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Jake Tapper Takes A Host Chair At CNN

The veteran reporter has recently moved from ABC News to CNN where he now hosts his own show and serves as Chief Washington Correspondent. In Part II of this interview, Tapper talks about fact-checking the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and blow back from the White House after asking tough questions.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. On Monday, Jake Tapper premieres his new CNN program "The Lead." He recently moved to CNN to anchor the show and to serve as the network's chief Washington correspondent. Before that, he was ABC's White House correspondent and for about six months served as the interim host of ABC's Sunday morning show.

I recently spoke to Tapper about his new book, "The Outpost," about an American military combat outpost in Afghanistan. Here's part two of our interview, in which he looks back on his time covering the White House.

I want to ask you a little bit about your years as a White House correspondent. I always wanted to know if there's a price you pay - if there's a price one pays when one asks a tough question at a press conference with either the president or with the White House press secretary. For example...

JAKE TAPPER: I know exactly where you're headed. Keep going.

GROSS: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I'll tell you where I'm headed and you can tell me if that's where you thought I was headed.

TAPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: Because maybe your example is even better than the one I'm going to bring up.

TAPPER: OK.

GROSS: OK. I think this is after a NATO press conference when President Obama was opening things up to questions from reporters. And this was after the deaths of journalists Marie Colvin and Anthony Shadid; they had both died in Syria. And President Obama praised them for, you know, bringing out the truth and expressed his sadness at their deaths. And then you asked him how that squares with the fact that this administration has been so aggressively trying to stop aggressive journalism in the U.S. by using the Espionage Act to attack whistleblowers and take them to court. And then you asked if the administration believes that truth should come out abroad but it shouldn't come out here. So that's a tough question about your profession of journalism. Did you get any blowback behind the scenes from that? And was that the question you were thinking I was going to ask?

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: No. I thought you were going to...

GROSS: Yours is probably better. What was yours?

TAPPER: I thought you were going to ask me after the Newtown shootings, the very last question I asked President Obama was - I pointed out that he had not exactly been trying to do anything about curbing gun violence in his four previous years as president and this was not the first massacre on his watch - as he had previously noted in the previous week, and I asked him where he had been. That's what I thought you were going to ask me.

GROSS: Well, let's pretend I asked that one because that one's maybe an even better illustration of what I'd like to know, which is, is their blowback afterwards? But of course that was your last question, so in some ways it makes the point mute. But was there blowback after that?

TAPPER: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: What happened?

TAPPER: There's always blowback. Well, I don't want to get into, you know, off the record conversations, but I think it's fair to say that when you ask a question that makes the president displeased, that displeasure has a way of trickling down and making itself known - not only from White House officials but from the unruly masses on Twitter and Facebook and email. So I think it's fair to say that yes, there's blowback, but that's also part of the job, and if you can't handle blowback because you asked a tough question, then you shouldn't be doing the job.

GROSS: Does it have a chilling effect?

TAPPER: No, it does not have a chilling effect on me. It actually has the opposite effect on me.

GROSS: Which is?

TAPPER: It has the - which is it makes me more determined to ask an even tougher question the next time.

GROSS: Because?

TAPPER: But that's just - because that's how I was raised, to question authority. And, you know, you can - not that it would be particularly interesting - but you can ask any of my high school teachers and they would tell you the same thing. Of course the authority I was rebelling against then was slightly different than asking the president questions about drones. But the point is the same. We are supposed to be, in the media, holding their feet to the fire and asking them uncomfortable questions. We are supposed to charge right for the uncomfortable. That's the point. And...

GROSS: Did you ever lose access to the Bush or Obama administration to anybody within the White House staff because of a tough question? Or because of a report?

TAPPER: I'm sure. It's never, ever expressed that way. No one says, well, you asked this question, so this is not going to happen. But, for instance, in 2000, when I was covering the Bush campaign, Bush press aides, in the last week of the campaign, when they were absolutely certain that they were going to win, and I had been asking then-Governor Bush tough questions about all sorts of issues, ranging from Bob Jones University to whatever.

They made their displeasure known, and they looked into having me kicked off the press plane. I wasn't - you know, just to keep in mind, I wasn't, like, getting drunk in the back and throwing beer cans. I was just asking the president, then-Governor Bush tough questions. They looked into having me kicked off the press plane. They kicked me out of the pool rotation for magazines. I was Salon.com at the time.

And they were never - you know, the Bush White House was never particularly hospitable when it came to helping me get an interview, or anything. And while I'm no longer with salon.com, so I'm not as easily - the contemplation of kicking me out of anything is not as simple as it probably seemed at the time, the Obama White House has made its displeasure known, as well.

But I will say - and especially to reporters out there, or aspiring reporters - ultimately, if the questions are good ones, and not about stupid things like birth certificates, but ultimately, if the questions are good ones about things that they know in their hearts were fair questions, if uncomfortable ones at the time, you will earn the respect of people in the White House. And ultimately, they will appreciate what you bring to your job.

GROSS: Was there a period when you were concerned that nobody was going to hire you after Salon because you had lost some access?

TAPPER: Yeah, definitely. But ABC News did hire me after Salon. But, you know, the questions I asked of then-Governor Bush or President Bush were never - they were never ideological ones. They were never - even though Salon has become a much more ideological publication today than it was when I worked there in 2000, 2001, 2002, they weren't ideological. They were just tough questions. That's how I viewed it, anyway. And...

GROSS: What's an example of one of those questions?

TAPPER: Well, from the campaign, because that's when I had access to then-Governor Bush, and after he was elected president I didn't. But it was during the whole Bob Jones thing, which maybe some people don't remember. But the compassionate conservative Governor Bush had decided he - his first stop after losing the New Hampshire primary would be Bob Jones University, which, at the time, banned interracial dating.

And their website was full of anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon propaganda, beliefs, what - treatises, whatever. And I asked him if there was any - and his answer was he would speak to any group and share his view. And just because he was speaking to them didn't mean he agreed with them. And I asked him at some impromptu press briefing in South Carolina - and keep - I mean, they banned interracial dating.

I mean, it's hard to - this is 2000. This is not 1942. This is the year 2000. The school banned interracial dating. You could not be a Bob Jones University student and date an African-American, even if they were an evangelical Christian. And so I said to Governor Bush: So, is there any group you would not speak to? Would you share your views with the Ku Klux Klan? And he said I'm not going to walk through a minefield of hypotheticals.

And - but that was the example of the kind of thing I would ask them.

GROSS: My guest is Jake Tapper, a former ABC News correspondent who's now CNN's chief Washington correspondent and the anchor of a new CNN show called "The Lead" which debuts Monday. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Jake Tapper, who recently moved to CNN, where he's chief Washington correspondent and anchor of the new show "The Lead," which debuts Monday. He formerly was ABC's chief White House correspondent.

So in 2004, you were a fact-checker? Tell me if I have this right.

TAPPER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: During the ABC coverage of the presidential debates and other election coverage.

TAPPER: Yeah. This is when fact-checking first came into vogue, I think, as a result, to no small degree, of the lack of facts that the media was all-too-willing to convey to the public during the buildup to the war in Iraq. Yeah. So I wasn't assigned a candidate in 2004 by ABC News. So I had to carve out little beats for myself on the campaign trail. One of them was I became the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth fact-checker.

And then the other one was I had just become the regular campaign fact-checker and post-debate fact-checker. And that's a lot of fun. That's, you know, we all like to do that in our personal lives. No, you're wrong. That's incorrect.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: So as somebody who is - has that quality, much to the annoyance of friends and family, it was fun to do it for a great and God-fearing nation.

GROSS: So what were some of your best sources for fact-checking? Like on the Internet, or phone?

TAPPER: I mean, you can't - you know, authoritative, non-partisan reports, whether the Congressional Budget Office or any sort of non-partisan think-tank. Or, you know, and you obviously have to attribute these things. But often, the fact-check would come in the form of how politicians were simplifying something to make their point, as opposed to telling the truth. Just a silly example is John Kerry would always say that General Shinseki had been fired after telling the truth about the number of troops needed in Iraq.

And he hadn't been fired, but he had been marginalized. But, you know, Kerry's point - he wanted to make the point that Bush didn't want to hear the truth, and to make that point, he would not always tell the complete truth himself.

GROSS: So you were fact-checking some of the Swift Boat attacks against presidential candidate John Kerry. There were so many lies in those attacks. What was the fact-checking like, and how effective do you think it was in trying to counteract the lies?

TAPPER: Well, I'm pretty proud of that fact-checking. We were pretty good about defending John Kerry's record as adequately and affirmatively conveyed in military records and the records of people who were actually on the boats with John Kerry, as opposed to other Swift Boat veterans who were not on the boats with John Kerry. But I don't know that - this was definitely an era of he said-she said journalism.

And, unfortunately, as is the case in society in general, a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes. And the untruths about John Kerry were more potent than the record-correcting that media attempted - not on behalf of John Kerry, but on behalf of medical records and facts and the war record of somebody who volunteered to captain a Swift Boat through the rivers of the jungles of Vietnam.

And it's a shame that - I mean, whether or not John Kerry should be president is a whole other discussion, but it's a shame that military records and firsthand testimonials were so often disregarded in favor of angry personal attacks.

GROSS: Did you find it discouraging how the media covered the Swift Boating story? Because some of the media covered both sides, as if both sides, you know, two different, valid versions of the truth, when one side was not telling the truth.

TAPPER: Yeah, I did. I did find it frustrating. I find it frustrating any time there's a false equivalence made by the media, because we are supposed to have the moral standing and intellectual standing to say when something is true and when something is not true. And I don't think that the media always measures up to it. I'm sure I haven't always measured up to it, as well.

But I will say that this - I do think that this is the flipside of a different problem, which is one of I think a cultural bias that some members of the media have. And I think that it's not - I think it's simplifying to say that the media's liberal, but I do think that the media, in general, comes from blue-state worlds or blue cities, and doesn't necessarily understand red states as well as we should.

And I think trying to overcorrect that, sometimes we fall into the pit of false equivalence.

GROSS: Was it interesting for you to have watched Senator Kerry's confirmation hearings as Secretary of State and now see him as Secretary of State after having fact-checked all of the Swift Boat allegations against him?

TAPPER: I have to tell you, I was - because I was cleaning out my office at ABC News and moving to CNN, I came across my John Kerry Swift Boat file. And I kept it, because I thought that we were going to hear all the same arguments again. And I wanted - you know, I had all the military records and official after-action reports and testimonials from his - from firsthand witnesses and the like.

And I was pretty amazed that none of it came out, except for a little bit, I guess, on Sean Hannity. There was very little of the smears against his war record. And I guess instead, they just focused on a different nominee for a different position. But it's pretty telling.

GROSS: Jake Tapper's new CNN show, "The Lead," starts Monday. You can hear part one of our interview about his new book, "The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor," on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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