"I think that when you are in that chair, or standing there with a microphone, you are not there for yourself," says CNN anchor Jake Tapper, whose new novel, The Hellfire Club, is a dark thriller set in 1950s Washington. "You're there for the people at home and you should be asking the questions and conducting yourself in a way trying to think about what they would want you to do. 'Well, you didn't really answer that question, or isn't it true that something'—we're there to challenge that. At a time when there is just this waterfall cascading over us of bullshit, it's important for us to put up an umbrella, try to provide a safe space for viewers to know we're trying to not have any bullshit here."
Already at the top of best-seller lists, The Hellfire Club follows the adventures of a novice congressman who stumbles into a sex-and-power conspiracy during the McCarthy era. The loudmouthed senator from Wisconsin is a character, as are John and Robert Kennedy, McCarthy aide and future Donald Trump mentor Roy Cohn, anti-comic-book activist Fredric Wertham, and others. Casually rich in historical reference and knowledge, Tapper delights in reminding people of strange, forgotten alliances (McCarthy employed Robert Kennedy and the senator was godfather to his child).
"McCarthyism and Trumpism are very different," says the 49-year-old Philadelphia native. "They stand for very different things, but the technique of the big lie, smearing and telling lies, you know McCarthy was doing that. At the time, the media, Democrats, and Republicans were all paralyzed—not all, but most of them were paralyzed. They didn't know how to deal with this. 'Oh my God, am I biased if I call him a liar? Oh my God, is he going to attack me if I call him a liar?' Yet we see the same mistakes being made today."
In a wide-ranging interview with Reason's Nick Gillespie, Tapper talks about how his roots in alternative media such as the Washington City Paper, Salon, and the pioneering satire site Suck give him an advantage over journalists trained more conventionally in mainstream media. "I was a crime and police reporter for City Paper and [my editor, the late David Carr,] was always on my case for not being sufficiently skeptical of police. He thought I was too pro-police. He never came out and said it, but I knew that he thought that," says Tapper. "That was good, that back and forth that I had with him, and while I think it's important to support police when they need help and they're doing the right thing, I also...recognize that there are times that the police need to be questioned. That's an important part of my job. Same thing with decision makers in the military, less so individual soldiers on the ground. I think being willing to challenge American institutions while also being respectful of the people who are the beat cop or the private."
Once registered as a Democrat, Tapper says that he now doesn't feel at home in any party. "Do I have a politics?" he says. "I do think that a certain degree of compassion is important, but I don't know that big government is always [the answer]. That's another kind of conventional-wisdom kind of way of looking at problems in Washington. Whether it's Bush, or Obama, or frankly Trump, which is more government, better, and here we have a problem, more government instead of taking the government we have now and reorganizing it, changing it so as to focus on the new problems of 2018. I see that too. That's something that I've learned from reading a lot of Reason. I just like having that challenged in my head."
Making a distinction between viewpoint journalism and the sort of discussion and analysis he offers at CNN, Tapper stresses that while being objective is "aspirational," knowing and fairly representing different perspectives is essential to 21st-century media literacy. "Whenever journalism students ask me what they should be doing," he says, I say that 'if you're on social media, you should be following a ton of people that you don't necessarily agree with just to get their perspectives.' I always mention you. I always mention Reason. I always mention Jonah Goldberg and people on the right. I always mention Josh Marshall and people on the left. I think it's important to have as diverse of a feed as possible. I'm not even mentioning...women on the left and right as well, and getting as many people of color, people from different countries, et cetera—having as much ideological diversity as possible so that you're getting those inputs and having that influence how you cover stories, and having people like that on your panels, too."
As a special treat for Reason readers, Tapper also explains how Senior Editor Jacob Sullum gave him his start in journalism.
Edited by Ian Keyser. Intro by Austin Bragg. Cameras by Todd Krainin and Mark McDaniel.
Eisenhower: AKG Images / Newscom
Kennedy: CNP / AdMedia / SIPA / Newscom
McCarthy: Everett Collection / Newscom