Jake Tapper really wanted to get an answer from Donald Trump. To do it, he had to ask the same question 24 different times.
The exchange, during which the 47-year-old CNN anchor queried Trump again and again earlier this month over whether his comments regarding the background of U.S. District Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel were racist, has become a famous one in recent days. Trump had charged the judge’s background presented a conflict of interest in a case that would the business practices of the presumptive Republican candidate’s Trump University. Rather than emerging as an obnoxious talking-head with an attitude, the Washington, D.C. -based Tapper came out of the verbal donnybrook looking like a reporter who wouldn’t take a candidate’s first glib bullet point (or second, for that matter, or third) as truth.
Tapper had no idea the two would spar in front of the cameras in such a manner. Trump is “usually able to bulldoze through questions,” he said, but “I really wanted to get to that question, so I just kept going. As did he. And I finally got there.”
Some viewers might say Tapper has finally got there in other ways, too. He has in recent months developed a reputation as a skeptic who places emphasis not just on getting the facts, but on telling viewers which ones they should really believe. In an era when social media, so full of unverified opinion and reams of misinformation about any half-trending topic, is fast becoming the news junkie’s first stop, Tapper’s style is gaining more notice.
“As more Americans get their news from social media and television, and less from traditional journalism sources like newspapers, we need TV journalists to be tough and aggressive in holding politicians accountable. While politicians can speak directly and without filters on social media and advertisements, they need to be tested and challenged by journalists,” said Jason Shepard, who chairs the Department of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. “Social media can encourage citizens to engage with only like-minded people, and that can lead to group think and polarization.”
And yet, it is also the venue to which more people are turning first for important information. Sixty-two percent of U.S. adults get news on social media sites, according to the Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media 2016.”
“Twitter provides information. Sometimes the information is coming from great new voices who haven’t been heard from or voices who feel shut out of the process,” noted Tapper during a recent visit to CNN’s New York headquarters. “What Twitter doesn’t have is any sort of authoritative body vetting the information. That is our value.”
In recent broadcasts of his two CNN programs, “The Lead” on weekdays and “State of the Union” on Sundays, Tapper has taken the unorthodox step of telling his viewers not to be hoodwinked by falsehoods making the rounds, including two from Trump: Muslims celebrating in New Jersey in the wake of 9/11 or a link between Ted Cruz’ father and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Even so, he doesn’t try to turn his interviews into crusades. “One of the things I’ve picked up over the years, whether it’s Secretary Clinton or Donald Trump or whomever, the tougher the question, the more low-key the delivery. It’s more effective. Because then it’s not about, ‘Oh Candidate X and Reporter Y are having this exchange,’ or ‘Look at the ego on Reporter Y.’ It’s not about that. It’s just about the question and the answer,” he explained. “It’s not that easy. Honestly, when you’re having a conversation, the first instinct is not to go quiet.”
Tapper’s technique seems to be helping him win audience. “The Lead” saw its viewership among people between 25 and 54 grow by 35% in the second quarter of 2016, while the same crowd rose 72% for the 9 a.m. showing of “State of the Union.” Tapper’s reporting has helped boost CNN during the current election cycle, said Jeff Zucker, president of the Time Warner-owned unit. “He moderated our first record-breaking debate in September with 17 contenders, his interviews with nearly every presidential candidate have made headlines time after time and he’s remained relentless in holding their feet to the fire,” Zucker said via an emailed statement.
Others have embraced the idea of doing more than just spouting facts. Matt Lauer earlier this month told viewers that recent Trump efforts to question Hillary Clinton’s faith amounted to “misinformation.” CNBC’s Joe Kernen routinely plays the contrarian on that network’s “Squawk Box” morning program, questioning guests about the veracity of conventional market wisdom.
To be sure, it’s not revolutionary. Edward R. Murrow used to do it, too. Tapper said he has long worked to check facts, and not just at CNN. He used to do a fact-checking segment on ABC’s “World News Tonight” when Peter Jennings anchored that newscast. Maybe he’s been in the business long enough to have more authority, or maybe he’s simply feeling more comfortable as an anchor and viewers have taken notice.
Tapper’s interest in getting to the truth of things may have been sparked by a background that is not the traditional sort for national TV anchors. He was working in public-relations and doing freelance writing for anyone willing to bet on him, when an editor named David Carr – later the New York Times columnist – convinced him to try a job at Washington City Paper, the alternative weekly in Washington, D.C. Tapper also worked for a while at Salon, when that web publication was gaining a reputation for bringing deep reporting to the world of digital journalism.
Working for non-traditional outlets “gives you more of an outsider perspective,” Tapper said. “I don’t feel like mainstream media, so to speak, even though I know I am.”
He has other atypical proclivities. Anyone who watches “State of the Union” knows the program often wraps up with a political cartoon – drawn by Tapper himself. Indeed, the anchor was a cartoonist who drew a daily strip at Dartmouth College and even tried to get a job doing the same thing when he graduated. “I tried to do it professionally, but it’s very hard, especially as print dies and newspapers die off. It’s more and more competitive.” He decided to try his hand at writing instead, but the comics bug remains: Tapper has copies of strips from “Gasoline Alley” and “Pogo,” among others, decorating his home. He once even got to fill in on “Dilbert,” the cynical Scott Adams comic about the foibles of working life.
Cable-news outlets like CNN are enjoying heady ratings boosts – and the influx of ad dollars that comes with them – thanks in no small part to its continued election coverage. Yet Tapper thinks viewers will have reason to stick around after a U.S. President is elected. “No matter who wins in November, it will be a groundbreaking achievement,” he said. “One way or the other, a complete outsider the likes of which politics has really never seen is one hand, and on the other is the first woman president. It’s not a small achievement.”
Neither is juggling two different programs that air each week. But the anchor intends to continue doing both “The Lead” and “State of the Union.” Both shows help him “try to bring people’s attention to things,” he said, even if it’s just telling viewers which bits of information are the ones upon which they should really rely. After three years on CNN, said Tapper, he is “really trying to take seriously the reason for this job.”