Jake Tapper will take a new role in the news business on Monday, when he begins anchoring “The Lead” on CNN at 4 p.m. Eastern Time. Tapper will also be chief Washington correspondent for the cable news network.
Tapper has a long tenure in the D.C. press corps: he started at the Washington City Paper, where he gained national attention with an article he wrote about his experience going on a date with Monica Lewinsky. He then went to Salon.com. He got his start on TV at CNN, when he hosted a show called “Take Five.”
Tapper spoke to The Hill about his new program, how he handled the downtime while he changed jobs and the press corps’ frustration with the White House on transparency.
Q: Tell us about your new show.
It’s called “The Lead” and it debuts next Monday, March 18 at 4 o’clock Eastern. The goal of it is to establish a flag at the time of day when CNN switches its coverage from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. These are what we think are the most important stories on a wide variety of topics. The most important national story, the most important political story, international, sports, pop culture, business — just to try to have a smart take and a smart way of covering all these stories.
Q: How do you think this will be different from other cable shows out there?
We hope that we’ll bring a fresh look at these stories, one that is free of ideology and is not partisan. We hope the show will be fun and engaging and relevant to people’s lives. We’ll cover news, we have a place for international stories and a place for business stories, but we’re not elitist about what constitutes news. Culture is part of who we are, and whether it’s faith, or a film or a TV show that people are talking a lot about, that’s part of who we are, too.
Q: Why did you decide to go back to CNN?
It was just a convergence of: I wanted my own show, CNN is an excellent cable network that is in the middle of a changing period with a new CEO and the media world is changing, and it just felt like the right time and the right opportunity.
Q: You mentioned the changes going on at CNN. You were one of the first big hires by Jeff Zucker. What other changes do you see coming from the network? Is it still going to be the CNN most people know?
I don’t think it’s ever going to lose the DNA it’s had for a long time. This is a trusted place to get news that is free from a partisan spin and where we have resources all around the globe and across the country. I don’t think that is ever going to change. Some of the things that are going to change, and you should talk to Jeff more about his vision, but I think some of the things that are going to change more are just making it fresher, making it more relevant to people’s lives. ... It’s always the go-to channel when something’s going on. The question is, can we keep viewers when there isn’t a breaking story and what can we do to do that? And that’s Jeff’s challenge and mine.
Q: What are the differences between working for a broadcast news network and a cable news network?
They’re just ones that you would expect from the nature of the beast. I mean, ABC is great, I loved working there. I love the people who were there. ABC has a morning show from 7 until 9, it has an evening news show from 6:30-7, and it has a late night news show from 12:30 until 1. They do a great job, but that’s much more limited real estate than CNN. So the coverage is different — it’s shorter, it has to be. That’s not just ABC, that’s all networks. All networks are inherently entertainment networks with news divisions, and their news divisions are excellent — ABC, NBC, CBS, they’re excellent — but CNN is a news network, their whole network is about news.
Q: Now, you’re quite the news junkie, but you had to have a little down time between when you left ABC and went to CNN. How did you handle that?
I went a little stir-crazy. Thank god for Twitter. I started — and I’ve only logged onto it a few times — but I started a Tumblr account because going cold turkey was difficult to me. Richard Ben Cramer died and he was a very influential journalist in my life — What It Takes was a very important book in my development as a journalist — and I felt like I had to write something and I had nowhere to write anything, so I started my Tumblr. Thankfully I was also promoting my book on Afghanistan, so I had things to do in addition to playing tickle monster with my kids, but I did go a little crazy.
Q: You’re a former White House reporter and you left the beat at a time when there’s a lot of frustration with the administration over access and transparency.
Well, I was frustrated with access and transparency in 2009, and there’s even less now. It’s the nature of the beast, this will be the problem that the next press corps has with next president as well, which is the press always has an interest in knowing as much as we can and deciding what is important, and the White House has an interest in controlling the message. That tension will always be there. I’m a journalist, I will always be on the side of the people who want to know more and want to have more interviews with the president and have more access to the president. It can be frustrating sitting in those seats. I know why.