Jake Tapper has found himself—or put himself—in the middle of the gun-control debate in America. After last month’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the CNN anchor moderated a town hall in which parents and survivors vented anger at politicians, police, and the National Rifle Association.
“We’re here tonight to facilitate your desire to speak directly to your leaders,” he said as the broadcast began. He made a few points—for instance, that Democrats didn’t prioritize gun control when they last held Congress and the White House—but mostly hung back, even when the dialogue grew tense. “Normally at a debate or a town hall, I would be quick to say to someone, ‘That was rude’ or ‘We’re going to try to keep it civil here,’ or ‘Let’s not have personal attacks,’” he later told Variety. “But in this situation, who am I to tell someone that just lost a daughter or a friend, ‘Don’t talk that way’?”
Media observers said the town hall was a “stunning” event, unlike any in the history of American TV. Liberals cheered it, too. But conservatives hated it. Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire, called it a “show trial on behalf of full gun bans,” and nationally syndicated radio host Joe Walsh described it to me as “a one-sided pep rally against guns.”
Days later, Tapper grilled Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. “Just so people watching at home understand,” Tapper said, “even after the shooter left the school, there was a period of time where nobody was going into the school—no law enforcement officers. People were bleeding out.” He later asked Israel, “Are you really not taking any responsibility for the multiple red flags that were brought to the attention of the Broward sheriff’s office about this shooter before the incident?”
Some liberals criticized the interview. But conservatives loved it. Shapiro said it was “deeply necessary and perfectly done”; NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch agreed. The Blaze founder Glenn Beck called Tapper “the number one journalist in the nation.” The right praised Tapper again this week after he called out Democrats for not condemning Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who recently gave an anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT speech.
With the asymmetric polarization of American politics, many on the right condemn mainstream news organizations as liberal organs or “Fake News,” and they cocoon themselves in a right-wing media ecosystem of Fox News, the Drudge Report, Breitbart, and the like. This includes President Donald Trump, whose favorite show is Fox & Friends and number-one target is CNN. In this era, consensus journalists—those who are respected across America’s partisan divide—are not supposed to exist. And yet, Tapper has become perhaps the most widely praised journalist working in TV today.
Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, calls him “one of the most exemplary journalists working today in America.” Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman from Illinois and ardent defender of gun rights, said, “He and I probably disagree on damn near every issue. But having said that, I don’t think there’s anybody more fair and objective in what we call the mainstream media.” Bari Weiss, an editor and writer for the New York Times opinion section, told me Tapper is “one of the few people who’s generally watched and respected, at least in my world, by people across the political spectrum.” And Shapiro called Tapper “a definite rarity” among cable news hosts.
He’s even won over libertarians. “Tapper is the only person who, when I see him on TV, I stop to listen no matter what,” said Nick Gillespie, an editor at large at Reason magazine. “He forces people who think Sheriff Scott Israel is a good guy to face up to the fact that Israel is kind of full of shit, and he pushes Dana Loesch and the NRA to really explain their contradictions when it comes to recently stated ideas about gun policy. I mean, I’m a libertarian, so I hesitate to say anything is a public service, but that’s kind of a great public service he’s doing.”
How did Tapper pull this off?
Tapper, who is 48, grew up in Philadelphia with a keen awareness of the “bad guys who ran the country and the city,” as he recently told former Obama strategist David Axelrod on the latter’s podcast. “I have very vivid memories of my parents talking about Nixon, my mom watching Watergate on the black-and-white set in the living room,” he said. “The mayor at the time in Philadelphia was a guy named Frank Rizzo—a Democrat, a real bully, a racist.”
He didn’t always want to be a journalist. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1991, he went to film school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, but dropped out after one semester. Back home in Pennsylvania and directionless, he found work with a family friend, Marjorie Margolies—first on her successful congressional campaign and then as her Washington press secretary. He spent three years at the public relations firm Powell Tate and later served as the spokesman for Handgun Control, Inc. (now the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence). None of the jobs made him happy.
In 1995, on a ski trip to Vermont, Tapper had an epiphany after reading a freelance article in The New Republic by Joshua and Eric Preven. Tapper doesn’t remember the piece itself—likely this one—but it occurred to him that he could be a freelance writer, too. “It was the idea that somebody in my peer group had written a freelance story for The New Republic, which was, at the time, in my twenties, like my bible,” he told me. “I read it every week. I loved it. It’s where I first read Michael Lewis. It’s where I first read Andrew Sullivan. The notion that actual people could submit things that would be a page away from Michael Lewis or Andrew Sullivan was stunning to me.”
Tapper says The New Republic rejected all his pitches in the ’9os, but other publications were more welcoming. He freelanced “literally anywhere that I could get a byline,” including The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and Moment, the Jewish magazine. (“They gave me an award a few months ago, and I noted that they still owed me a kill fee,” he said. “We’re even now.”) Tapper’s first full-time job in journalism was at Washington City Paper, where he was recruited and mentored by the late editor David Carr, whom Tapper would later describe as “a one man J-school.” It was a storied era at the alt-weekly—Carr also mentored Ta-Nehisi Coates—and in 1998 Tapper published his first cover story about his date a few weeks earlier with Monica Lewinsky, whose name had just hit the press.
The Lewinsky piece illustrated a pair of traits that would serve Tapper throughout his career: an impulse to break with the Washington consensus and a knack for being ahead of his time. The story is not without its flaws—Tapper regrets calling Lewinsky “chubby” and “zaftig”—yet it’s fundamentally a sympathetic piece, in contrast to most coverage at the time. “I didn’t understand why the world was going so insane,” Tapper told me, “and was so jubilant about this scandal while people were helping to destroy her life.... Seeing that huge scandal from a different perspective certainly opened my eyes to a way of looking at Washington that was different from the way a lot of people were looking at it at the time. I wasn’t jubilant. I didn’t think it was funny.”
“He was able to just so clearly see the way that a young woman was being torn apart by the press and by this political machine,” said Weiss, of the Times. “He saw that and expressed it years and years before the culture caught up.”
Tapper was also ahead of the culture when it came to digital journalism. Gillespie, who once worked alongside Tapper at Suck.com, called him a product “very much of the twenty-first-century political mayhem and the media crackup.” From City Paper Tapper joined Salon, where he served as Washington correspondent. “He was incredibly productive,” the site’s then-editor Joan Walsh told The Washington Post in 2009. “He wrote constantly. You would hear from him in the middle of the night if he thought a headline misrepresented his story.” She added, “Sometimes he wasn’t as liberal as his San Francisco editors wanted him to be. He wasn’t ideological. Other people wanted him to go more in the direction of hitting Republicans harder.”
“Probably like a lot of people, my personal politics are all over the map,” Tapper told me. “I’m not a member of a political party, and I feel very, very comfortable being independent. Even if I weren’t a journalist—if I were doing whatever—I would be an independent. It really just depends on the issue and the specific point being debated. I think people on the right assume everybody in the media is liberal. The point is really that it shouldn’t be relevant. The only things I really try to take a stand on are facts and basic decency, which all of a sudden is something you have to take a stand on.”
“So you have a lot of new fans,” Bill Maher told Tapper during his appearance on HBO’s Real Time two months after Trump’s inauguration. “You deserve it. You’re doing a great job over there, speaking truth to crazy.” Since then, Tapper has only gained more attention and adulation. Saturday Night Live repeatedly lampooned his relationship with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, and in April, GQ’s Taffy Brodesser-Akner highlighted “the late-night talk-show appearances and the magazine articles and the daily memes that herald this as the Jake Tapper Moment.”
What really makes this the Tapper Moment, though, is not his growing fame and viral interviews. It’s the breadth of the respect he’s earned, and how he’s wielding it in the age of Trump. Because while he’s tough on conservatives and liberals alike, he doesn’t engage in bothsidesism. As Tapper said to Maher, “I’ve never really seen this level of falsehood, just quantitatively.”
“It’s a terrible conundrum you’re in,” Maher lamented, “because the more you call it out, the more his fans say you’re being biased.... Because everything is so politicized, there is no truth for anybody left, and so the more you actually do your job well, the more you’re not given credit by the people you actually need to convince.”
“I refuse to buy into that paradigm,” Tapper shot back, “because the truth of the matter is there’s no bias when it comes to facts and there’s no bias when it comes to decency. It is empirically indecent to make fun of the disabled. You don’t have to be a Democrat or a Republican or an independent or, whatever, a socialist, a libertarian—that’s just indecent. My children know better than that.”
Truth and decency are running themes in Tapper’s work. “The great discomfort for journalists is that, if a president declares war on truth, those who try to stand by truth and defend her are then labeled partisans and biased. We’re not supposed to be fighters on the battlefield,” he said in a speech at the Canadian Journalism Foundation Awards in June. “We’re not the opposition to President Trump. We’re not the resistance. We’re trying to figure out the way to cover this new world, however, where fact and decency often seem to mean so little. And I do think we as journalists need to defend fact and decency.”
Quotes like these make clear that Tapper is simultaneously an innovator and a throwback of sorts: tough but fair, aggressively non-partisan, and determined to separate fact from fiction, all with a healthy whiff of moralism. Perhaps that’s why he has been repeatedly compared to Edward R. Murrow. But Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple sees shades of a more recent TV newsman in Tapper. “He’s kind of a less glib, less verbose version of Tim Russert,” Wemple said, referring to the Meet the Press host who died in 2008.
In the summer of 2012, Tapper finally got his byline in The New Republic. While a senior White House correspondent for ABC News, he published a review of Aaron Sorkin’s “sadly disappointing” HBO drama about cable news, The Newsroom. The protagonist, anchor Will McAvoy, “shares many weaknesses of other cable news stars—most notably, a blindness to his own ideology,” he wrote. “This is the disconnect that allows them to proclaim a commitment to Truth and Beauty right before launching a ten-minute broadside against an opponent’s petty foibles or to make a plea for civility right before releasing a sneering explosion of disdain.”
These are tendencies Tapper fights to avoid now that he’s a cable news anchor. “I’ve always been a ravenous consumer of opinion,” Tapper told me. “When I was in my high school library and my college library, I would read National Review and I would read The Nation and I would read The American Spectator and I would read Mother Jones. I just have never thought one ideology holds all the answers to everything, and so it’s probably more just that I don’t close off people’s ideas just because one Twitter mob hates them.”
Not that Tapper disdains Twitter; rather, he immerses himself in the conversation there, interacting with his sources, guests, and audience. “He is fully engaged in where media is now, in a way that I don’t think any other anchor is,” Gillespie said. “He understands that the new media landscape is that the host or the anchor or the star of the show is much closer to his audience now than he ever was, and you need to engage them. The best way to engage them is by being honest and open, admitting mistakes with a graciousness that is rare among journalists.”
“Jake Tapper has always offered a seat—when others do not offer a seat at table—for someone from the progressive moment,” said Nomiki Konst, an investigative reporter for The Young Turks and prominent Bernie Sanders supporter. “That’s not just a strategic move. He and his team will reach out and ask questions. They want to understand what’s happening on the ground. That’s reporting. They’re doing their work. They’re doing their job.”
This is not to say that Tapper is respected by all. “When I go on the radio and I have something good to say about a Jake Tapper,” Joe Walsh said, “99.9 percent of my listeners will jump on my head. When I tweet something fairly objective or positive about him, I’ll get hammered by my side.” Fox News host Sean Hannity once dubbed him “fake Jake.” Breitbart calls him “Fake Tapper.” And he’s criticized by some on the left, too. Shareblue writer Oliver Willis tweeted last month that Tapper “regularly punches left and elevates near-meaningless nonsense to keep righties off his back,” calling it “silly.”
But Tapper says he’s clear-eyed about where the threat to truth and decency is coming from. “It’s far more prevalent on the right,” he told me. “Of course it is. It’s being led by the president of the United States and his enablers and supporters. There’s no equivalence. And please put this in, because it’s so tiresome when I tweet something about Louis Farrakhan, just reporting on things he said that were just empirically anti-Semitic, and people act as though I’m making an equivalence. I’m not making an equivalence. There’s no equivalence. Louis Farrakhan has not a fraction of the power President Trump has and I’m not saying otherwise.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Tapper went to film school at the University of California in Los Angeles. He went to the University of Southern California.