Jake Tapper’s Rule for Trump Reporting: Let the Question Be the Star

Tapper tells us what he did wrong early in the Obama administration, and what he’s learned

Jake Tapper is getting accolades from all over the place lately — the New York Times, Samantha Bee, “Saturday Night Live.” His secret is making it not about him.

Tapper’s method of covering the Trump White House — bulldog the same questions again and again — is one he learned in the early days of covering the Obama Administration and sparring with press secretary Robert Gibbs.

“When I made the question the star and not myself, it was more effective,” Tapper told TheWrap. “The more effective, the more intense the confrontation, the more I make my voice more quiet and reasonable. That made it less about me. It helped to convey to people watching that I wasn’t showboating.”

“I think that’s something I learned because I did it the wrong way at the White House when I asked Gibbs questions. I would be accused of showboating or whatever. Just through trial and error, I figured the more intense the conversation the lower the temperature of which I asked the question,” Tapper said.

In December, he grilled vice president-elect Mike Pence about a security clearance for National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s son, who had peddled a conspiracy theory involving baseless allegations that a Washington pizza shop was a front for a Hillary Clinton child sex ring.

Pence insisted that the younger Flynn was not involved in the transition team.

“You put in for a a security clearance for him,” Tapper said.

“He was helping his dad,” Pence said. “But that’s no longer the case.”

They went for eight rounds, before Tapper finally said, firmly but politely, “I want to move on to other issues but I’m afraid I just didn’t get an answer.”

The New York Times calls him a “happy exception” in a cable news world that often lets politicians get away with “lies and propaganda.” A June headline proclaimed: “Jake Tapper Asks Trump Question on Racism 23 Times Until He Finally Gets a Mic-Dropping Response.” When a “Saturday Night Live” skit requires a no-nonsense, straitlaced reporter, Beck Bennett plays Tapper. Samantha Bee gave him an award for catching lies.

Tapper is good for a joke when it helps him make a point, like his dig Monday at “alternative facts” presented by the Trump team over the weekend.

“Here’s an ‘alternate fact,” he told viewers of “The Lead,” his CNN show. “I’m Wolf Blitzer and you’re in the Situation Room.”

Tapper talked to TheWrap about how the news media needs to improve, CNN’s role in Trump’s rise, and what his Jewish mother had to say about all attention he’s been getting.

TheWrap: People seem frustrated with the media for not doing its job. What’s your take on it?

Tapper: I think there’s a lot of frustration with the media for not asking follow-up questions and not challenging people in power efficiently, and I sometimes feel that way about my own work, that I’m not really doing enough… I read a lot of the criticism both of the media in general and also me specifically, and when I think people are right, I take their criticism to heart … I work hard to be as persistent as I could be.

In June, you asked Trump 23 times about his claim that Judge Curiel should recuse himself because of his Mexican heritage. You then grilled Attorney General Loretta Lynch about her meeting with Bill Clinton. Are you ever worried your guests might not come back? 

I was persistent when I interviewed the attorney general, asking her about her meeting with the president on the tarmac, but I don’t think she ever felt like I was brow-beating her, even though I was asking her about the same incident over and over and over… I think too many people in broadcast television have spent too much time bending over backwards to make sure they get the interview again, versus bending over backwards to make sure the interview is worth something for viewers.

Why do you think you were successful where so many others have failed?
There was a question I really wanted the answer to, and I just wasn’t willing to let go. As human beings, we are socialized to avoid confrontation, to avoid discomfort in confrontations. Politicians are the best in the business at not being confronted or not answering questions… It was one of those situations where I ultimately decided, I’m just going to keep asking and hopefully we’ll get somewhere where there’s an answer in the neighborhood. 

A lot of people are under the impression that the media failed the public in predicting the election. What’s your take on that?
Obviously there was a lot of misreading of information. I don’t know one poll that predicted Wisconsin was going to go for Trump, and it did fairly convincingly… We in the analysis department relied too heavily on those numbers, which are just snapshots based on models; they’re not facts… The media is in a rough place right now. We have a lot of work to do to regain ground with our readers, viewers and listeners, providing them with as much information as possible and asking appropriately tough questions. I hope that we in the media rise to the challenge.

CNN gave Trump unprecedented free coverage during the primaries, something that your network’s president Jeff Zucker later admitted was a mistake. CNN was also criticized for hiring Corey Lewandowski. Do you think CNN is complicit in creating the Trump phenomenon?
I’m not going to get into personnel decisions related to the Trump reporting process… I only know of one network president that acknowledged running many Trump rallies start to finish, and that’s Jeff. Fox and MSNBC did too, but I haven’t heard anything from them. I certainly understand the criticism and I agree with Jeff. I didn’t do it on my show, but that said, I think that we had some of the best debates, we had some of the toughest questions, we had some of the most probing interviews, and ultimately the voters went to the polls and they picked who they picked.

Do you think the media’s been too slow in figuring this how to deal with Trump?
It’s very frustrating to watch interviews with any politician in which you feel that politician that needs to be held accountable to answer a certain question or is saying things that aren’t true… The public needs to make sure that reporters and interviewers are doing their jobs. If we’re all doing our jobs, then you wouldn’t be able to shop around for anchors that provide safe spaces.

After your producers ran a chyron that read: “Alt-Right Founder Questions if Jews Are People,” it sparked backlash from Jewish organizations. You made a point to apologize for it, even though you were on vacation at the time. What steps have you taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again?

We added another layer of editorial supervision of banners before they go on air, and I reiterated what I’ve been saying for a long time on my show. I’d rather have a boring banner than one that draws attention for all the wrong reasons. But what’s most important about that experience for me is that when we in the media mess up, it’s incredibly important for us to acknowledge it, apologize and tell viewers that we’re going to take it seriously because one of the biggest problems is one of the reasons why our polls are in single digits, because we make too many mistakes in the media and we pretend that nothing happened.

I read somewhere that you’re Jewish? Is your mother kvelling?
She’s like Mrs. Seinfeld when it comes to whether anyone can not like me: ‘It’s nice to see the New York Times noticed what I’ve known for 47 years.’