Surprisingly, the question seems to surprise Jake Tapper: Why would the best-known reporter at ABC News jump ship to join CNN, the floundering cable network that a lot of people in the industry -- a lot of people -- regard as the TV news version of the Titanic?
"That's not how I see it," he replies, his tone one of consternation blended with bewilderment. "CNN is a vital place. More people watched the election results on CNN than any other channel. More people watched the inauguration on CNN than any other channel. ... MSNBC and Fox News are great at what they do, but that's very different from what we do. So I just reject your characterization."
Not my characterization, the reporter corrects him; I said, "a lot of people see it that way," not necessarily me. Tapper snorts. "I've used that construction myself, my friend," he says affably. "I know exactly what you meant."
So there you have it: Jake Tapper takes no more guff when he's being asked the questions than he does when he's asking them. Famously combative in the pursuit of a story, Tapper now parachutes into a battle that his side has been losing badly. His show "The Lead with Jake Tapper" debuted Monday in a CNN lineup that in recent years hasn't been much more than target practice for Fox News and MSNBC.
A decade-long downhill slide in the ratings has left CNN in a weak fourth place among cable news nets, trailing even corporate cousin HLN. CNN's average daily audience is less than a third of what's drawn by leader Fox News. The numbers are even worse in prime time, where Fox News has nearly four times the audience of CNN. In the 4 p.m. ET slot that Tapper is taking over, CNN has been drawing an average of 461,000 viewers during the past two weeks; Fox News, 1.29 million.
Seeking to put a tourniquet on its hemorrhage of viewers, CNN hired former NBC boss and "Today Show" auteur Jeff Zucker as president. Tapper was his first big hire, though talks between the reporter and CNN were already under way when Zucker took over.
"I had to talk to a lot of people and places, but fundamentally it was down to staying at ABC or moving to CNN," Tapper says. "I was very serious about CNN, but I hadn't make any decision. Jeff came along at the right time. I think he's going to offer the kind of leadership this place needs."
Zucker, Tapper says, shares his conviction that "CNN is already the place people go when there's a big breaking story, and now it needs to be better at attracting people where there isn't a big breaking story. We need to present the news in an aggressive but nonpartisan way ...?
"There's a huge audience for news out there. People get news from the Internet, from their cellphones, from Twitter, from the radio in their cars. We just have to convince them that we are a place to go for news because we have a good product, and the way to do that is to produce a great product. I don't think there's a finite number of cable-news viewers and we're all competing for the same audience. There's a much bigger audience we can draw from."
Tapper was twice passed over for the job hosting ABC's Sunday-morning talk show "This Week," at least partly because he told his bosses that if he became the anchor he would broaden its news focus outside Washington. But he says the failure to get that post is not exactly the reason he took the job at CNN, at least not in any snitty to-hell-with-you-ABC way.
"You could just as well ask, if ABC had made me the anchor of 'Nightline,' would I have joined CNN? And I guess the answer is no," Tapper says. "But people make decisions based on a whole combination of factors over a long period of time. I don't want to get all Ray Bradbury on you, but it's like if you step on a butterfly and a thousand years later people start speaking a different language. I didn't quit ABC because of 'This Week.'''
If presenting the news aggressively is indeed the new CNN game plan, Tapper is certainly the obvious guy to lead the way. Though the notoriously constricted White House press corps rarely cracks open investigative stories, Tapper has won several broadcasting awards for breaking news ranging from the tax problems that derailed Obama cabinet nominee Tom Daschle to Standard and Poor's plans to downgrade the U.S. credit rating.
Tapper became ABC's senior White House correspondent after Obama's election in 2008 and quickly garnered a reputation as the Obama administration's toughest inquisitor. Typical exchange: Last fall, after President Obama dismissed Mitt Romney's criticism of the White House account of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya as a case of "shooting first and aiming later," the administration changed its story. Tapper led off the next day's press briefing with the question: "Didn't President Obama shoot first and aim later?"
Moments like that have won him admiration from Obama critics -- "an atypically fair reporter," the fiercely conservative HotAir website calls him in perhaps the wildest praise it has ever bestowed on a mainstream-media journalist -- and barely subdued hostility from the administration. When Tapper asked outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton which of the titles she's held over the years was her favorite, she retorted: "I prefer any of them to what we call you when you're not around."
That, and Tapper's occasional mild suggestion that some of the Washington press corps has taken it easy on Obama, has led to speculation on both the left and right that he's a "closet conservative," insultingly or flatteringly as the case may be. The talk makes Tapper uncomfortable, even when it's intended to be complimentary. "I don't think conservative groups think I'm conservative," he demurs. "They know I was tough on George Bush, and they have been pleased to see that I'm just as tough on Obama."
Tapper prefers to keep mum about his politics, but his background -- early in his career he worked in the office of a Democratic congresswoman, then for the lobbying group Handgun Control -- suggests, if anything, the opposite of conservatism.
"I've never seen anything to indicate he's particularly conservative," says conservative journalist Tucker Carlson, a friend of Tapper's since they were young reporters in the late 1990s. "I think of Jake as aggressively fair. Jake is what most TV correspondents only pretend to be -- highly aggressive in pursuit of whoever's in power. Most of them actually give a pass to the politicians they like and are savage with those they don't. Jake was tough on the Bush administration and now he's tough on Obama."
Indeed, Tapper can be tart on the air even with his colleagues. On election night last year, after an ABC News analyst said -- twice -- that this "may be the last election that we see two white men run against each other for president," Tapper interrupted from the Obama headquarters in Chicago: "I have this breaking news flash: Barack Obama is African American. If somebody could tell Matt, that'd be great."
If colleagues are not always amused by what they see as Tapper's sharp elbows, they mostly share a sneaking admiration for his legendarily canny instincts for self-promotion. His barrages of tweets of his recent (and widely praised) book on a doomed U.S. military mission in Afghanistan ("The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor") have been the subject of media wisecracks for months.
But Tapper's Twitter habits are small potatoes compared to the gambit that started his journalism career. Back in 1998, when Tapper was working in public relations and freelancing stories to the alternative weekly City Paper in Washington, he called the editors with a shocking bit of news. That young woman Monica Lewinsky, all over the news for her supposed affair with President Clinton? Tapper went on a date with her a few weeks ago. How about a story? Instantly they agreed.
The piece Tapper wrote was nothing less than a prose miracle. It turned a tepid dinner date resulting from a chance encounter in a bar -- a date, Tapper admitted, that he made in hopes of a "no-frills hookup," though "nothing of the kind happened" -- into an epic confessional of Washington ambition and self-loathing. City Paper Editor David Carr, seeing a chance for his pipsqueak publication to compete on a national story, loved it. He gave it the paper's whole cover.
"The day before we were going to press, Jake was at the office looking at the layout," recalls Carr, now the media writer at the New York Times. "I told him the story was just beautifully written and was going to make a huge splash. And he said, 'David, I'm working at Handgun Control Inc. President Clinton has been very good to Handgun Control. And I can't be working there when this story breaks.'"
The moment of extortionate silence that followed ended when Carr shook Tapper's hand. "Welcome to the staff of City Paper," the editor said. "And, well played Mr. Tapper, well played."
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