"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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