t come back,” said Mr. Cooper. “I’ve become very skeptical of ‘the year in review.’”

Of course, Mr. Cooper had himself been vacationing in the Dominican Republic with friends when he heard about the tsunami.

“I heard about it Sunday morning and I called in and was pushing to go immediately, and I was hoping to fly back to J.F.K. and just catch a flight,” he said. “But, you know, it didn’t happen.”

It didn’t happen for a lot of news networks. The question why is probably a big one, and when a reporter addresses whether President Bush reacted too slowly to the unfolding disaster in the Indian Ocean, it was hard not to see a bunch of pots calling a kettle black.

Jon Klein, CNN’s recently hired president, said he was reluctant to send Mr. Cooper off while the anchor was conducting the network’s field reporters, but he eventually relinquished when it was clear Mr. Cooper could wait no longer.

“At first, I was absolutely against it,” he said. “And then as I saw the revelation of his connection to the story, I just felt that he could meet the challenge that you face in week 2 of a major story like this, which is to advance it.”

The CBS News veteran added that he felt Mr. Cooper “owned” the story and that his career would be defined by the tsunami coverage in the way that other world-class anchors were defined by their coverage of other historic events.

“It’s a story breaking on his watch that he grabbed hold of and has just poured himself into as all the greats have,” he said. “Dan Rather, starting with the Kennedy assassination and taking it from there, and Jennings, who did a remarkable job on 9/11. I think you’re seeing that with Anderson and the tsunami. He feels it in his bones. And that’s something you can’t fake and that’s something the audience can pick up on. It’s palpable.”

That Mr. Cooper “owned” the tsunami story, of course, was patently absurd, considering he had essentially covered just one major story in the one day he was actually in country: an overturned train near the Sri Lankan town of Galle that may have claimed the lives of some 900 people.

That train had overturned long before Anderson Cooper could be seen on TV in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, wearing an orange cap advertising the Discover Card. “If you listen closely,” he said that night, “you can hear the last shred of dignity I had being stripped away.”

Slate’s TV critic, Dana Stevens, wrote that “you could just see him thinking, One more day and I’m out of here.” But that was just self-deprecating happy talk, said Mr. Cooper. He really liked being there.

“I volunteered for the New Year thing,” he said. “I find it very moving to be in Times Square, especially as a native New Yorker. I’ve volunteered the last three years to do it. I think I was a little tired.”

(Mr. Klein said he could literally hear Mr. Cooper’s knees “banging against the anchor desk” he was so excited to depart for Asia.)

And if Mr. Cooper’s first transmissions from Sri Lanka were a bit shaky-especially up against professional foreign correspondents who crafted neat mini-documentaries about the disaster from throughout the region, and to whom Paula Zahn at the anchor desk zapped the camera alongside Mr. Cooper-it was also true that Mr. Cooper’s earnest frown of internationally recognized empathy was palpable, throwing off a kinetic emotion that said: TV is still a wobbly, live-wire new medium working to bring world historical moments, from the gruesome to the sublime, into America’s living room. If Mr. Cooper seemed like he was constantly moved by little things-picking up dishes, shoes and a stray diaper to show the audience-well, he was. He’s an emotional reporter-a TV feeler who felt the poetry and pain of an empty shoe.

And his boss’ comparison of Mr. Cooper to Mr. Rather or Peter Jennings is not completely off-key. Like Mr. Rather, he was unafraid to hang his heart on his sleeve, although Mr. Rather did it with a substantially stiffer upper lip, more authority and the benefit of his grab bag of down-home colloquialisms. For his part, Mr. Cooper had an ever-ready furrowed brow, a shock of steely man-boy hair and the ability to wear a royal blue shirt open at the collar, stand windblown on a beach and project a scrubbed sexiness that imbued the increasingly terrible news with that television patina that can twist a reporter into being a bizarrely romantic figure.

Mr. Cooper saw himself as not just a man who relayed the facts, but a witness to history in an epic, Herodotus-on-the-tube sense, even if he occasionally risked coming off as a wide-eyed naïf, Gloria Vanderbilt’s dappled lad who gazed quivering at humanity’s grief from the window of palatial penthouses.

But in the sense that a decentralized disaster story was made up of a zillion little human-interest stories, a tsunami really was the Anderson Cooper story.

“In news, we tend to focus on one thing and forget that in many ways, in towns and villages and in people’s hearts across these areas, the disaster continues,” he said on the phone. “Small and private are what’s most interesting right now. From a larger perspective, it’s the aid story, but on a personal level it’s where people’s heads are at and ‘Where are people’s hearts?’ and ‘How do you wake up and live every day in a home which has been wrecked and it’s hot and the smell wafts across your village?’ and ‘How do you think about your future?’ and ‘Where do you go?’ And that’s what I’m most interested in.”

It was in hell holes like this one where Mr. Cooper had earned his stripes as a TV guy, first as a scrappy Channel One kid toting a Betacam around Africa, later as an ABC News correspondent. Now, with an imminent schedule shuffle likely under Mr. Klein, he was poised to helm prime time- Anderson Cooper Now, anybody?-with some critics suggesting he take over CBS Evening News after Dan Rather departs in March. But Mr. Cooper said he hadn’t been contacted about either job and those thoughts were far from his mind now anyway-he was too busy slogging through the humid wreckage of a Sri Lankan quagmire, witnessing the abject misery of the human condition.

“To me, one of the saddest things in life is people who were decent and living decent lives get killed or died and no one notices or celebrated the lives they lived,” he said. “I just wanted to be here.”

Mr. Cooper described a scene of spooky calm when he arrived, with the media so spread out across the disaster that everyone essentially found themselves alone, in random villages and beaches, combing for stories. When he arrived at the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka, he said, “there wasn’t a sense of chaos or urgency or anything. There are certainly media here, but it’s not like the Peterson trial or something. It’s much more intimate and spread out. You don’t get a sense of who’s where.”

A few hundred miles away, in Thailand, Dan Rather was head to foot in a flight suit and riding a chopper from the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln into devastated zones.

“I personally think you can go anywhere and find the story,” said Mr. Cooper. “The real story is the private pain and the private loss you can find in everybody’s face here. And so, it’s cool if you want to ride on a chopper and do whatever. I’d be happy to take a chopper ride, too, but I’m just as happy to walk through a village and see where the day takes me.”

He was doing his evening broadcasts in a location CNN producers had pre-selected before he arrived: a hotel for German tourists that had been totaled by the tsunami and was now deserted. “All the signs have been ripped off,” said Mr. Cooper. “The hotel has pretty much been destroyed.”

After reporting more on the train-wreck story, he said he found himself exploring the damage willy-nilly, cataloging his experiences on a Sony PD-170 digital video camera.

“It’s great, because normally on a downtime like this I can just take the D.V. camera and just walk around this hotel and walk around the rooms and there are fascinating stories,” he said, breathlessly describing how simple debris, like a shoe in the hallway, told the story. “It makes you feel so much more alive and part of the story and part of the process. I was talking to the driver and I was rolling on him and you can just jump out and it makes you feel very connected to the story.”

Of course, Mr. Cooper was willing to do whatever was necessary for his network-like stay put for a few days and anchor a New Year’s ball drop, or call reporters from Sri Lanka and shill for the company in its moment of news-gathering glory.

“The truth is,” he said, competing networks “can’t really cover things. I don’t want to sound like I’m selling the company, but CNN, whatever you think about it, invests a ton of money all the time on having a ton of people around the globe reporting stories. Experience and capabilities really matter. I personally feel proud of the work CNN has done. It’s at a time like this that you say, ‘Yeah, there’s something good about having a variety of bureaus.’”

When Mr. Cooper spoke, he was still hydroplaning on one hour’s sleep and planned on bagging two stories before he went to air again some 21 hours later. He was cueing up stories about local fisherman now afraid of the sea and a Sri Lankan woman swept out to sea and later raped by the men who rescued her. “I’m trying to track that down,” he said.

Meanwhile, an inert anchor desk-a CNN prime-time slot, or maybe, who knows, even CBS Evening News-awaited him in New York. He didn’t seem to care.

“I’ve never expected to be anywhere,” he said. “People love you one day and the next they don’t. I ultimately find it depressing. I just try to focus on being smarter and better than I currently am.”