Jake Tapper hopes to turn around a struggling network, one pop-culture reference at a time.
If it’s a whole new ball game at CNN, then Jake Tapper is the leadoff hitter. His show, “The Lead With Jake Tapper,” launched last Monday, the first of what most predict will be significant changes under the network’s new president, former NBC chief Jeff Zucker.
“The new boss wants his own peeps,” longtime CNN analyst Roland Martin tweeted last week as he announced his imminent departure, following the dismissal of such network vets as James Carville, Mary Matalin and Bill Bennett.
Tapper, 44, made a name for himself as a fierce interrogator at ABC. He reflected on the state of the ratings-challenged network in a phone interview last Wednesday, shortly after he had finished grilling House Speaker John Boehner.
Q When you were in negotiations to jump to CNN, what did Jeff Zucker say to you that made you feel good about coming over?
A We talked a lot about stories we thought were important and not getting enough play. There are a lot of very successful news organizations — the New York Times, public radio, the Strib — that cover things that TV news doesn’t cover adequately. Too often when we dip our toe into pop culture, it comes across as very cheesy or way too reluctant. Anyone who has watched Charlie Rose interview a great filmmaker or listens to “All Things Considered” knows there are great cultural stories out there. Let’s do it in a smart way, and do the same thing with sports and business.
Q In your first episode, you made references to “Modern Family,” Robert Redford, “CSI” and supermodel Bar Refaeli. That kind of language may draw in viewers, but can it also appear to be pandering?
A You don’t want to overdo it and you don’t want to force it, but you want to have an engaging newscast. When appropriate, you want the writing to be crisp and fun.
Q Does that justify asking Sen. Marco Rubio what he thinks about Justin Timberlake?
A That was 20 seconds at the end of a six-minute interview in which we went fairly deep on Syria and immigration reform. Most interviews have at least one lighter question. You can do that with a younger, hipper senator as opposed to John Boehner — this is a guy I’m not going to be throwing a lot of pop-cultural references around.
Q You cram a lot of information into your show. What’s the rush?
A Funny you should say that. I’m coming from network TV, where one or two minutes is an eternity. I agree that it’s fast-paced, but five minutes with the White House chief of staff? Wow, that’s so much time.
Q OK, here’s my light question. How much material did you give Jimmy Kimmel when he hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner?
A I didn’t write any of the jokes. I mainly served as the scolding censor for what is a very tough room. I was a reality check on who he could make fun of without getting tarred and feathered. When a joke bombed, he blamed me.