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Can Tapper Help Lead the Way for CNN?

Strictly from a journalism perspective, Jake Tapper left ABC News at the right moment. Whether his timing in landing at CNN is equally propitious remains to be seen, but it should offer insight into where the network is heading.

Tapper’s new CNN show, “The Lead,” premieres March 18. It’s a step up in profile for the former White House correspondent, who earned a reputation for toughness on the beat.

In the past, a rising reporter had various advancement options at a broadcast network, even if the primary anchor jobs opened up about as often as the Papacy.

Still, at ABC, where was Tapper to go? To “Nightline,” which had been dumbed down even before being demoted to follow Jimmy Kimmel? “Good Morning America,” whose ratings gains have corresponded with an emphasis on fluff, including a questionable focus on the tribulations and triumphs of its personalities? A primetime newsmagazine where — despite the pressing issues facing the nation — true crime and celebrity inevitably hold sway?

In his new role, Tapper noted on a swing through L.A., he’s freed of the tyranny of time, trying to earn 90 seconds for a “World News” segment. “I’ve never had an hour in my life,” he said.

Yet the real test will be whether the new management at CNN, led by Jeff Zucker, has a genuine appetite for the kind of probing show Tapper outlined, one which hopes to feature an eclectic roster of topics — among them pop culture — in its mix.

Certainly, many critics have been eager for CNN to seek out a quality niche that, in nonfiction terms, often feels too heavily skewed toward “Frontline” and HBO documentaries. Instead, the Turner network’s barking after breaking news — stories like Michael Jackson’s death or, more recently, the stranded cruise-ship passengers — has provided as much gaffe-prone fodder for “The Daily Show” as the ideological histrionics on Fox News.

If he’s to be believed, Tapper sees an opportunity in combining a curious nature with a serious (if not rigidly so) bent. He cites NPR’s “Marketplace” and its approach to financial news as an example, asking, “Why isn’t a version of that on TV?”

Simply put, the reason has been nobody harbors much faith in such exercises to get ratings, particularly the “good, smart cultural pieces” Tapper is talking about doing. In his preparation phase he’s taped advance interviews with “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes; Kimmel, whose move to 11:35 p.m. is a story with multiple angles; and the co-creator of “Game of Thrones,” David Benioff.

“There isn’t the same kind of [ratings] pressure, so he can afford to do a really smart show,” Tapper said of “Thrones,” a scenario that will hopefully apply to his hour, scheduled as it is at 4 p.m. ET.

Television, clearly, doesn’t exhibit much intellectual rigor toward media coverage, beyond the occasional softball Charlie Rose interview. Other than that most news divisions appear content to deal in oddities, gossip and minutia on the order of “Who are you wearing?”

Tapper wants to test if it’s possible to produce a program that can span the politics of drones and finance, be “agile” enough to cover breaking news and still accommodate lighter fare. “I dreamed of a show with a broad swath of topics,” he said.

As for the partisanship that has come to define CNN’s competitors and those who seek out newscasts to reinforce their ideology, he noted, “There are places for those people to watch if they want that.”

Through the years various CNN honchos have said the right things, only to see the network drift off course. And since Zucker’s arrival, every move is being scrutinized as closely as puffs of smoke from the Vatican.

So will Tapper’s show help chart a direction for CNN toward the kind of news that purists have long hoped the network would give a fair trial? Or will the pressures of demos and ratings eventually derail such plans, sweeping the network deeper into soft news and silliness — attributes perceived as necessary to attract the coveted younger audience?

Either way, following up on the CNN story a year or so from now, it won’t be difficult to figure out the lead.

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