According to me, CNN’s Jake Tapper has been one of the heroes of TV journalism in the Trump era.
Tapper generally maintains his composure, asks tough but fair questions, doesn’t opine much on the substance of the issues of the day but takes a strong position on the importance of journalists pushing back against the decline of the old tough-but-fair style of journalism.
Yesterday, I thought he blew it. He stooped to conquer, but did not conquer, in his “State-of-the-Union” interview with Stephen Miller, an adviser to President Donald Trump.
I’m not sticking up, even slightly, for Miller, who long ago sold off any integrity he might have had to play an unctuous groveler to Trump. But Miller was the lead guest on “State of the Union,” sent out to attack “Fire and Fury” author Michael Wolff, former Trump whisperer Steve Bannon and to tell us all that, contrary to the dunce-Trump portrayed in Wolff’s book, the president is (as the president himself modestly disclosed in a tweet) a “genius” and a paragon, and right about everything.
CNN, and perhaps especially Tapper’s show, has trouble booking high Trump administration officials (for reasons that seem obvious, but that also violate the old norms, when an administration would welcome the chance to make its case, even to a potentially skeptical audience. So it seemed a medium-sized deal to me that Team Trump sent Miller to appear on Tapper’s show yesterday, not that I expected it to shed much light on the news of the day.
I turned out to be right about that. But it turned out to be a good show (in the P.T. Barnum sense). I’ll summarize the exchange, and include video below so you can watch it for yourself. But, just to highlight what I said at the top, I thought Tapper’s decision to mock his guest was beneath him (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Tapper knows by now that he blew it).
The old norms of so-called nothing-but-the-facts “objective” journalism” have almost disappeared. They weren’t that great in the first place, as a tool for truth-telling. And, in the Trump era, I have seen that journalists can’t really uphold those old norms without the cooperation of the newsmakers themselves. Trump has taught his team that truth-telling is for suckers.
The refusal of Trump and his crew to respect those norms, mostly by lying constantly and seldom retracting or correcting their lies, has rendered the old norms inoperative. Maybe that’s scope for a longer future piece about the life and death of the norms. But for this morning I’ll just summarize what went down yesterday, which Tapper apparently found so annoying that he resorted to mocking and insulting his guest.
Miller disputed, of course, the portrayal of Trump, in the Wolff book, as a moron who doesn’t read anything and has the attention span of a gnat. Miller alleged that CNN was getting “a lot of joy” out of “sticking the knife” into Trump over the book’s portrayal. Miller said Trump was a “genius,” in business and politics and in his current gig as our savior. Miller didn’t much need to be mocked. His testimony was unintentionally self-mocking.
Tapper, contemptuously, responded to Miller’s Trump-Flattery with: “I’m sure he’s watching and he’s happy that you said that.”
That was a mistake (according to me). Too snotty, and no way for a host to treat a guest.
Miller called him out on it: “That was a snide remark,” he said. “You can be as condescending as you want. It’s part of your M.O.”
Tapper foolishly, I would say, asked Miller why he was attacking him.
“I’ll tell you why I’m attacking you,” Miller said, and pivoted to attacking CNN in general for disparaging Trump all day, every day.
“You have 24 hours of negative trump hysterical coverage on this network that led in recent weeks to some spectacularly false reporting.”
Tapper, calmly, asks to be allowed to finish a question. Miller doesn’t grant that request, but asks for “three minutes to tell you the truth … three minutes to tell you about the Donald trump that I know and that all of our campaign staff know …” Why can’t he have those three minutes?
And here’s where Tapper really jumped the shark, replying: “Because it’s my show and I don’t want to do that.”
Maybe you disagree with me. It is, indeed, his show, and he’s good at what he does. He has no doubt experienced other guests who hijacked the agenda. But I’m afraid the arrogance of “It’s my show and I don’t want to do that” is going to haunt Tapper.
What Tapper apparently wanted to do was to try to get Miller to admit that former top Trump adviser Steve Bannon, contrary to Trump’s recent effort to erase Bannon from the history of the Trump movement, had actually been a key player in both the campaign and the early months of the administration. Tapper’s effort to discuss Bannon started with “Steven. Calm down. Calm down. I have a question.”
Tapper went through a list of Trump administration decisions on which he asserted Bannon played a significant role and ended with: “Is it really the position of the White House that Steve Bannon had nothing to do with the presidency or can you acknowledge the reality that he was a key player?”
Miller wouldn’t go there and segued to general adoration of Trumpism and his connection to the forgotten men and women whom Trump supposedly champions. “Trump tapped into a reality that isn’t covered on this network,” he said. “And I know you think I’m interrupting you. But the American people deserve to have two or three minutes of the truth.”
Miller’s public adoration of his boss was embarrassing, but that’s his problem.
Tapper brought up Trump’s tweets in which the POTUS described himself as “a very stable genius.”
Miller brought up some stories on which (he alleged, at least) CNN made embarrassing mistakes, which he said had created “a toxic environment” in the nation. While at the same time asserting that Trump’s connection with the forgotten Americans had created a “magic” that, notwithstanding CNN’s carping, was sweeping the nation.
Tapper: “The president has an approval rating in the 30s. I don’t know what magic you’re referring to.”
Miller said CNN spends 24 hours a day running down Trump, so why wouldn’t Tapper let him speak for three minutes in rebuttal.
Tapper: “I get it. There’s one viewer that you care about right now. And you’re being obsequious. You’re being a factotum right now in order to please him.”
He ended the interview with: “I think I’ve wasted enough of my viewers’ time. Thank you, Stephen.”
Shortly after the interview ended, Trump tweeted, “Jake Tapper of Fake News CNN just got destroyed in his interview with Stephen Miller of the Trump Administration.”
I don’t know if Tapper will say anything further about this incident. If not in the next few days, maybe in his memoirs. It struck me as bizarre, and as a mistake for Tapper get drawn into an argument, and to get drawn into insulting his guest.
The norms of journalism, about which I’ve been blabbing for decades, are in disarray. They were never as coherent as we thought them, but they seemed to work as long as all the players treated them as rules. Maybe they needed to evolve. But the Trump Smash version of how to change them doesn’t strike me as a change for the better.
I still admire Tapper’s work, in general. I hope he will address what happened on his show Sunday. If I were Tapper, I would apologize.