Jake Tapper on Indiana Townies, Wounded Moose, and Going Over to the Dark Side

Jake Tapper (Courtesy of ABC)

Jake Tapper is an ABC News correspondent based in Washington. Previously, he was the Washington correspondent for Salon, a columnist for Talk magazine, and a senior writer for the Washington City Paper. He is the author of two books: Down and Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency, a look at the 2000 Florida recount, and Body Slam: The Jesse Ventura Story. He discussed the campaign with us as part of our ongoing series of interviews with reporters and commentators about the election.

Brian Montopoli: First off, do you think Kerry’s gotten a fair shake from the press? How has his treatment compared to the way Al Gore was treated in 2000?

Jake Tapper: Former Senator Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., once said to me, regarding Gore, “How on earth do you lose three debates with George Bush?”

Now ask yourself — is that statement unfair to Gore? Or is it unfair to Bush? Or both? Or neither?

The “fairness” of the media is so incredibly dependant upon the one making the judgment. The press has been aggressively pursuing information about Senator Kerry — sometimes that may not seem fair, and indeed sometimes in individual circumstances it hasn’t been. But I think the press has been just as aggressive when covering the Bush Administration, and there are moments I don’t think we’ve been fair there, either.

I generally think to speak of “the media” and “coverage” is just too vague. You can talk about individual stories or individual reporters but doing so in general creates sweeping inaccuracies.

BM: During the 2000 campaign, you were writing for Salon, often cranking out thousands of words per day. Now you’re on ABC, and you’ve got to do your reporting in brief segments that give you a lot less opportunity to explore issues in depth. What are the pros and cons of your new role as compared to your old? And are there specific issues you’d be exploring these days if you still had the freedom you had at Salon?

JT: It’s an old debate. But any former print reporter who comes to the “Dark Side” and doesn’t miss the greater depth, wider coverage, and constant demand for output probably never belonged in the world of print to begin with. That said, being a TV reporter has huge advantages in many other areas. The story can be potentially much more compelling. You reach millions more people; you have infinitely more resources. And it’s much easier to get both information from sources and cooperation from politicians.

On a meta level, one could even argue that if journalism’s greatest maxim is “show don’t tell,” TV news by its nature comes closer to allowing that — though print is far better for bending over backwards to present nuance, disclaimers, and context. My pros and cons fit neatly into those rather old descriptions. In terms of actual stories, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I miss being part of the day-in-day-out journalism Salon permitted me. But maybe I’ll be able to do that on TV some day, too.

BM: The White House Correspondents dinner took place in Washington recently, and the event underlined the insularity of the White House press corps. Do you feel that political reporting is adversely affected by a pack mentality — that the press would better serve the public if reporters had more of a lone wolf mentality?

JT: Yes — but what are you going to do? Put your White House reporter in Canton, Ohio? I think people often lose focus that reporters do not work unto themselves — we have editors and managing editors and producers and executive producers and political directors and a whole bunch of other people who help make decisions about what belongs on the news. To lay it all on the reporter isn’t quite right; reporters are just at the front of the pack.

Often the pack gets it right, though. And even the lone wolves smell and are pursuing the same wounded moose.

BM: It’s rumored that President Bush doesn’t much like you, in part because you’ve confronted him with hard questions in the past. Has that cost you access? And, in general, when dealing with this administration, do you think you catch more flies with honey or vinegar?

JT: That was a long time ago; I doubt the president even remembers me. And I also doubt Mr. Gore was a particular fan of mine, either. The access dilemma is always a tough one, but I don’t think there was a snowball’s chance in hell of anyone from Salon being granted an interview with then-Governor Bush. You catch the most flies by having so many consumers read or watch your news a president has to cooperate in its creation, vinegar or honey notwithstanding.

BM: Let’s play a word association game. I’m going to write a word, and I want you to respond with the first thing that comes into your mind:

BM: Cutter
JT: Indiana townie

BM: The French
JT: Scaramouche

BM: Hughes
JT: “The Breakfast Club”

BM: Oppo Research
JT: Rahm Emanuel

BM: Washington DC
JT: Triple-pleated khakis

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.