Before Jake Tapper ’91 became host of CNN’s “The Lead” and “State of the Union” and one of the nation’s most respected political correspondents, he got his start as a cartoonist for The Dartmouth. In an interview with The Dartmouth, Tapper discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and the current state of journalism in the U.S.
Click here to listen to the interview:
Due to the pandemic, you are currently broadcasting from your home. What has been the biggest challenge of reporting remotely, and what have you learned in addressing this challenge?
JT: Well, I mean we all had to learn it as we went along. It's not as though there was some plan for anchors to do their shows that air around the world from spare rooms, so it took a little tweaking from the engineers over the course of several weeks, months — they're still tweaking things here and there.
I think ultimately, doing the show basically with just me and my wife in the room and then everyone else remote poses a whole bunch of logistical problems, mainly. It's also tough to do, honestly. I never was a fan of satellite interviews to begin with. It's always much easier to interview people in person. So now that all of the interviews are satellite and sometimes the satellite is, you know, somebody's FaceTime or Zoom video or whatever, where it's even worse than a regular satellite interview in the studio.
It just creates logistical challenges in terms of interviews, and editorial challenges too, because some politicians just like to talk and talk and talk and talk and talk. And it doesn't matter how many times you go "uh huh" or "mhm," they still don't get the cue and they still talk and talk and talk and talk. So, it's been something of a challenge there.
But all of that said, I have to say that the staffs of my shows, “State of the Union” and “The Lead,” and also just CNN in general has really just risen to the moment in terms of their abilities to work from home or a few of them from the director's booth at CNN headquarters, and just the amount of hard work and excellence that they brought to bear. And it's been really remarkable.
Your colleagues are also broadcasting from home, but nevertheless, some of your colleagues at CNN's New York studio have contracted the coronavirus, and other reporters are still exposing themselves to the virus by going out into the field in order to provide comprehensive coverage. As a journalist, how do you consider the risks that you might be exposing yourself to while you're reporting, like, for example, COVID-19, and how do you weigh the costs and benefits of the decision to proceed?
JT: Well, first of all, just to correct you, there are still some people who go into the studio at the D.C. Bureau — John King does his show in the bureau, Wolf Blitzer does his show in the bureau. They take extra precautions in terms of how few people are around and how it's all shot, but there are people still going into the studio. I think in New York too, even though as you point out, some of our New York anchors, Richard Quest, Brooke Baldwin and Chris Cuomo, all did contract COVID-19, although I'm not sure if they did at the studio or somewhere else.
First of all, it's very frustrating for me personally as somebody who does like to travel for reporting purposes. I've been to Baghdad. I've been to Afghanistan a couple of times. I was embedded with troops in Afghanistan. I've been to Ferguson during the riots. I've been to Boston after the marathon bombing. I've been to Oklahoma after the tornadoes. I mean, it's frustrating to not be able to be on the scene.
But the truth of the matter is, I don't know what scene there is to be on. One of the things about this pandemic and this crisis is that there's so few images of what's going on because these are private health situations in many instances. There aren't images of people on ventilators. There aren't images of people dying in their hospital rooms or sick in their hospital rooms. They're just not there. And I think that's one of the reasons why the public in some ways is having a difficult time figuring out how much of a crisis this is, because there's so little actual visual evidence of the crisis going around, the health crisis. There's plenty of examples of the economic crisis given those people in line for food and stores being shuttered and the rest.
I would go out tomorrow if there was a reason for me to go out, but right now there isn't one, and so there's really no reason for me to go out. But if for instance, just to make something up, if a hospital said, if you want to do a report on our emergency room or if you want to do a report on the patients we have being intubated, I would go. I would take all the necessary precautions, N95 mask and head-to-toe gear, but I would go. But we're not there yet, and so there hasn't been a reason for me to.
COVID-19 is occupying so much of our collective mind share right now, but of course other things are still happening, like, for example, the recent firing of the State Department inspector general [Steve Linick]. So how do you strike a balance between COVID-19 updates and other news in your reporting?
JT: It's very difficult, when you're covering a story like this that is so all-encompassing, to make time for other very important stories. But the truth is this is a pandemic the likes of which we haven't seen in more than a century in this country. More than 90,000 Americans are dead. More than 1.5 million are infected. There's a huge economic crisis. Millions of people are out of work. So there is enough to cover in an hour show every day. Just on that one term.
Occasionally there will be something else that rises to the level of, we need to make sure our viewers know about this, such as Bernie Sanders dropping out of the race, such as President Trump firing or getting rid of his third — or fourth rather — inspector general or inspector general equivalent in six weeks. And we have made time for it. But you're right, it's a very difficult balancing act. And I can't pretend that I know for 100 percent certainty that we're always making the right decision because it's very difficult to balance a lot of these issues.
But as a general note, we try to cover the health aspects of this every day, we try to cover the economic aspects of this every day, we try to cover the political aspects of this every day, we try to cover the international aspects of this every day. And that honestly doesn't give us a lot of time for anything else.
It is very important that people are constantly being informed about the coronavirus, but it can be difficult to continue paying attention to that amount of information. How do you find the point where you're providing all of that important information to your viewers without being so overwhelming?
JT: I think that we try to focus on conversations that are aimed at the viewer and reports that are aimed at the viewer — what do they need to know? What do they need to know about this medicine? What do they need to know about this potential vaccine? What do they need to know about the Paycheck Protection Program? — and discuss it in a way that is digestible and understandable for people while also taking the time to discuss complications or complexities in these issues so that it's not all just black and white, good or bad.
For instance, President Trump the other day was bad-mouthing a study done on VA patients having to do with hydroxychloroquine. And I wanted to take the time to explain why the president was taking issue with it, and what the report actually said, because I have read the actual report and I'm not sure the president had.
And look, there were legitimate issues for somebody to be able to say this report of VA patients is not necessarily the be-all and end-all when it comes to the study of hydroxychloroquine, which is true. It was a retrospective study. It was not a sample group that anybody would say is representative of the public at large: It was people set around the age of 70, [and] half of those were African Americans. So not representative of the U.S. population as a whole, those who are getting hydroxychloroquine were some of the sickest people in the study. But that said, the study also said that the study was not the be-all and end-all and more studies need to be done. And it's only point was to say we shouldn't rush this medicine out there because if you look at what the effect was on these patients, it wasn't necessarily good. So, I just think it was important for us to go into the details of that so people can understand it, and just try to meet the readers where they are: sophisticated enough to understand things when they're explained to them, but not necessarily focused on the every last detail of every last medical study because they're living their lives.
It sounds like you feel that the public really needs the media to be focused on providing clarifying explanations of everything that's happening right now. How does it feel to know that people are relying on you to provide those explanations?
JT: Well, it's a great responsibility, and it's one I don't take lightly at all. It's why I have surrounded myself with really brilliant producers and writers who have strong opinions, and we go back and forth about what deserves our coverage and how much should we focus on a crazy tweet or a nonsensical explanation from a politician versus, what do people really need to focus on and know?
And there's always a balancing act, but we really try to just think about the most important thing here, which is that Americans are really suffering. They're suffering because of deaths, they're suffering because of sickness and they're suffering because of the economy. And that's really the most important thing. And we try to never lose sight of it. And it is an awesome responsibility to try to guide people through this.
Given that, like you were saying, people are suffering, how do you balance the importance of objectivity in your reporting with the importance of holding the government accountable for policies that may put Americans at risk?
JT: I think that there is a way to do it. I try to remain objective except when it comes to two basic things, which are facts and the importance of facts. I'm not going to be objective about whether or not it's okay to lie — it's never okay to lie — and decency. And when it comes to those two things, I think it's fair to stand up for them and have an opinion that decency and facts are important and should be stood up for.
But beyond that, I don't think it's mentally healthy or journalistically healthy for journalists to let their feelings, pro or con, about President Trump shade how they cover the pandemic. President Trump alluded to the fact yesterday that his advocacy for hydroxychloroquine might have hurt the drug, which is an interesting thing to say and probably true. I mean, look, I don't have an opinion on hydroxychloroquine. I'm not a doctor. I can tell you what the Food and Drug Administration says, which is that you shouldn't take it unless you're part of a clinical trial or in the hospital when it comes to treatment of COVID-19. But beyond that, I don't care one way or the other. I hope it works. I mean, I hope it's a great treatment. I hope it can be used prophylactically, just as somebody who wants the suffering to stop. And I do see people, Trump supporters in media who are acting as if this is like the discovery of penicillin and should be used to treat everything. And I also see people in the media who are anti-Trump, who in some ways almost want to, it seems sometimes are even rooting against hydroxychloroquine working. And I don't think either is particularly healthy, journalistically.
I think we should just let the science speak for what it is, and let doctors say what they think about the president advocating for a drug that his own FDA and [National Institutes of Health] are not recommending people take. But beyond that, I think that we should all be rooting for success when it comes to vaccines and treatments.
In your opinion, has the pandemic made journalism more important? What impacts or effects on the profession do you think will remain even after the pandemic is over?
JT: I don't know that journalism was ever less important, but I think it's certainly underlying the importance of journalism and bringing facts to people in a way that is fully transparent. For instance, early on we were repeating what scientists were saying, which is they didn't think masks would be effective. And then it turned out they changed their view on that. And then we changed. We said, well, now they've changed their view, and this is now what they're saying. So I think it's important for us to do it, and do so in as transparent a manner as possible.
And then what it's going to look like after this? I can't really say. I mean, logistically I think it's probably likely that a lot more people are going to be working from home just as long as this deadly virus has not been eradicated. But beyond that, probably we'll see more reporters doing live shots from places that don't require a cameraman, such as their hotel room or their apartment. But beyond that, I don't know. I don't know what's going to happen.
I do know there's a lot going on that we can't see because of health privacy issues, and I don't know how and whether there will be a reckoning on those issues. But I do think that it is something that journalists need to discuss, because while people's privacy is very important, there's also a matter of a major story going on that we're not really able to wrap our heads around because we don't really understand what it means or what it's like. I haven't seen any report on what it's like to be intubated, what it's like to be on a ventilator, which I think is an important part of that. And again, I'm not, I'm not saying people's privacy should be violated, they shouldn't, but we just need to figure out how to communicate about pandemics and health crises in a way that is also conducive with privacy.
What advice would you give to student reporters who are interested in pursuing a career in journalism who are trying to find journalistic opportunities right now?
JT: Well, it's tough. It's always difficult to break into journalism, and now I can't even imagine the job market as it is and with the physical problems of just not being able to show up to work. But I can tell you that I have found journalism to be immensely satisfying. And while it's a tough job and can be grueling at times, especially when you're reporting on something that is so tragic as the pandemic, it's vital to the country, to the functioning of a democracy and really important.
The advice I would give would be the same advice I always give, which is read as much as you can. Write as much as you can. Get used to taking no for an answer or get used to rejection if you're a freelance writer or if you're trying to break into the business. But the most important thing is just to try to convince any media outlet that you're able to provide something that is special, whether it's ideas or hard work or an ability to synthesize complicated information and share it in an understandable way. Whatever it is, figure out what it is and do not give up. Everybody gets rejected a million times before they make it in journalism, and it shouldn't discourage you if you face that same problem.
Correction appended (May 21, 2020): A previous version of this article said 1.5 million million Americans are affected by COVID-19, when in fact 1.5 million are infected. The article has been updated to reflect this change.
Lauren ('23) is news executive editor for The Dartmouth. She is from Bethesda, Maryland, and plans to major in government and minor in public policy.