It's really not an unreasonable question. After all, Cooper's fellow CNN Anchor, Don Lemon, who is African American, also came out as gay last year. And the response was, well, minimal. No New York Times Room for Debate column re-treading the old questions about coming out. No disarming blog posts from the usually outlandish comedian Kathy Griffin, equal parts congratulations and worry. Just a coming out, a smattering of good wishes, and the return to business as usual.
So why was Anderson Cooper's announcement that he is gay, one that shocked few people, one of the most Twitter-worthy headlines of the day yesterday, whereas the response to Lemon's was so small? To be sure, much of the reaction to Cooper's coming out was shrugging. But it was public shrugging—somewhat belying the "it hardly causes a blip on the radar" line of the Entertainment Weekly piece he was responding to in coming on Andrew Sullivan's blog (even as it confirmed the "but it's not as big of a deal as it used to be" angle).
One explanation is the relative prominence of Cooper and Lemon. Yes, both are talented journalists—engaging askers of tough questions and deliverers of fair reports—as well as frontmen on CNN. But only one, Cooper, had superlatives like "most prominent" attached to his name in stories about the coming out.
But I think the answer lies elsewhere: Lemon has always been seen to speak as an "other" on the news, while Cooper only belatedly came out as as an other. Unable to hide being African American, Don Lemon knew, I'm sure, that he could never realistically claim he wanted to keep part of his identity a secret so that sources and viewers would be more inclined to trust his objectivity. He no doubt had his own struggles in coming out (he's spoken candidly about abuse he suffered as a child). But, for the most part, the effect that knowing his identity might have on his reception as an anchor couldn't really factor into his decision.
In the past, Cooper, by contrast, used the explanation that he had to stay private for his work all the time when declining to speak about his love life. (He also said that he didn't talk about his private life generally, even as he spoke about his family growing up, and especially the tragedy of his brother's suicide.) Yet no one, as far as I know, asked him why, as a white man, viewers would automatically trust his objectivity while a black man like Lemon would have to prove it. No one asked him about that sad reality of American race perception.
To be clear, I admire Anderson Cooper greatly, not least of all because his reporting on topics like the devestation of Hurricane Katrina and the Rwandan Genocide brought stories to viewers that many feel other anchors downplayed because of the racial or national components. Even if I think that Cooper has been a bit naive to say, as a good-looking white man, that he is somehow a neutral or default setting as an American, that viewers will come without pre-conceptions to an anchor who looks as he does and thus trust him implicitly, I think he has successfully challenged the subtle -isms of what gets presented on the news in this country.
But his coming out and the reasons it got more coverage than Lemon's, remind us that our country has never ceased to become more diverse, that its population looks every day less like the race (and class; he is a Vanderbilt, after all) we associate with Cooper even as most of the head anchors continue to look monolithic.
Hand-wringing does seem inevitable after an announcement that makes us realize the major anchors aren't all the same, as it was Katie Couric took over the CBS Evening News. But it's also important. If we want news and information that portray and engage as many facets of our diverse Republic as possible, the hand-wringing will probably have to continue, and the homogenuous character of the leads will have to change.
And then, hopefully, next time someone makes an announcement like Cooper's or Lemon's, it really will just be a blip on the radar.