ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper says alternative views welcome in mainstream newsrooms
One of the heavyweight political correspondents in the corporate media says there's a greater openness in his industry to employing people with different views.
"I know there's an inclination to think that we're all sellouts and idiots, and we just do what we're told by our corporate masters," ABC senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper told a room full of alternative-publication reporters and editors on July 23. "But more journalists in the mainstream media than you think are exactly like you. They just want the truth to get out. And they want to hear your stories."
Tapper, who formerly wrote for an alt-weekly called Washington City Paper, was speaking at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention in New Orleans.
He acknowledged that there are many problems within the mainstream media—"more than you know, probably".
Tapper also said that he would not disagree with people who argue that the mainstream media could and should be better.
"It's definitely not for everyone," Tapper stated. "But if you are interested in coming on board, I would argue there is increasingly a place for the alternative mindset in the world of the mainstream media as it struggles with this new age where there are thousands of channels and thousands of outlets."
He pointed out that the former editor of Washington City Paper, David Carr, has enjoyed success at the New York Times, where he is the media critic. Carr is the centrepiece of a new documentary called Page One: Inside the New York Times.
Carr spoke at last year's AAN convention in Toronto.
Tapper, a former writer for Salon.com, said that after he started at ABC News in 2003, then-anchor Peter Jennings told him that there were "a lot of people" working there who didn't know if they could trust his reports. In 2004, Tapper wasn't assigned a candidate to cover.
"It took years, but eventually my bosses came to realize that I, like all of you, would work really hard to report things, to uncover facts that they hadn't known," he said.
Tapper readily admitted that in the early days, if he wanted to be appointed as the White House correspondent, it wasn't going to be because he was the prettiest, had the most polished style, or possessed the highest "Q" rating.
"I knew that I had to be such a good reporter—working harder than the others, willing to challenge assumptions, willing to make mistakes, which I did, and willing to not genuflect before a candidate so many others were smitten by," he added. "They had no choice but to give me that job. If they didn't give me that job, they were going to look like assholes."
In the middle of his speech, Tapper spoke about the importance of "speaking truth to power", citing Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel's criticism of President Ronald Reagan in 1985 for visiting a German cemetary with SS members after Wiesel had won the Congressional Gold Medal.
"That's speaking truth to power," Tapper declared.
Later, he said that as a result of national news organizations closing bureaus and leaving gaps in the market, alternative journalists can "speak truth to power louder than you ever have before".
Dissecting the spin: analyzing Jake Tapper's presentation to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention
By Charlie Smith
I know it's unconventional to combine a commentary with a news story in sequence, both written by the same person. But sometimes, you have to cut through the crap to tell people the reality, as you see it.
Let's just call it speaking truth to power, because Tapper is a powerful media figure as the chief White House correspondent for a network owned by Walt Disney Company. He was interim anchor of ABC This Week, and could eventually become the host if Christiane Amanpour ever decides to move on. This makes Tapper an ultimate Washington insider.
I've noticed greater efforts by large U.S.-based news organizations to try to present themselves as being more alternative than they really are.
The New York Times was one of the chief cheerleaders of the U.S.-led attack on Iraq, helped along by former reporter Judith Miller's breathless accounts of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction. It has since been revealed that one of her secret sources was Scooter Libby, the former chief of staff to former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney.
The documentary featuring Carr is, in my opinion, an attempt to rebrand the New York Times—and Carr is the perfect publicist to advance the message. Nobody would ever see the gravel-voiced Carr, a former crack addict, as some sort of corporate stooge. But if you watch the film closely, you'll see that he attacks critics of the Times with just as much gusto as the old Burson-Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton would demonstrate in going after their clients' opponents.
Near the end of Page One, there's a scene in which the New York Times wins a prestigious journalism prize—confirmation that it's serving the public interest. There's no mention of Rupert Murdoch's purchase of the Wall Street Journal and his efforts to make changes to the conservative business daily to put the New York Times out of business. That would have messed with the story line of the documentary.
Never mind that Alexander Cockburn, a true alternative journalist, once wrote: "The truth is that the Pulitzer business—and, given the promotional uses to which the prizes are put, it definitely is a business—is a self-validating ritual whereby journalists give each other prizes and then boast to the public about them. Each year's ritual proclaims that journalism once again has maintained sufficiently high standards to merit such acclaim."
Tapper came across as a nice guy in his speech, but the reality is that he didn't spend a lot of time in the alternative media. He worked for a high-powered public-relations firm, Powell Tate, run by former White House press secretary Jody Powell (who worked for Democratic president Jimmy Carter) and Republican Sheila Tate. Tapper briefly acknowledged to the alternative journalists that he was employed in public relations, but didn't spell out any details, including the identity of his former employer.
He gained a great deal of publicity for going on a date with Monical Lewinsky and writing about it for Washington City Paper.
As for his comment that he wasn't allowed to cover a candidate in 2004, let's keep in mind that the president at that time was George W. Bush. Tapper wrote skeptically about the war in Iraq from its outset. Was a corporate behemoth like ABC going to turn him loose or was he hired so the network could hedge its bet in case the Democrats won the 2004 campaign?
This this will sound awfully cynical to those who faithfully watch American newscasts night after night. But hey, Tapper likes to hear people speak truth to power, so I'm going to continue.
I believe that ABC News assigned him to cover Barack Obama during the campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination precisely because Tapper had expressed skepticism about the war so early in the game. He and the candidate likely shared the same views.
Having worked with Powell, a trusted Democratic spin doctor, Tapper had a good pedigree for understanding what messages the Obama campaign team wanted to convey.
Immediately after Obama was elected, Tapper was named chief White House correspondent for ABC News. This probably caused Obama's handlers to heave a sigh of relief. And ABC could count on having good access to the new power brokers running the country.
But Obama and ABC have a problem. They're both being devoured by some powerful right-wing forces. The Republicans are causing huge headaches for the president over the budget standoff. And ABC, like CBS and NBC, is trying to counter the furious right-wing assault by Fox News.
These mainstream media outlets need allies, not enemies, on the left. Hence, they try to curry favour with the alternative media by sending out people like Carr and Tapper as ambassadors to spread the message that the mainstream media is more open-minded than most people realize.
The Page One documentary is another manifestation of this trend. If you can get a positive feature on the film-festival circuit, it will reach the type of alternative-thinking people that you want to retain in your audience.
Tapper might have believed his own words when he said: "I knew that I had to be such a good reporter—working harder than the others, willing to challenge assumptions, willing to make mistakes, which I did, and willing to not genuflect before a candidate so many others were smitten by. They had no choice but to give me that job. If they didn't give me that job, they were going to look like assholes."
I'm inclined to think he became the chief White House correspondent because of factors that went far beyond those reasons. But if the editors and reporters in the room in New Orleans take his message to heart, they might be a little less likely in the future to criticize ABC News. For Tapper's bosses, that's mission accomplished, making him a valuable member of the team.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.