Anderson Cooper may go down in history as the first television anchor to interview a woman about what it was like to give a future president of the United States a spanking. But that wasn’t the most important, or most interesting, part of his interview with Stephanie Clifford, the adult film actress who uses the professional name Stormy Daniels and who claims to have had an affair with now-President Trump.
It would be easy to overlook the most radical thing Cooper did in his conversation with Clifford, which aired on CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Sunday night, in between discussions of Trump’s contraceptive preferences (or lack thereof), his fondness for “Shark Week” and the alleged intimidation Clifford says was aimed at keeping her quiet. But as a cultural milestone, the most radical thing Cooper did was refuse to treat Clifford as if she was irresponsible or immoral, or as if she were less than credible simply because of what she does for a living.
Thanks to the Internet, explicit content is more accessible than ever, and some research suggests that the consumption of pornography is rising among younger Americans. But that hasn’t necessarily translated into better working conditions for the people who appear in adult films. And despite the attention paid to performers like Sasha Grey and James Deen*, who have been breakout stars and sometimes even gone on to work in mainstream films and television shows, working in adult films is not exactly regarded in the same neutral way as waiting tables or working at a law firm.
But, refreshingly, that’s exactly how Cooper and “60 Minutes” treated Clifford’s work. The narration in the segment noted that Clifford “has been acting in, directing and writing adult films for nearly 20 years” and that “she was one of the most popular actresses in the adult industry.”
But Cooper and his producers never used the facts of Clifford’s job to suggest anything else about her. The discussion of whether her story is credible was confined to facts that are relevant to that question. Among them: the fact that a financial settlement is involved, the fact that Clifford had denied reports of the affair in the past, and the possibility that coming forward might open up possibilities such as a book deal. A sloppier or more motivated interviewer might have suggested that Clifford’s job made her immoral or unstable, but Cooper never stepped over that line.
Cooper and his producers also never used Clifford’s profession to imply anything about her status as a parent. When Clifford recounted a story about a man who she says told her to keep quiet and threatened her then-infant daughter, Cooper wisely refrained from moralizing about what the girl might be exposed to by virtue of her mother’s job. And the episode treated seriously and respectfully Clifford’s concerns about the idea that her daughter might see media coverage about the alleged relationship between her mother and the president, and her resignation that such coverage had become inevitable.
The segment acknowledged at a number of points that sex work doesn’t have the same status as other jobs. Clifford said that when she and Trump discussed the possibility that she might appear on “The Apprentice,” she was skeptical because she believed that “NBC’s never gonna let, you know, an adult film star be on.” She said Trump told her that part of the reason he liked the idea of casting her is that her intelligence would contradict public stereotypes about adult film performers.
And Cooper quoted Jenna Jameson, another popular adult film star, as saying that “the left looks at her as a whore and just uses her to try to discredit the president.” But “60 Minutes” never treated Daniels that way; instead, Cooper used Jameson’s comments to frame an exchange about how Clifford felt she was viewed. That perception may be ugly, but that doesn’t mean it’s an unrealistic fear for Jameson, Clifford and other adult film stars to have.
Plenty of people will be willing to weaponize Clifford’s profession without regard for her as a person if it lets them damage Trump. Fortunately, Cooper wasn’t one of them.