In today's increasingly niche media landscape, CNN's Jake Tapper is happy to be a generalist. Starting Monday, the former ABC News White House correspondent anchors a new daily program, The Lead With Jake Tapper, which he promises will be a smart, wide-ranging look at the world. You can expect some of the usual suspects from the Beltway to appear on the Washington-based show. But Tapper also plans to mix in some big names from pop culture and television. Stephen Colbert, Shonda Rhimes, the cast of Mad Men, Jimmy Kimmel, Game of Thrones executive producer David Benioff are all lined up for the first month. The Lead will be closely watched by the TV news industry, as it's the first new CNN show since Jeff Zucker took the helm as president. The Biz recently caught up with Tapper to get a preview.
TV Guide Magazine: This is not your first go-around at CNN.
Jake Tapper: I was on Take Five.
TV Guide Magazine: It was CNN's attempt at a show for younger viewers.
Tapper: Which they then put on at 8:30 on a Saturday night. They were trying something new. It was pretty good for what it was — young people trying to get their feet wet. [White House press secretary] Jay Carney was a panelist. So was [CBS News political director] John Dickerson. I think it would have continued. But our last show was September 8, 2001. And then Tuesday the world changed and certainly what CNN was running 24/7 changed. ... After 9/11, a show with young people talking about politics and pop culture was not as important as going live to Islamabad, which made sense to me.
TV Guide Magazine: what can you bring to the viewer that's distinctive with a 4 p.m. show on a 24-hour news channel?
Tapper: At 4 is when the people who make news get serious about what they're going to put on in the evening news or the next day's newspapers. It's a time for discretion and judgment. We can put a flag in the ground and say, "this is important." We'll have distinct blocks of the show that represent different categories of the lead. A politics lead, a national lead, world lead, a business lead — the stock market will have just closed — a pop culture lead and sports lead. For contributors, we'll have a stable of familiar faces for different topics. We want to have one interview a show and one roundtable.
TV Guide Magazine: It sounds like a format that could work later in the evening too.
Tapper: It will start at 4 and we'll see what happens. It's possible it will move later.
TV Guide Magazine: Describe your own media consumption habits.
Tapper: I get up at 6:30 a.m. because I have two kids — a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old. I have to get to awake-status before they do. Then I go to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
TV Guide Magazine: On a tablet or a hard copy?
Tapper: Right now on an iPad, but I think I'm about to switch back to paper. There are stories that I miss on my iPad that I don't miss when I have them in the paper. I can't explain it. And then I use the aggregators online — Drudge Report, Huffington Post and the best aggregator in the world, Twitter. I follow 1,500 people and I see what they are all tweeting about. I see things on Twitter before I see them anywhere else. It's essential.
TV Guide Magazine: No TV morning shows?
Tapper: The truth is I don't have control of the remote in the morning. A lot of cartoon creatures come on the air. The next time I get any broadcast media is in the car.
TV Guide Magazine: You had a few options when your last contract was up at ABC News. Why did you go with CNN?
Tapper: One reason is they're a news organization. That's what they do. That's their purpose. They do presidential debates. When there is a huge breaking story, everybody turns it on all around the world. They have 24 hours to fill, so it's not like you only have a minute and 15 seconds on a story. You can do an hour. I started on CNN on a Tuesday after President Obama's inaugural. It had been announced that Clint Romesha was going to be receiving the Medal of Honor. [Romesha is the former Army staff sergeant and battle hero stationed at Combat Outpost Keating, the highly vulnerable camp in Afghanistan that Tapper wrote about in his best-selling book, The Outpost.] By Friday I was in Minot, North Dakota, interviewing him. Looking back I can't believe I did this — but I called Jeff Zucker and said, "You have to give me an hour." He said, "Write me a script and I'll see if it holds up." So I wrote a script that week and on Friday handed it in to him and Saturday he e-mailed me to say, "I love it" and by Thursday it's on. It was the first interview with Clint to air. I was watching it with my wife. When we got through the second segment she turned to me and said, "You made the right decision." Here's an organization that will crash an hour-long documentary and will give me an hour to do it and it's a very serious story.
TV Guide Magazine: You couldn't have done that story on 20/20?
Tapper: I doubt it. It's not just ABC. I doubt any network would have given an hour to tell a story like that. They have commercial interests that preclude them from giving a story like that an hour. ... It was clear that this was a news organization that would let me do this kind of story and it was based on merit.
TV Guide Magazine: Fox News was also talking to you. Did you give serious thought to joining them?
Tapper: I took every offer seriously. A lot of great work is being done all over the place. Ultimately CNN felt like the right place. I had some friends had already gone to CNN...and Jeff Zucker was a big part of it. The conversations had been going on for a long time. But Jeff was a big part of it. He wants to win and he wants to do news. Those are two very important things.
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