Tucked into a restaurant booth at the W Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, former ABC News White House correspondent Jake Tapper has just come back from doing some remote segments in Southern California for his new CNN weekday show, “The Lead With Jake Tapper.”
Having recently come off a book tour for his nonfiction book “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” a bestseller about U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he hasn’t hit the ground running, he’s essentially never stopped running.
“We’re out here shooting a bunch,” he tells Zap2it. “We were in New York shooting a bunch also, to get stuff in the can. It’ll be somewhat in studio, but there’ll be a desire to get me out in the real world as much as possible.”
“The Lead” premieres Monday, March 18, at 4 p.m. (Eastern) — like other news cablenets, CNN airs live in all time zones, so adjust accordingly. Despite Tapper’s West Wing credentials, it won’t be all politics all the time.
“It’s a broad look every day at the six or seven stories,” he says, “in six or seven categories, that we think are the most interesting and pertinent stories of the day. It’s like a great front page of a great newspaper. There’s a great politics story; there’s a great national story; there’s a great international story; there’s a great sports story; there’s a great culture story; there’s a great health story.
“I’m going to give into each one of them, talk about the most interesting ones. I’d just be bored if I did politics all the time.”
As of this moment in early March, Tapper is still figuring out who he wants to be on his roundtable panel, but he does know that he wants it to be a rotating crew of semi-regulars who cycle in and out depending on the subject matter.
“There are people I want to hear their thoughts on terrorism,” he says, “and there are people I want to hear their thoughts on ‘Girls’ on HBO — and they’re not necessarily the same people.”
Tapper is one of the few reporters in the mainstream media that maintains good relationships and garners respect from both ends of the political spectrum, but don’t expect him to be taking sides on “The Lead.”
“I hope that’s not going to change,” Tapper says of his bipartisan support. “Now that I have more freedom and more control, it’s very important to me that people don’t tune into the show and think I’m coming out of one ideology or another.
“Our goal is to provide a show so that, at 4 o’clock, people who don’t necessarily have a particular ideology and aren’t looking for an ideology, but just want to see a smart newscast — we provide that.
“That’s definitely the goal, to make something that’s appointment television to a degree.”
Since the show is on at 4 p.m. Eastern, it might be lunch viewing for West Coasters — where it airs at 1 p.m. Pacific — and those Eastern-time folks who work the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift could be available, but for office workers east of the Mississippi, it might seem to be an inconvenient hour if you want to watch it live and not time-shifted on the DVR.
But it works if you are, like Tapper, looking to speak to plugged-in news junkies and fellow media types.
Asked who’s watching news at that point in the afternoon., Tapper says, “People who are putting together the news for 6:30 or for the next day’s newspaper. We’re going for people who are in front of their televisions or are willing to change the channel at 4 o’clock, somebody who is home at 4 o’clock or has a TV in their office — they would put on the show at 4 o’clock, because they’ve had a day full of, ‘Here’s what’s happening …,’ ‘Here’s what’s happening …,’ and now it’s time for a little news judgment about what are the most important stories in a wide variety of topics.”
Just as a preview, he weighs in Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul‘s recent 13-hour filibuster before the Senate to force a clarification from the White House about its policy regarding using armed drones against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil (he got it).
“As a reporter who’s been trying to get the drone story on for years,” Tapper says, “one of the first stories, I said when we started, ‘We need a story on drones. I want to do a story on drones.’ So, Rand Paul has done that. God bless Rand Paul, because the truth of the matter is, now he has all these senators on both sides embracing him.
“Nobody wants to talk about this. Everybody just wants the security, ‘Just do what you want, government, and we trust you.’ It’s different from Benghazi, because that’s one isolated event compared to a program that continues.”
But that doesn’t mean Tapper isn’t interested in the controversial Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four — including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens — and injured ten.
“What’s so tough about Benghazi,” Tapper says, “it’s so tough to find survivors. Believe me, I would love to have a survivor on as a guest. But so much of what was going on there is CIA. There’s no fingerprints, no real names. The Agency’s not cooperating; the agents aren’t cooperating. Even the ones who were diplomatic security, they also don’t talk.”
Asked about his basic journalistic philosophy, Tapper says, “Respectful skepticism of people in power, whether it’s the NFL commissioner or the president or the United Nations. Why is this important? Why is this relevant? Then, going exactly where the powers that be don’t want us to go.
“The idea that this country is finally talking about drones, I mean, God bless Rand Paul for that, but this has been going on for a long, long time. The point is, why is this not a debate? This is a debate that should be covered.
“It’s the same thing with the civil-liberties issue; it’s the same thing with Benghazi; it’s the same thing with what we’re doing or not doing in Syria; what we’re doing or not doing in Africa.
“It’s all these things that matter, instead of chasing the squirrels that are put out for us.”
Or talking endlessly about college-football star Manti Te’os fake Internet girlfriend.
“That story was interesting,” says Tapper. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t have covered that.”