Jake Tapper, ABC's senior Washington correspondent, was bitten by the politics bug early. His father, a Philadelphia pediatrician, was active in the Vietnam antiwar movement, and like many Americans was glued to coverage of the Watergate hearings. Tapper, 39, was a toddler at the time, but he obviously gleaned something from his second-hand exposure to the scandal that brought down a presidency and defined an era.
“Politics is really a drug to Jake,” says Jon Banner, the executive producer of ABC's World News, where so many of Tapper's reports appear. “There is nobody more obsessed.”
The 2008 presidential race has been rich ground for political reporters. But Tapper has been tilling this soil for multiple election seasons. He covered the 2000 election as a reporter for Salon.com, where he broke the news of then-candidate George W. Bush's speech at the segregationist Bob Jones University. And he wrote a book about the Florida recount—Down and Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency. By the time Bush was knee-deep in his re-election bid, Tapper had made the leap from print to TV and ABC, where he has been known to appear on all three regular broadcasts in one day—Good Morning America, World News and Nightline.
Now he's a fixture: In 2007, Tapper had more evening news airtime—231 minutes worth—than any other network correspondent, according to news analyst Andrew Tyndall. He beat out NBC's White House correspondent David Gregory by one minute.
Of course, there has been nothing like the 2008 presidential campaign for national interest and sheer volume of reportage. Tapper recalls his days as one of a small cadre of reporters aboard Sen. John McCain's Straight Talk Express bus during the 2004 campaign. “We got to watch the election returns in the hotel room with McCain,” he says.
The current campaign is nevertheless decidedly less intimate: “You can't replicate the Straight Talk Express when there are 100 reporters around.”
Not that Tapper pines for the old days, either in his reports, on his Political Punch blog for ABCNews.com (where Tapper, a talented caricaturist, has drawn several candidates; see BC Beat) or his weekly podcasts. He's happily in the moment.
“The truth is, I would be reading as much as I read—and probably blogging and all of that stuff—about politics even if I weren't a journalist,” he says. “This way I get to focus on something I absolutely love anyway.
“You know those sports dorks who grow up and can't wait to go work at ESPN?” he adds. “That's what this is like for me. This is like my SportsCenter.”
His political track has also had a profound impact on his personal life. He met his wife, Jennifer, 31, on the night of the 2004 Iowa caucus at the hotel bar where the John Kerry campaign was headquartered. She was working as an organizer for Planned Parenthood at the time. They dated on the campaign trail and were married in 2006. They had their first child, Alice, 6½ months ago. In fact, Alice was born the day the Larry Craig sex scandal broke. “It was the one time a political story was breaking that I didn't feel bad not being part of it,” Tapper says.
Tapper's print career began in 1998 at the Washington City Paper under the tutelage of then-editor David Carr (now at The New York Times). At the City Paper, Tapper landed where many young writers cut their teeth: on the police beat. His timing was fortuitous. Mike Tyson had just moved to the nation's capital, giving the beat a sprinkling of intrigue. A little more than a year later, Tapper left to become a national correspondent for Salon.com, then a newbie news and culture Website. He made politics his bread and butter and set out on the campaign trail.
“The hardest thing about working with Jake was trying to keep up with him because he worked all the time,” says Kerry Lauerman, Salon's editorial director.
Today the news cycle moves at warp speed, but several years ago national newspapers and TV news divisions may have posted Web updates once a day and blogging was still a nebulous endeavor.
“Jake would post three or four times a day,” says Lauerman. “I would hear from him at 11 o'clock wanting to get something up on the site so we could beat competitors by 10 minutes. And that meant 15 people back then. He forged this prominent position in political reporting. He was almost a proto-blogger.”
While he was at Salon, Tapper hosted a short-lived interview show on CNN called Take Five. And in 2002 he left Salon for VH1, and worked on a series of single-topic newsmagazine-style hours on music and pop culture. But the weekend before he started his first full-time television job, says Tapper, “the president and senior vice president of VH1 who conceived the idea were let go. That was an education into the world of TV.”
Tapper completed documentaries on Michael Jackson and R. Kelly, among others, before he was downsized by the new regime at VH1. With his new clip reel, he was hired as an ABC News correspondent in 2003 and by 2006 had been promoted to senior national correspondent, facilitating his current status as one of the busiest reporters at ABC News.
It was working the campaign trail with veteran ABC News reporters Linda Douglass and Dean Reynolds that Tapper came to appreciate the nuance of television reporting. (Neither is still at ABC. )
“They showed me what the best TV reporting can be,” he says.
One of Tapper's greatest strengths in a 21st century media landscape, say his superiors, is his range. For someone whose roots came from absorbing Watergate, in a career that flourished during the 2000 race, that makes him all the more prepared for the current election cycle.
“He has used [technology] to his storytelling advantage more than anybody I've seen in the past,” says Banner.
“He was really the journalist of the future,” adds Lauerman. “You could slot him into all of these different mediums. He always had a very distinctive, wry, winking voice. I think for a lot of writers who have a really distinctive voice, it doesn't always translate when they go into television. He sounds like Jake.”
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