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So What Do You Do, Jake Tapper, Sr. White House Correspondent, ABC News?

'I can turn off the Blackberry, but I can't turn off wanting to know what's going on'

By Steve Krakauer - January 14, 2009
With President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration just six days away, Jake Tapper's new role as ABC News' White House correspondent is sure to be a high-profile one. But as he transitions to this major position at the network in 2009, he leaves a beat in which he was just as busy: spending 2008 on the campaign trail. His path to the White House may not have been the most traditional (he's hosted shows on Sundance Channel, VH1 and moderated a WWE debate), but his political obsession certainly helps with the job. His writing at the Political Punch, his highly-active, well-read blog, may make him one of the most accessible White House correspondents to those that follow political happenings as much as he does.

Three hours before we talked to Tapper last Thursday, Jan. 8, he was on the air on ABC reporting from an Obama news conference. A few hours after the interview, he was on ABC World News with a report. In between what were just a couple of the countless appearances he has had on the air recently and is sure to have in the future, Tapper talked about life on the campaign trail, media bias and how a Seinfeld episode can teach a young journalist about watching what you write.


Name: Jake Tapper
Position: ABC News' senior White House correspondent
Resume: Senior writer at Washington City Paper, Washington correspondent for Salon.com, host of CNN's Take Five, correspondent for VH1, freelance writer for GQ, NPR, and the Weekly Standard, freelance cartoonist for Roll Call and the Los Angeles Times, host on Sundance Channel. Hired as correspondent by ABC News in 2003, named senior national/political correspondent in 2005, named senior White House correspondent in November 2008.
Birthdate: March 12, 1969
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Education: Graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1991 with a degree in history modified by art.
Marital status: Married to Jennifer Tapper with one daughter, Alice Paul Tapper. Two cats, Pink and Walter.
First section of the Sunday Times: Section A
Favorite television shows: Mad Men, Lost
Last book read: Bangkok Haunts by John Burdett
Guilty pleasure: Facebook.

You're now ABC's senior White House correspondent, covering a historic person occupying the White House. What are your feelings about the new job?
The response I get from a lot of college classmates is 'what a cool opportunity, you'll get to see all of this from the front row,' and that's true. But I also think that everything is so precarious right now in terms of war and peace and the economy that there's an extra burden on the White House press corps to be especially vigilant and professional. It's daunting. I'm honored to have been given this job by ABC News, to be entrusted with this, but it's also intimidating.

You've taken an unusual path to the White House correspondent role and in the world of broadcast journalism. You started as co-host of Take 5 on CNN, an issues show aimed at a younger audience, were a correspondent on VH1 news specials in 2002, and host of The Sundance Channel's 24 Frame News in 2003. You hosted a WWE debate. What do take from all these different positions you've had, and what do you draw from as you start your new role?
It wasn't a traditional path because I was relatively late in coming to journalism. I didn't start full-time as a journalist until I was in my late 20s, as opposed to right out of college. I always loved politics, but the openings for jobs in broadcast came not just about politics but also about pop culture. But I was always at least writing freelance stories about politics, even when I was doing a lot of the entertainment stuff. A lot of that work was about developing broadcasting skills, or trying to develop them. There's no doubt that part of that is just the process of storytelling as well as how to speak on camera, how to track, how to interview somebody. But as a side note, I will say that the special I did for VH1 on Lynyrd Skynyrd definitely won me some Republican sources.

"Everything is so precarious right now in terms of war, peace and the economy that there's an extra burden on the White House press corps to be especially vigilant and professional."

Let's talk about the campaign trail. You described covering the election this year like "[your] SportsCenter", in that this was the pinnacle for someone who's interested in politics, to be on the campaign trail during this election.
It's grueling in a lot of ways, the schedule and the way that the experience just beats you up physically, in terms of sleep deprivation and time away from your family. On a professional level, there's nothing like it because you're not just sitting in a room watching cable and getting your wisdom from what you read in the paper or see on TV. You're actually there with voters and in cities and rural areas across the country. It beats you up, but it's worth it.

You talk about the long hours. According to the Tyndall Report, you went from the No. 19 most-used reporter in 2006, to No. 1 in 2007 and No. 2 in 2008. That's a lot of airtime, but also a lot of time spent reporting it all out. How do you handle the long hours and the massive workload?
The tough part about it is being away from my family, my wife and daughter. In terms of professional curiosity, I probably would be spending almost as much time even if I were a doctor or an account executive or something else. I probably would be spending as much time trying to find out stuff, trying to report things, either by reading other publications or making phone calls, just because I'm really interested in news and current events. It's just one of these things that's in my DNA. I love to find out what's going on. So obviously I'm channeling the energies in a slightly different way, but I'm the kind of person that reads the newspaper on vacation.

"Nobody likes to be lied to, but it's just part of the process. It would be like a designer complaining that all the models are anorexic. It's unfortunate, but this is just how it is."

Can you turn off the Blackberry?
I can turn off the Blackberry, but I can't turn off wanting to know what's going on.

World News EP Jon Banner said "no one is more obsessed with politics" than you. And when thinking about how much you love politics and want to know about it, you must be dealt a lot of spin, especially in your new job. So how do you negotiate that? Does it frustrate you as a journalist, what you have to cut through?
Nobody likes to be lied to, but it's kind of just part of the process. I guess it would be like a designer complaining that all the models are anorexic. It's unfortunate, but this is just how it is.

But how do you do that, as a news consumer, but also as part of the group putting the news out there? What kind of responsibility do you think you have being someone who is such a fan of news, from the outside looking in?
It's an incredible responsibility and when you get something wrong or it's not as accurate as you wish it had been, for any number or reasons including spin, it's a horrible feeling. So I don't think there's any reporter worth anything who doesn't try their best to get it right as often as they can, to shoot for 100 percent. But it's an awesome responsibility, of course.

During the '08 campaign, the media was sometimes accused of favoring Barack Obama. Do you think it was a fair accusation?
I don't think it's fair to say 'The Media was in favor of Barack Obama,' the media writ large, capital T, capital M. I think there were a lot of people in the press who were tougher on Hillary Clinton and tougher on John McCain than they were on President-elect Obama. I can't understand anybody who would disagree with that. It's not to say that everyone in the media was [biased] or that even that most members of the media were. But I think that the coverage in general was not balanced because there were some people and organizations that were so caught up in the story of Obama -- or the narrative or his policies or the fact that he sold magazines or got eyeballs to the TV. Whatever the reason, there were enough people that the playing field was not even. That's not to say that he wouldn't have won anyway.

Do you think it'll change once Obama is in office?
He thinks it will change. He said to John Harwood that he thought the media would change. It's different selling a product than it is delivering a product. Once you've made the sale, that product better work. I think there's a certain patience that the American people will have just because everything's so messed up right now. He will be held to a higher standard as a President by the press and the public than he was as a candidate, just because it's much more consequential making a promise when you actually have responsibility. Anybody can say 'I'm going to do so-and-so' when they don't have the job yet.

A lot of TV news personalities now have a blog, but you've really been blogging on the Political Punch for a longer time and more frequently than pretty much anyone else in the field. What draws you to the medium?
I am at heart a print reporter, and I think that that's where it comes from. A lot of the stuff I blog is either stuff I'm reporting anyway for ABC News internally and figure I might as well put it up on the blog. Or it's stuff I'm just interested in, or I read about it, or I hear about it, and I'm just curious. In trying to satisfy that curiosity, I end up writing something, and I put it on the blog. So it's time-consuming, but a lot of it I would be doing anyway.

It does seem like the tone of the blog has changed a little bit over the years, maybe gotten a little more serious. Do you agree with that?
The tone has definitely changed, but so has my role at ABC News and so, more importantly, has the country. I have to say, a lot of it was experimental -- I used to do things that didn't seem to work or didn't seem to attract that many readers. I used to have a lot more pop culture on it. But it's tough when -- especially in the last year and a half -- when you're covering a very important election and very consequential issues and an economy that's tanking, to work up the will to then do a blog post about whether I side with Jennifer Aniston or Angelina Jolie. It's also that there are big important things going on, and I've been entrusted with an important job at ABC News. While sometimes the blog is still lighthearted, keeping that stuff to a minimum is probably appropriate given the times.

Yeah, it seems there are fewer poems and cartoons.
I actually have a stack of cartoons that I did during vacation that I just haven't scanned, so that I will change. The haikus -- it's kind of like that muscle's out of shape. I don't philosophically have a problem with it, I just haven't thought about it much lately.

Your writing at Salon was more opinionated in tone. Was it an adjustment to move to your quote-unquote unbiased role at ABC?
No, because I'm not a particularly dogmatic person. I have not found it difficult. In fact, I've found it much easier -- even when I was at Salon, but certainly much more so since, -- to try to be as politically agnostic as possible. It's much more interesting anyway if you don't think you know the answer to what is right or wrong in politics. And that's not to say there are not rights and wrongs, but just that they are not dictated by any one particular point of view. So no, actually it suits me much better. I never felt completely comfortable; I never fit in perfectly at Salon, as much as I loved writing for Salon. I never fit in perfectly because I didn't have an established point of view, and I didn't view the world as automatically 'so-and-so should be elected and such-and-such a view is wrong.'

Talking about views, you were asked in August about some negative comments you had written about George Stephanopoulos, who is now your colleague, and you said you wouldn't sign your name to it now. What do you think the lesson is for journalists?
That's a great question, as much as I hate talking about this because George is a friend and somebody whom I respect a great deal. The lesson is, for any young journalist, that generally speaking, things don't vanish after you write them, and you're not going to be 28 forever. It's not a particularly unique story -- I think most journalists have something they've written they wish they could go back and erase. But especially those people who start off in the quote-unquote alternative media might feel that way. Seinfeld had this great routine about people who get drunk and go out and live all night and they think that "Sunday Jerry" is a different person. Like, 'Oh, Sunday Jerry will have to deal with this hangover or get up at seven in the morning,' as if it's an entirely other entity. And in a broader way, younger journalists just have to remember that eventually they'll become Sunday Jerry.

And the "Saturday Night Jerry" still exists.
Right. A lesson that at least one former president would have done well to absorb.

Unlike most journalists, your career actually started in publicity. What does that experience bring to your work as a journalist?
I was really bad at that job, so I don't know that there was any great lesson. I don't know if I learned anything from that job. I wasn't particularly good at spinning. So I think the only thing I really learned from it personally was I wasn't very good at it.

It almost seems like the opposite of journalism.
It is the opposite of journalism, and I wasn't good at it.

Another area you've gotten into is the publishing world. You've written books on subjects ranging from Jesse Ventura to the 2000 presidential election. Are there any projects on the horizon, or anything under consideration?
Not right now. All my energy that isn't devoted toward this job is devoted toward my family. It's a lot easier to write a book if you don't have a wife and baby. Eventually I'd like to write another one. There are about 3,000 Barack Obama books that are coming out right now, and we'll have to see. The recount was an amazing thing, and I just happened to be there covering it. It was just a rare opportunity. It's better to wait for an opportunity like that, where I'm in the right place at the right time, and not just write a book because somebody offered me money and I could sell a few.

Alright, last thing. In your first newspaper job, your editor was New York Times media guru David Carr. Can you close us out with a good Carr story from that era?
If you've ever met David Carr you know he's not just a columnist and reporter, he is a force of nature. Even calling him a force of nature does a disservice to him, because there are some very minor hurricanes that are forces of nature and Carr is certainly beyond that. You become enveloped in his dialogue, his world view, his enthusiasm for journalism. I'd never met anyone like him. It was our first meeting after I had written a few stories for the Washington City Paper on a freelance basis, he basically convinced me to do what I wanted to do but hadn't had the guts to do -- to take a substantial pay cut and become a journalist. And then for that year-plus I worked for him, he was a one man J-school. I often tell young people seeking to break into the business, 'Before you go to journalism school, I recommend you start at a small local newspaper.' That probably overestimates editors in general out there, but I was really lucky that I had this guy who was in the process of becoming a legend as my first editor. I remember the triumphs we shared and I remember the times he yelled at me. I remember what he yelled at me about. It's all there. And I'm a lucky guy that I fell into his world when I did, because he wasn't really at City Paper all that long, and neither was I. But I invited him to my wedding. He's a very important figure in my life.


Steve Krakauer is associate editor of TVNewser and a contributing editor of WebNewser.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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