The National Conversation: Jake Tapper
Jake Tapper has become one of the most recognizable faces of broadcast news not only because of the three hats he wears at CNN—hosting his weekday show, The Lead with Jake Tapper, Sunday’s State of the Union with Jake Tapper, and serving as the network’s chief Washington correspondent—but also because he’s become something of a social media phenomenon. It’s not just that he’s got a lot of Twitter followers (1.1 million); it’s that clips of his dogged interviews with his guests have a tendency to get shared, and praised, widely online. See: Tapper grilling Kellyanne Conway on her usage of the term “alternative facts.”
He has a reputation for being tough but fair—he’s happy to put politicians of all persuasions on the hot seat—and boosted his national profile in 2015 and 2016 after moderating two Republican presidential debates.
Despite a post-inauguration news cycle that just won’t quit, Tapper found the time to talk to The National in his office at CNN’s Washington, D.C., bureau about what he thinks the media needs to do to better understand and connect with everyday Americans, and how social media affects his worldview.
The National: This is “The National Conversation,” so let’s talk about exactly that. The day after Election Day 2016, the American media began reckoning with how little they understood the Heartland voter. In the post-mortem, what lessons have the American media learned?
Jake Tapper: Well, I think lesson No. 1 is however much those of us who live in the Washington-to-Boston Amtrak corridor love living here, we need to get out of it more and talk to people who live in central Pennsylvania and northern Iowa and border towns in Arizona to get a better sense of what’s going on out there. Do the people in those towns feel as though the government here in Washington represents them, cares about them, is focused on them in any way? I think that the more time spent in Mississippi or Alabama or South Carolina the better.
Another point is that I think there is a tremendous hunger for the press to truly try to hold Democrats, Republicans, House, Senate, state representatives, judges, whomever, accountable. And that at least in terms of convincing the public that that’s what we in journalism are trying to do, we have failed in that task. They don’t think that about us. They don’t think that we’re in there fighting for them. It’s a great opportunity for us now to become what the Fourth Estate is supposed to be and to be worthy of the First Amendment, and I hope we all rise to the task.
On the campaign trail in particular, there is the tradition of reporters on the bus, reporters on the plane, parachuting into cities in every state so that at least there are warm journalistic bodies on the ground across the country. But then the buses and the planes leave.
I’ve been a campaign reporter, and you’re still in a bubble—even if you’re in middle America, you’re in a bubble because you are traveling with a candidate, you are shepherded from the plane to the reporter work area and then back again, and you’re on deadlines, and you have to file, so you don’t necessarily get the opportunity to go and talk to many voters.
There are a lot of great local reporters who have done a great job covering local stories, and that’s how we know about the opioid crisis in this country, and that’s how we know how globalization has decimated towns. That’s not the chief task of the campaign reporters, but what we need to do as an industry is get in there before the candidate arrives and talk more to the people who are in these towns.
In terms of what will I do differently in 2020—or even in the 2018 midterms—first of all, I’d like to do more policy coverage.
You know, what exactly are the differences between candidate A and candidate B in terms of tax credit policy or in terms of the opioid crisis or in terms of trade? I think we did some of that, I just think we need to do more of it.
There’s also a media bubble in terms of media consumption among journalists. Meaning that, you know, folks from The Wall Street Journal are watching closely what Politico is doing and The New York Times and CNN and other A-list media organizations are doing. Which results in many reporters chasing the same stories.
One of the great things about social media is that it doesn’t limit you to The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. I read The Des Moines Register; I read local newspapers all the time. So there’s a way to get out of the bubble that way. I understand, especially as somebody who anchors a show in Washington, that you can’t always physically get out of the bubble, but we continue to try to cover crises that are in the backyards of people in New Hampshire and West Virginia and Montana.
Speaking of social media, people have grabbed clips of your facial expressions on your show and turned them into memes and animated gifs. What’s your reaction to seeing yourself pop up like that on social media? And when did you first realize you’d been memed?
I think the first one was after I spoke to Michael Cohen, the then-counselor for the Trump Organization. He had said something like Mr. Trump had never gotten a fact wrong [Editor’s note: Cohen’s on-air quote was “I’ve never come across a situation that Mr. Trump has said something that is not accurate”], and I said “Seriously?” I think that was the first one that memed, but I wasn’t trying to meme. I wouldn’t even know how to try if I wanted to purposely meme.
I guess you just have a naturally expressive face.
I suppose so—that’s what they tell me. It’s not on purpose. I’m trying to stay as poker-faced as possible, but sometimes these guys make it difficult.
Has your level of internet fame changed the equation at all? You’ve been in the public eye for a couple of decades, and obviously, your profile was raised dramatically by being a debate moderator. But then there’s this whole other social media layer where people who never watch cable news know who you are.
Well, with a higher profile there obviously is more scrutiny of things I say or do. BuzzFeed wrote a whole story one time [Editor’s note: “The Weird And Wonderful First Tweets Of Jake Tapper”] comparing my tweets from 2009, when I started tweeting, to my later tweets and just how much more fun of a tweeter I used to be—and that’s definitely true.
Because you’re more self-conscious?
Well, because back then, when I had dozens of followers as opposed to whatever the number is now, you know, I just said whatever was on my mind, and I can’t do that anymore, really. I was obviously much more willing to make a joke then than today, when people don’t think that’s appropriate.
There’s this culture of people just ready to take anything out of context.
Right. And I don’t even have to do something for somebody to take something out of context and accuse me of saying something that I didn’t even say. I mean, I don’t know if you saw it, but there was this one point where somebody took audio of Dog the Bounty Hunter yelling at his son in this racist tirade, and some lunatic put it online and said it was me. So that’s just lunacy.
As for the meme thing, look, I think that social media is a way to reach people where they are as opposed to expecting them to come to you. In a way, sometimes you’re trying to say: Here I am, come watch our show if you want, and if not, here’s what we did today.
Beyond the obvious headlines and seismic shifts in our political landscape over the 2016 election cycle, what stands out as an eye-opening moment for you?
There is a woman, a makeup artist in New Hampshire, with whom we’ve worked several times. Any time we go up to New England, we use her. Her stepdaughter is a victim of the opioid epidemic. She gets to meet the candidates in a way that most of us do not get to meet the candidates, including me. She gets to see them when there are no cameras on them; she gets to talk to them. And she would take the opportunity to talk to the politicians about the opioid epidemic in New Hampshire, before anybody was really talking about it on a national level.
She was convinced based on conversations with the candidates that this was an issue that then-candidate Trump really got and understood.
She connected with then-candidate Trump’s message.
She connected with him. Seeing the presidential race through her eyes was very, very interesting because there are communities obviously in Ohio and West Virginia and New Hampshire and elsewhere where empathy for the plight of, as President Trump calls them, the Forgotten Man and Woman, played a very big role, I think, in his victory.
I feel like your average voter in the Heartland doesn’t think of the media as empathetic—they think of it as distant, aloof, elite.
Approval ratings for the media are like approval ratings for Congress—everybody hates it, but they keep reelecting their congressmen. Everybody says they hate the media, but ratings are up. People like their media outlets—they just don’t like the media at large. A liberal might hate the media because they think it’s corporate and doesn’t pay attention to the needs of working people. A conservative might hate the media for a completely different reason—they think we’re biased, etc.
On the one hand, you have to be empathetic toward viewers; on the other hand, you have to be hard-driving and insistent toward politicians.
Look, it’s just a fact that being insistent or calling a lie a lie has hurt me on occasion when it comes to booking interviews. I mean, that’s just a demonstrable fact. When the vice president does every Sunday show except for mine, I can connect the dots. By the same token there are people who were in the Obama administration who still won’t talk to me, still won’t sit down for an interview.
They’re still angry.
Yeah, years later, still mad about an interview that I did with them or me pointing out that they had lied about something.
I think that there are good people in the Republican Party and good people in the Democratic Party and a lot of people who came to Washington because they wanted to help effect change for the right reasons. I also think there are a bunch of people in the Democratic Party and Republican Party who came here to accrue power for the wrong reasons—and I just hope I’m making the right enemies is all.
When you’re away from work, and in your family bubble, what are the rules for disconnecting from your job? Because obviously yours is an all-consuming job.
When I’m not here I’m playing Legos with my son or drawing with my daughter—that’s my key demo, they’re 7 and 9—or having dinner with my wife. And I’m trying to get much, much better about putting the iPhone away.
Is this an ongoing conversation at home?
Let’s just say when New Year’s resolutions are discussed every December, there’s a perennial suggestion. But I’ve gotten much better.