Tapper '91 gives scoop on campaign reporting

by Elise Waxenberg | 11/15/04 6:00am

ABC News Washington correspondent Jake Tapper '91 gave students the inside scoop on some of this year's biggest election stories in a talk sponsored by The Dartmouth's Vox Clamantis Fund Board Sunday afternoon.

Hired last year as a general assignment reporter for the network, Tapper covered stories including the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad controversy and the Republican and Democratic conventions for "Good Morning America," "World News Tonight" and "Nightline."

Tapper told students that in his time at Dartmouth he enjoyed working on papers on topics that interested him and that he considers himself fortunate to have a career investigating and writing stories he finds appealing.

Tapper said the weak and slow response of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's campaign to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads attacking his war record allowed the spots to do Kerry "serious harm."

"John Kerry's campaign was not prepared for this attack," he said. The Kerry camp was "caught completely flat-footed." Based on his experience, he said the Kerry campaign was not ready to provide the media with information disproving the allegations made by the Swift Boat vets.

Tapper continued covering the race at both the Democratic and Republican conventions late this summer. He said he found the conventions, which proved to be another victory for President Bush, "very illuminating."

At the Republican convention in New York City, delegates "really, really worshipped George W. Bush -- I don't want to make light of that at all," Tapper said.

By contrast, Tapper said, no one who stepped up to the podium at the Democratic National Convention did a good job highlighting Kerry's merits. Tapper clairvoyantly noted that if the Democrats had failed to do a good job persuading a blue-stater like himself that Kerry would keep the country safe, "I don't know how he's going to play to moms in Ohio who are scared."

Tapper, who worked in a high-profile "fact-checking" role for ABC after the conventions, said the Democrats' sensitivity to fact-checking was another party weakness. The Bush campaign, he said, didn't waiver when reporters refuted their statements -- and that resilience helped Bush secure another four years.

He cited the Democrats' failure to exploit Bush's possible mismanagement of this year's flu vaccine shortage as an illustration of their weakness in the face of fact-checks. Kerry attacked the president at first, but under the pressure of minor fact-checks, he completely backed off the issue, Tapper said.

Tapper also cited Democratic wavering during recounts in the 2000 presidential race as another illustration of the party's shortcoming.

"They would falter and wince and try to correct the record," Tapper said. Lying is part of politics, he added, and the Republicans have an advantage over the Democrats in more successfully sticking to their message.

Tapper paid his dues on the road from Dartmouth to ABC. After graduating, he headed to the University of Southern California's film school and left after one semester because it was a "complete waste of time and money." In 1992 he took an unpaid job as a press secretary on Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky's campaign. After Margolies-Mezyinsky's victory, Tapper followed his boss to D.C. and continued to work as her press secretary.

"Working on Capitol Hill is low-paying and unrewarding in some ways, but a fascinating first job," he said.

After working on the Hill, Tapper began freelancing, first for the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. He eventually secured a full-time position with the Washington City Paper. Tapper said he didn't get into journalism until the age of 28, and urged students not to feel rushed into a career. "You have time," he said. "Don't let people pressure you."

Tapper's next story will appear on ABC's "Nightline." He will report on public funding for athletic stadiums -- an issue that's heating up as the Montreal Expos get ready to move to the nation's capital.

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