Jake Tapper isn’t the easiest guy to interview. After all, when your interview subject is a competent journalist, he or she already knows all the tricks of the trade — the subtle flatteries, the ever-so-slightly leading questions — so Tapper isn’t about to say any more than he has to about his personal politics or what goes on behind the scenes of his job as ABC News White House correspondent.
Or it’s possible Tapper doesn’t want to talk about these things because he’s one of the last remaining journalists in America who take the responsibilities of their jobs seriously, and thus place a premium on their credibility.
What we can say for certain is that Tapper isn’t afraid to go against the grain of the liberal consensus in pursuit of a story. Whether he was pointing out that Barack Obama was a “one-man gaffe machine,” factchecking Obama on the surge, or chiding him for blaming any and all mistakes on his staff, no mainstream journalist was tougher on Obama during the campaign. Considering the fact that much of the media gave Obama the kid-glove treatment, Tapper’s reporting was essential.
Now that Tapper has followed Obama to the White House, he hasn’t let up. A YouTube video of Tapper outright humiliating White House press secretary Robert Gibbs over the new administration’s commitment to transparency was omnipresent in the political blogosphere during Obama’s first weeks on the job. His tenacity has earned some unlikely admirers.
Rush Limbaugh declared on air that “Jake Tapper is the one guy outside the butt-boy bubble in the White House press room,” all but giving Tapper the closest thing to a seal of conservative approval to be found within the “liberal media.” Of course Tapper — who in his early days worked for Handgun Control, Inc. and Salon — is somewhat taken aback by the idea he’s rooting for the Right.
“It’s always nice to be complimented — if that’s what that was,” he tells National Review Online. “Believe me, I don’t doubt there will come a day when Mr. Limbaugh and National Review consider me once again to be part of the ‘MSM,’ either too tough on Republicans or insufficiently tough on Democrats.”
Still, he admits that there has been a clear bias in favor of Obama. “Certain networks, newspapers, and magazines leaned on the scales a little bit,” he told Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post’s media critic. However, while covering the 2000 election for Salon, Tapper was also quite public about his feeling that the media were “refusing to shine a light on the things Bush doesn’t seem to know or understand.” Obviously, Tapper doesn’t think the cure for bias in one direction is to be biased in the opposing direction. (He says he doesn’t vote in presidential elections, to help preserve his objectivity.)
As a rule, journalists are supposed to be tough on the people they’re covering, and Tapper is more interested in making sure he’s doing his job than in pointing fingers at his colleagues. “I hope I’m tough and consistent. I can’t say I always achieve that stance, but I do aspire to it,” he says. “In general, I have affection and respect for my White House colleagues and probably the more I’m a reporter and the less I’m a media critic the better.”
He’s also keenly aware that there’s a problem when the reporter becomes too much a part of the story. While his exchange with Robert Gibbs elevated his profile, that was not his objective. “The YouTubed exchange with Gibbs is a perfect example of something I didn’t care for, not because I think I was wrong, but because the tone of that conversation took focus away from the more important issue — transparency — and put it where I don’t particularly care for it, into a debate about me and Gibbs and who was right and who got the better of whom. Which serves no one,” Tapper says.
Another big concern for Tapper is coming down with a bad case of Beltway-itis. Asked whether the Washington press corps gets too focused on issues of little consequence to average Americans, Tapper readily admits that’s the case.
“Yes, we do. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important or that, framed differently, they aren’t significant. I don’t know how much the average American cares about the former lobbyists in the president’s administration, or whether the budget bill will be subject to 50 or 60 votes,” he says. “But both mean something in terms of the president’s commitments to reforming Washington and bipartisanship, respectively.”
But when it comes to avoiding the Beltway herd instinct, perhaps Tapper benefits from a somewhat eclectic career trajectory that gives him a broader perspective than fellow journalists with more traditional career paths might have. Early in his career he worked in politics, in the office of Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a one-term Democrat from Pennsylvania. Tapper’s also worked in public relations, as a professional cartoonist, and for a diverse array of publications and media outlets — including the Washington City Paper, where he wrote a now infamous story about having dated Monica Lewinsky a few weeks before news of her affair with the president broke. A significant amount of his work in journalism has also been well outside the realm of politics — including a stint with cable music network VH1.
“I think working early on in my career on Capitol Hill enabled me to see how Washington really works, and working in various media outlets enabled me to learn about journalism and broadcasting,” Tapper observes. “I can tell you, though, that the special I did for VH1 on Lynyrd Skynyrd brought me some Republican fans.”
And then there’s the pressure of the job. “I know I’m not alone among journalists in carrying with me the memory of every mistake I’ve ever made in my career,” Tapper says. “And it is stressful not to add to the catalogue.”
It would probably be a lot less stressful if Tapper chased the conventional wisdom, as a great many Washington reporters do. For now, Tapper is continuing the battle he started with Robert Gibbs over government transparency. It’s not even as if he feels the Obama administration is particularly bad on the issue — it’s just that Obama promised so much. And Tapper sees it as his job to hold him accountable.
“In my experience, the Obama administration’s transparency lies between the complete opaqueness of previous administrations but not yet close to the crystal-clear view that then-candidate Obama repeatedly promised,” he says. “More than a month later, for instance, I’m still waiting for the White House to provide me with letters of recusal that have been signed by some of the former lobbyists now holding administration jobs, defining areas they will not work on because of their previous lobbying gigs.”
I ask him about his career plans within the notoriously cutthroat world of broadcast journalism. True to form, Tapper keeps his cards close to his chest. “This was the goal, to get this job,” he says of his White House correspondent gig. “And having gotten it and having just started it, I’m pretty happy where I am right now.”
Tapper may be content where he is, but for now, Robert Gibbs and the rest of the Obama administration would probably be a lot happier if he were anywhere other than the White House Briefing Room.
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.