Jake Tapper's new show on CNN, "The Lead," is premiering at a time when cable TV keeps moving further down the road of partisan news presentation. But ask him about it, and there's no waffling.
"I am not a partisan, and I am a journalist — not an ideologue," he said in a telephone interview last week. "I want to know information. I want to force people in power to tell me the truth — whether that's a football owner, a president or a CEO. And CNN felt like the best fit to do that."
Many in the news business, at least, will be closely monitoring "The Lead" when it premieres Monday in its 4 p.m. weekday timeslot, and not only because its host says he values information over ideology.
The show is the first new production that can be seen as bearing the stamp and vision of Jeff Zucker, who took over as CNN president in January. Tapper was in discussions with CNN about leaving ABC News, where he had worked the past decade, before Zucker arrived. But the move would not have happened without Zucker enthusiastically embracing it once he signed on to overhaul CNN.
"This is Jeff Zucker's first show on CNN, absolutely," Tapper says. "There will be many more, but this is the first one. I just happened to be his first big hire."
While Tapper is most widely known for his political coverage as White House correspondent for ABC, the 44-year-old Dartmouth graduate says he never wanted to do a show focused solely on politics.
"I wanted to do a broader newscast about a whole range of subjects," he says. "For instance, I never understood why the Sunday shows didn't really ever cover in any meaningful and major way the [Jerry] Sandusky story at Penn State, because to me, that's a story people care about, people want to hear about, and news is so much broader than what's going on at Capitol Hill at any given moment."
Tapper compares what he envisions for "The Lead" to "the front page of a great newspaper."
"You have seven stories you want to read, and one's about politics, one's about international relations, one's about business, one's about sports, one's culture — and that's the show I always wanted to do," says the anchor and lead Washington correspondent.
Tapper's new-media credentials are strong and continue to evolve through social media. Lest anyone think he's voicing an old-school vision, he adds, "That's just the spirit for it — we're not using the newspaper front page as an actual template, because so many people actually get their news from [a] newspaper's website. That's the truth."
Working off the show's title, Tapper says, "There will be a world lead. There will be a national lead. There'll be a politics lead. There'll be a business lead. We'll make it very clear what stories we think are important. There will be a pop lead, and there will be a sports lead. I don't want the show to be ideological."
Tapper says it's still about news, but with a less rigid notion of what that means.
"It's news writ large," he says. "A film can be important to our culture, and there's no shame in admitting that. We don't have to look for excuses to say why we're profiling the creator of 'Mad Men,' for example. That's an important show in our culture. But we're also determined to cover Syria, Afghanistan, important issues in an engaging way."
Tapper says it wasn't easy leaving ABC News, even though CNN was offering him the chance to do the kind of show he had long wanted to do.
"It was a tough decision," he says. "I'd been at ABC for almost a decade. In a lot of ways, I'd grown up as a journalist there. I had a lot of sentimental attachment to that place. When I started, it was Charlie [Gibson] and Diane [Sawyer] in the morning and Peter [Jennings] at night, and Ted Koppel late night. And, you know, I still think about a lot of those people every day — especially Peter [who died in 2005 of lung cancer]. But ultimately, I felt like I was ready and really needed to have my own show. That it was important to me professionally, and I had to try. And the timing just worked perfectly with Jeff and CNN."
Beyond helping create a new show, Tapper has already delivered an hourlong documentary that aired in prime time.
"I started at CNN the day after Inauguration Day on Tuesday, and that Friday I was in Minot, North Dakota, interviewing Clint Romesha, former staff sergeant in the Army, who I'd known for years because he's in my book about Afghanistan ['The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor']," Tapper says. "And just a few days before I started at CNN, President Obama had announced that he was going to be awarding Clint the Medal of Honor."
Tapper says he went to the interview without knowing how and where CNN would use it.
"But we did know it would be the first interview Clint would give," Tapper says, "because we knew each other and he knew I was committed to telling his story and his brothers' stories for a long time — not just after the Medal of Honor was announced."
Describing the interview as "powerful" and "moving" because of what Romesha shared, Tapper says he ended his first week on the job by telling Zucker he wanted an hour of prime time for it.
"I said to Jeff, 'Really, you should give me an hour in prime time,' " he says. "In retrospect, I realize how incredibly audacious that was, but at the time, I don't think I did. But Jeff said, 'All right. Write the script, and we'll see.' "
It took a week to put the script together, but Tapper says that on the Saturday at the end his second week at CNN, he received an email from Zucker saying, "It's great. I love it. Let's do it."
Five days later, "the piece was airing in prime time," Tapper says. "And at the second commercial break, my wife turned me and said, 'God, you made the right decision.' "
So far, so good. But Tapper knows how quickly things can change in the TV news business when a new show doesn't work. And CNN has had plenty of those in recent years.
"I have a very candid and friendly relationship with Jeff, and it's been a pleasure so far," Tapper says. "Now, hit me up in a year, and we'll see if I have any complaints."