This past Thursday, an eternity in Trump time, Jake Tapper began his daily CNN show The Lead by addressing Donald Trump’s untermensch Steve Bannon’s recent comments that the media ought to “keep its mouth shut.” With disdain in his eyes and a sneering smile on his face, Tapper succinctly responded, “No”—a no swiftly shared around social media.
Jake Tapper, CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, during which time he has earned a reputation as a hard-nosed newsman and equal-opportunity tough interviewer. But he has only started going viral recently. Tapper become the host of The Lead and CNN’s Sunday morning news show State of the Nation without parroting the most popular anchor modes of our time, the righteously or satirically partisan talking head. Unlike Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, or even CNN’s rising star Van Jones—whose show, The Messy Truth, is now CNN’s most-watched—Tapper has built his brand on a kind of performative neutrality: an old-school news anchor refashioned for the present day.
While there are certainly people, Trump among them, who reflexively scoff at the notion of CNN’s nonpartisanship, it is still the only cable news network with notable segments of its audience that voted for Trump or for Hillary Clinton. Channeling the ethos of his network, Tapper is combative less about party than the “truth.” A notorious bulldog for answers, he methodically rephrases questions over and over again until he gets, or doesn’t get, a response, as when he asked Trump if his comments on Judge Gonzalo Curiel were racist—23 times. Tapper has moderated Republican debates and made himself as irksome to Clinton as to Trump, peppering the former with queries about her foundation and the latter about endorsements from the KKK. In a 2014 profile for Politico, Tapper described himself as “besieging [the Obama White House] with calls and complaints and accusations and whatever.” In the leaked Podesta emails, Podesta wondered, “Why is Jake Tapper such a dick?” Tapper responded to this dig with good humor, tweeting in response: “It’s a question that has confounded millions of people for hundreds of years.”
A dogged reporter, a truth-seeker, kind of a dick: This is a pretty accurate distillation of the Tapper brand, one cultivated over years of unsparing interviews and pugnacious tweets. Evidence of Tapper’s style can be found even back in his Washington City Paper cover story about going on a date with Monica Lewinsky, in which he mixes a small amount of self-deprecation—he’s just another hack who wants a part of the Lewinsky story—with extreme confidence in his own judgment—she was a little too breezy, but at least, unlike many other women, she asked questions—to come to a morally magnanimous conclusion: Monica deserves better. It makes a good case for Tapper being both a little bit of a smarm and also fundamentally decent.
This persona made him an asset to CNN: the “reasonable” journalist on the hunt for bullshit wherever it lived, proof of CNN’s seriousness of purpose, even as his even-handedness held back his ratings and kept him from overtly decrying the more insidious recalcitrance and obstructionism of the Republican Party. But since Trump’s election, Tapper’s fiery but establishment-entrenched objectivity has morphed into a kind of radicalism, as the establishment, or at least the president, cuts ties with the truth. At a moment in which believing in “facts” is a partisan stance, Tapper has become an occasional liberal hero and poster boy, in a nonpartisan patterned tie, of the resistance.
To maintain his air of authority, Tapper doesn’t just tenaciously question politicians or assess Trump’s actions; he calls out Democratic hypocrisy whenever he can. It’s like tossing a wet blanket on liberal adoration that only makes that adoration smolder further: The guy really has integrity! In a recent roundtable he shut down Democratic talking heads for comparing Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s nominee for the Office of Management and Budget who owes taxes for a domestic laborer, to Tom Daschle, whose nomination to the Obama Cabinet was scuttled by the same charges: Tapper pointed out that Democrats had pulled Daschle’s nomination themselves, so it wasn’t analogous. He made a show of defending Kellyanne Conway on Twitter, from a Slate piece, it should be said, saying that “either the truth matters or it doesn’t”—the white knight stampeding into battle perhaps less on behalf of Conway herself than on behalf of his own ideals and image.
Faced with a president-elect who lies as a matter of course, Tapper has turned to the hypocrisies of the Trump administration, the most pressing ones at hand. Just this past Sunday, he pressured Republican Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who was already lightly criticizing the recent executive order on immigration, to get more concrete. “Not to be hysterical, but this is a matter of life and death,” Tapper said, excusing himself for not moving on to other topics. A sensible “not to be hysterical” followed by “matter of life and death”—it was the perfect Tapperism, a cri de coeur dressed up with enough calm self-awareness to make it land all the more persuasively.
There are plenty of cable news anchors currently on the air who have spent years pioneering ways to disguise spinelessness as impartiality. But Tapper legitimately doesn’t shy away from a fight. This past week The Lead included a segment that could have been straight out of The Daily Show, but for the restrained delivery: a gotcha clip reel of Sean Spicer blaming the media for calling the Muslim ban a ban, and then proceeding to, himself, call it a ban. This is why the New York Times media critic sees him as a paragon of “uncompromising journalism.” It’s why Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show awarded Tapper with a “Shit Catcher Award” for not getting spun by Conway. It’s why his tweets and clips are getting passed around social media attached to hyperbolic words such as destroy and eviscerate.
Tapper’s smugness—that resolute faith in his own judgment, that earnest sense of himself as unerring adjudicator and master bullshit detector—is a fundamental part of his vibe and sometimes his appeal. Tapper’s confidence is a not altogether uncharming element of his confrontational style (see that “no” to Bannon), though it can wear thin. His recent contretemps with BuzzFeed over that website’s decision to share the specific contents of the “golden shower” memo, a story CNN first broke, is another example of Tapper calling out a hypocrisy and, in so doing, missing the forest to yell at another tree. Tapper defended Trump from BuzzFeed, saying, “The president has a right to be mad,” as though what mattered was Tapper’s infallible sense of right and wrong and not the larger picture. Tapper framed the stories as though they were in opposition to each other when they were actually mutually reinforcing, with BuzzFeed’s elevating CNN’s above a kind of high-level blind item. Tapper recast a genuinely thorny question of journalistic ethics as simplistic, supporting the bully who yells “fake news” and perpetuating a paradigm of “good media” and “bad media” to indemnify his institution from a president who iced CNN out anyway.
“CNN is in the business of sussing out what is true and what is false,” Tapper said at the time, aligning himself and CNN with virtuous journalism and BuzzFeed with lowly muckraking. For those who see all of the press as the “opposition party,” there’s not a lot of daylight in this distinction. Edward R. Murrow himself would be dismissed by Trumpies as a partisan hack disseminating fake news. But Tapper’s overconfidence in the distinction is exactly why he’s found his moment: The idea of facts is so under siege that any bravado on their behalf, even misguided bravado, is palpably reassuring. When you’re watching Jake Tapper, the truth is still something you can feel smug about.