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Anderson Cooper

On the deathwatch

By Anderson Cooper

Editor's note: Anderson Cooper anchors CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360," which airs weeknights at 10 p.m. ET. He also is a regular contributor for Details Magazine. This article was published in the June-July 2005 issue.

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When I was in college, my brother killed himself. He woke up from a nap and leaped off the balcony of my mom's penthouse apartment.

It was front-page news in New York's tabloids for a couple of days. Reporters camped outside my mom's building.

When we went to the funeral home to view my brother's body, about a half-dozen photographers were waiting.

I hated them. Snapping pictures of my mom as I helped her out of the car. Vultures circling over weakened prey.

I'd forgotten that moment, that feeling, until this past March. I was standing outside Terri Schiavo's hospice, watching a jostling crowd of cameramen follow her brother and mother's every move.

"Khraw! Khraw!" a network producer standing next to me screeched, mimicking the sound of circling buzzards.

"I've become what I once hated," I thought to myself.

Sadly, not for the first time.

It's an easy thought to have, but of course, the reality of reporting is far more complex.

I've been a journalist for nearly 15 years now, and I've spent a lot of that time waiting for bad things to happen -- rushing toward what everyone else is rushing from.

Bad news makes good news. That's a fact.

I've stood on street corners in Sarajevo, waiting for snipers to pick off pedestrians. I've followed South African mobs readying to riot. I've seen brutality beyond belief, women and children who've been raped, their lips and ears hacked off.

I've never wanted to see these things, never wanted a tragedy to befall a person or a place, but I've worked hard to be there when it does.

It's an odd sensation waiting for someone to die. No one really talks about it.

Outside the Schiavo hospice, people would ask me, "When are you flying out?" All I could do was shrug. "It depends," I'd say.

We all knew on what. "Welcome to the show" -- that's what someone said to me when I arrived in Florida.

It didn't take long to see what he meant.

Day after day, people with causes, and crosses, stood sound-bite-ready, waiting for anyone with a camera to wander nearby. "Oh, I've done 'Hannity' and 'Hardball'," one protester told me, perhaps hoping that would persuade me to put her on TV.

The reporters and protesters were only a few hundred feet away from Schiavo's hospice, but it felt very far removed from what was happening inside.

"The circus has definitely come to town," a cameraman said, shaking his head as we watched a man juggle three balls in the air.

"I'm a juggler for Jesus," he explained, and at that moment it seemed to make perfect sense.

The day after Schiavo died, I flew to Rome for Pope John Paul II's final days.

All the major television networks had been planning the pope's funeral coverage for years, and many had full-time producers living in Rome, organizing access to the Vatican and securing prime camera locations.

One producer who spent years working with Vatican officials to plan her network's coverage told me she never discussed with church officials what event they were negotiating coverage of.

They all knew, of course, but it was bad form to talk about a living pope's death.

In the nineties she was able to pretend they were planning coverage of the Vatican's jubilee celebrations, but those ended in 2001, and Pope John Paul II was still going strong.

When I arrived in Rome, I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror at the airport. I was wearing a black turtleneck and a black overcoat, and for a moment I thought to myself, "The Grim Reaper has arrived."

I'd like to think I was just jet-lagged.

I've been called a vulture to my face only once.

In 1997, I was standing outside Kensington Palace, reporting on reaction to the recent death of Princess Diana. "Why can't you vultures let her rest in peace," a young lady hissed at me.

Paparazzi were being blamed for the princess's car accident, and hatred of the media was running high, so I get why she said it, but the truth is, reporters aren't vultures -- at least the good ones aren't.

On the vast majority of stories I've covered, my presence has been welcomed.

People want you to witness what they are going through. They want others to know about their losses, their triumphs, their tragedies.

Dying is never easy, never pretty, but it seems more bearable for people to face if they know that it won't go unnoticed.

Countless times in Africa I've been ushered into hospital rooms to hear the death rattle of women and children, soldiers, and sex workers. No clean sheets, no modern medicine -- just plastic-covered mattresses, empty IVs, and listless eyes that stare at nothing.

When I first started reporting, in Somalia, during the famine of 1992, I felt very awkward intruding on people's most painful moments.

I watched a mother and father wash the body of their 5-year-old son moments after he died. He had been their last surviving child.

At first I didn't pick up my video camera. I felt the moment too private, the pain too deep.

But it turned out they wanted me there; they wanted someone to see their pain. They wanted me to capture it.

It is easy to become calloused to catastrophe.

In Rwanda, during the genocide, I saw dozens of bodies -- bleached, bloated, barely recognizable as human.

I found myself photographing corpses, fascinated with how the skin hardened in the sun, how palms peel off a hand like a partially removed glove.

I suppose that's the closest I've come to being a vulture.

But you can't allow yourself to stay calloused for very long. You shouldn't do this job if you're not willing to feel, if you're not willing to get hurt.

Nearly 2 million people lined up to see the body of Pope John Paul II. They stood for 15 hours in a crowded queue waiting for their turn.

Many people collapsed, some from hunger or claustrophobia, some from simple exhaustion.

Standing in that line, listening to teenagers sing songs about the pope, watching old ladies clutch his picture to their chests, I found myself tearing up more than once.

A print reporter saw me in the crowd one night and came over to show off his world-weariness.

He began to make jokes about the people standing in line. I simply walked away.

He didn't deserve to be there. He didn't remember why he was.

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