Q&A: CNN’s Jake Tapper, UMass 2018 commencement speaker
“Here’s something that people really need to remember: Asking tough questions of people is not easy”
May 9, 2018
Jake Tapper doesn’t take sides, and he doesn’t seek to please anyone. He asks the tough questions. His fierce, steadfast approach to his job at CNN revolves around seeking the truth, even if it gets uncomfortable.
And while he admits that asking those tough questions can be taxing—as “human beings are not built for conflict,” he notes—his advice to journalists is firm and simple: “Don’t take sides, don’t belong to a party and ask questions that you think need to be answered.”
Tapper has interviewed nearly all of Washington’s top political players, grilling the likes of James Comey, Paul Ryan and Kellyanne Conway. As host of ‘The Lead with Jake Tapper,’ the 49-year-old anchor and former cartoonist has played a key role in breaking records at CNN, making 2017 the network’s most watched year. You can find him on “The State of the Union with Jake Tapper,” broadcast around the world, every Sunday at 9 a.m. and noon.
You can also find him on Twitter 24/7, engaging with his viewers, plugging his new book, ‘The Hellfire Club,’ and occasionally duking it out with Sean Hannity.
But between running a successful weekday show, along with his Sunday talk show, he’s made time to visit Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium at the University of Massachusetts on Friday, May 11, to speak to the 2018 graduates at their undergraduate commencement ceremony.
Tapper spoke with the Massachusetts Daily Collegian’s news editor, Jackson Cote, and social media coordinator, Serena McMahon, about his interviewing tactics, reporting on President Trump and how to face the real world head-on after college.
Serena McMahon: It’s no surprise to you or me that social media has transformed journalism, and as a journalist, you have over one million followers. How do you navigate social media as a medium for your storytelling and sharing the truth, while also engaging with your viewers online?Jake Tapper: It’s a great tool for journalism in a lot of ways. For instance, during the Obama administration, there was this one time where this health insurance company I think was cancelling service for 100,000 people in California, but I didn’t know who they were, and it wasn’t like there was a list. So, I went onto Twitter, and I said, ‘This just happened. Does this describe you, and would you participate in a story about this for me?’ And I got through to somebody, so it was a great way to crowdsource news by finding actual people. It’s always more effective when you see an actual person affected.
Likewise, it’s a great way to see stories going on all over the world, whether from Yemen or France or Amherst, Massachusetts.
Another great way that Twitter can be used is to expose yourself to ideas that aren’t necessarily ones that would occur to you. So, I follow a lot of progressives, I follow a lot of conservatives, I follow a lot of people with a lot of different point of views—and that’s the point, for me at least, to expose myself to lots of point of views, so that thoughts that might not have occurred to me naturally I can be exposed to and it can influence my thinking.
Jackson Cote: I’ve noticed with you and other active journalists on Twitter, like Maggie Haberman, for instance, that you guys respond and engage with your audience members, sort of stepping outside of your own bubble. Does that improve your storytelling and reporting?
Jake Tapper: I would say exposure to constructive criticism is always a good way to improve. At a certain point, it can become a little tedious. I mean, I get that progressives don’t like it when I book Kellyanne Conway on my show. I get it, I hear it, I understand the criticism. But, repeating it and threatening a boycott doesn’t really have a positive effect at this point.
But I do think exposure to constructive criticism is important for people in all walks of life, certainly for people who are in public life to any extent, whether politicians or people in the media. Look, we’re imperfect people, and it’s an imperfect field, but we do the best we can, and one of the ways we can keep constantly trying to improve is by listening to critics.
JC: So, I wanted to talk to you about your book. ‘The Hellfire Club’ is a fictional political thriller set during the McCarthy era. What inspired you to write about this tumultuous time period in particular? Just general interest and historical nerdiness? Or do you see any parallels between now and then?
Jake Tapper: There certainly are a lot of parallels. They say history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And, if you read about the 1950s, there’s a lot of rhyming. It is the Swamp, the Washington Swamp that President Trump rails against that certainly exists today and existed back then. There is a lot of resonance: unelected officials, behind closed doors, making all sorts of decisions.
When it comes to President Trump, Joe McCarthy—while a very different person than President Trump, with very different priorities—used a lot of the same techniques in terms of smearing people and saying things that aren’t true. And the Republican Party and the Democratic Party and the media at the time were faced with the dilemma of how do you handle this? How do you approach a political leader who is smearing people and saying things that aren’t true? So there was a lot of resonance.
I wrote it because I thought it would be fun. I thought it would be fun and challenging to write a novel. I picked this point in history because it seemed like it was very ripe for what I wanted to do, which was talk about the Swamp and talk about the dilemmas that people who come to Washington face in terms of having to make compromises. And the 50s are just a fascinating period. The decade is very serene and benign, but right underneath the surface, it’s full of menace.
SM: Do you think you’ll write any more after this book?
Jake Tapper: I don’t know. I mean, this book and the book tour are pretty taxing—ask me in six months to a year.
SM: As journalism students, we want your advice, especially when you’re interviewing people on your program, high-profile individuals like former FBI Director James Comey. Do you have any advice for journalism students on how to remain tough but fair and aggressively non-partisan when covering the news?
Jake Tapper: Before you interview somebody, off-the-record talk to people who might not like that person or might disapprove of something about that person and get as much information as you can about why they don’t. Don’t take sides, don’t belong to a party, and ask questions that you think need to be answered.
And here’s something that people really need to remember: Asking tough questions of people is not easy. It’s not fun. It’s exhausting, and it takes wherewithal to do. I get nervous before I do it sometimes, and it’s just uncomfortable. So just know that those are normal feelings to have, but the job is to, on behalf of readers and viewers who can’t ask those questions, do it for them. So it’s a responsibility, but nobody should think that if they get nervous before their first interview, their first adversarial interview, that’s abnormal or that it will go away. I’m 49 years old, and I still get nervous before these things, because human beings are not built for conflict. We’re built to avoid conflict. Running into conflict is not easy.
Most of us at least are built to try and get along with people and not bring up uncomfortable topics and to see the humanity in other people. That’s going to be part of my address on Friday: talking about seeing the humanity in people that we might disagree with. But when you’re a journalist, you have to kind of throw that all out the window. You see their humanity, but that doesn’t mean you let up on tough questions.
SM: Piggybacking off of that, in your interview in January with Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior advisor for policy—and we all saw Trump’s tweet about you, saying that was unfair—how do you respond to an administration that’s consistently saying, ‘This is fake’ or ‘Oh, you’re unfair?’ Has this criticism elevated your reporting or reporting in general?Jake Tapper: The important thing for journalists is to rise to the occasion, not to sink into the mud. Just because people we’re covering attack us personally or say things about us that aren’t true, doesn’t mean we lower ourselves. We need to make sure our reporting’s accurate, that we cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i,’ that we fact check, that we call people for responses before we print anything about them or televise anything about them and that we redouble our efforts on being as professional, as fair as possible. It doesn’t really matter whether the response of the person we’re covering is to ignore us or to attack us or to praise us; we need just to be as tough and fair and professional as possible.
If the President wants to tweet an attack on me or any of my colleagues, that’s what he does. But that doesn’t mean that I am going to call him names or use Twitter the way he does.
JC: CNN has been critiqued at times for what some may see as fanning the flames of the Trump administration, covering non-stories relating to his tweets or other news. How do you balance holding the President accountable while also not stoking the flames so-to-speak? Are all the President’s actions relevant and newsworthy? What’s your responsibility here?
Jake Tapper: I think our responsibility is to cover presidential statements whether they are made on Twitter or in person—to cover presidential statements to the degree of their importance. I’m not going to waste any time bemoaning the fact that he’s promoting an alternative network or saying something that’s silly, but ultimately inconsequential. But the President’s tweets are presidential statements, and I take them seriously that way. If he wants to attack the Mueller investigation or if he wants to attack his own justice department, it’s important. It’s not bait. It’s a presidential statement.
Look, not everything we do is perfect. Not everything in any profession is perfect. But we do the best job we can to cover this administration fairly and aggressively, and that includes things that the Presidents says, even if some people think a tweet is silly, or because it’s on this technology, which somehow makes it less important—I don’t buy that. A presidential statement is a presidential statement, and we cover those.
JC: But you don’t think it’s bait? His time in New York, the many, many years in New York, he was constantly playing with the media, playing off the media. You don’t see this as bait?
Jake Tapper: I mean, I guess I would have to know what specific tweet you’re talking about that you think as bait, but if the President tweets an attack on the Mueller investigation, I think that that’s the President of the United States attacking a law enforcement investigation, and it should be covered.
I don’t think, for example, him attacking the cast of ‘Hamilton’ or Meryl Streep is as important as him attacking Mueller. I don’t think him making personal insults to a United States senator is as important as what he says about North Korea. You know, we do have to use some sort of news analysis when deciding how much weight to give them. But like I said, a presidential statement is a presidential statement.
SM: Do you have any tactics that you use when your interviewee is trying to plug their own agenda or a source goes off the rails?
Jake Tapper: Well, a print interview is different from a TV interview is different from a radio interview: It’s all different. At the end of the day, the interviewer controls the interview. You decide the subject, you decide the duration of the interview and you decide to end it prematurely. So that’s all up to you. I mean, you have to go into the interview knowing that somebody, a lot of times politicians, are going to want to change the subject and just adapt accordingly. Just because they want to change the subject, doesn’t mean you should allow the subject to be changed.
SM: Over 7,000 UMass students are about to graduate this weekend, what piece of advice do you have for us?
Jake Tapper: Well that’s the subject of my speech! And I’ve been working on it for months. I can’t tell that to you right now!
SM: Well, is there at least anything that you wish you knew graduating college that you’d like us to know?
Jake Tapper: Sure, I’ll tell you this because this is not in the speech. One of the most important lessons that you’ll learn in your first five years out of college is that the real world is much more transactional then your world has been until now. Until now, believe it or not, your parents and your teachers have really been just trying to help you, but you’re about to enter a world where people want something from you. And they aren’t going to necessarily do things for you just because they’re nice or to be nice. The challenge is to figure out what that thing is that you can offer to them and show that to them every day. Whether it’s hard work or showing up on the job early or staying late or having a great attitude or coming up with lots of ideas or being creative or whatever, figure out what will serve you the best in that transaction.
The real world is not a place where people just run around trying to help people. People are trying to live their lives and do their jobs, and they’re seeking people who can help them live their lives and do their jobs. The sooner you know that, the better you can crack the code of where ever it is you want to work.
SM: I’m curious, what was that for you?
Jake Tapper: Ultimately, because I failed at a number of careers before I ended up being a journalist. In journalism, it was being very creative, having a lot of ideas and working very, very hard at those ideas, writing stories, etcetera. I didn’t need more advice on the work hard part of it, but I did need more advice on the good attitude part of it. It’s really working hard and having a good attitude—it’s really that simple. It’s just tough to do sometimes because you’re leaving this wonderful world of college and entering the real world. But, let me save something for my speech!