Jake Tapper Readies For Long-Overdue Sunday Show Role Amid 'Generational Shift'

06/07/2015 08:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

WASHINGTON -- Jake Tapper surrounds himself with losers.

A picture of Al Smith, the four-term New York governor who failed to capture the White House in 1928, looms large behind his desk in CNN's Washington offices. There are campaign placards hanging nearby from Ted Kennedy' failed 1980 primary fight, Bob Dole's defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1996 and Hillary Clinton's thwarted attempt at the Democratic nomination two cycles ago.

The CNN weekday anchor, collector of presidential campaign memorabilia and soon-to-be-Sunday show host is struck by stories of candidates who lost elections and later triumphed, like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and others who faded from public consciousness, such as Alton B. Parker, who got trounced by Teddy Roosevelt at the turn of the century. Losing campaigns -- like Roosevelt's eight years later -- can show the "limitations of popularity," he noted. They offer, in many ways, more relatable stories than the winning ones.

Those stories are bound to be abundance as Tapper moves into the latest stage of his career. There are roughly 20 candidates expected to run for president in 2016. Only one can win. A ballooning field is a bonanza for the Sunday public-affairs shows and Tapper is the newest, hottest commodity on the circuit, taking the reins of "State of the Union" June 14.

But the task won't prove breezy. While the Sunday shows may still be a draw for lesser-known candidates, the format is increasingly being shunned by politicians who can demand a spotlight of their own. President Barack Obama skipped them altogether during his re-election campaign.

"Look, I think people have an understanding that I'm not going to shy away from tough questions," Tapper said Thursday in an interview with The Huffington Post. "But part of the pitch is, we'll give you a lot of time to talk about issues you want to talk about, and talk about parts of your life that you want to talk about."

Still, with the news cycle moving so rapidly and more options for campaigns to broadcast their message online and on social media, it's unclear how much the shows can drive the political conversation. Tapper's task as he takes over the anchor's seat isn't just getting top-tier candidates. He's part of a trio of younger Sunday show hosts trying to breathe life into a stodgy industry. At 46, he is the same age as John Dickerson, who just started as host of CBS's "Face The Nation," and three years older than "Meet the Press" moderator Chuck Todd.

"There was a time when [George] Stephanopoulos was the new kid on the block," Tapper said, referencing the host of ABC's "This Week." "Now he's the wizened old man -- him and [Fox News Sunday's] Chris Wallace. We're in a generational shift right now on Sunday and that's exciting."

The generational shift is more than about age. It's about adopting a holistic approach to the role of the modern TV host. Like Dickerson and Todd, Tapper boasts a large Twitter following and he uses the platform to have conversations with fans and critics alike. Tapper was an early adopter of online political journalism, having covered the 2000 election and divisive recount for Salon. And like Todd and Dickerson, he believes the Sunday shows, as brands, need to extend beyond Sunday mornings at an appointed time.

Though a new Sunday host, Tapper is no stranger to the format. He regularly filled in on ABC's "This Week" and was seen as a likely replacement for Stephanopoulos, who left for "Good Morning America" in late 2009. The network, however, stunned media watchers by hiring foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour a few months later to host the politics-heavy show. She left in late 2011 and ABC returned "This Week" to Stephanopoulos, who continues to pull double duty as weekday morning show host and Sunday wonk.

Looking back, Tapper said he was flattered by calls for him to take over "This Week." But he maintains that his goal then was to anchor a show, not necessarily one on Sundays. In 2013, he got that opportunity after jumping to CNN and launching "The Lead," an afternoon general interest news show that he'll continue hosting Monday through Friday.

"I think I'll be a better anchor on Sunday having done 'The Lead' now for two years than if I had gotten 'This Week' in 2010," Tapper said. "Without question."

During those past five years, moreover, Tapper has further carved out a niche for himself as, perhaps, the right's favorite TV journalist not on Fox News.

He's won praise for sparring with White House press secretaries during Obama's first term and reporting aggressively on the Benghazi terrorist attacks. And he earns accolades for his continued focus on veterans, whether through his 2013 Afghanistan book, The Outpost, or when tweeting photos Memorial Day weekend of those killed during war (and chiding the Democratic National Committee in the process for suggesting Obama's eating an ice cream cone was a celebration of the holiday). He regularly engages with conservative media, whether by appearing on Hugh Hewitt's radio show or chatting on Twitter with writers from outlets like Breitbart.

"I think the fact that conservatives and Republicans, as well as, hopefully, Democrats and liberals, find me fair, provides us with an opening," Tapper said.

Tapper will need to pull that audience towards his show to have success. Sunday show audiences are down from their heyday, with the big three broadcast networks -- CBS, ABC and NBC -- each drawing about 2.5 to 3.5 million viewers per week. CNN's "State of the Union," airing at 9 a.m. and rebroadcast at noon, averages around half a million in each time slot.

"I think the impact of the program isn't necessarily in ratings," said Sam Feist, CNN's Washington bureau chief. For Feist, the goal is to reach the right audience in terms of influence as much as it is to reach the biggest audience. And to do that, he believes, you need smart public-service oriented programming that reveals something new from elected officials and candidates.

Still, CNN executives wouldn't mind "State of the Union" attracting political insiders and broadening viewership beyond the Beltway. Tapper, who described himself as "a formerly young, up-and-coming political writer," said he'll lean on emerging voices to draw an audience, as he has in his other hosting duties. "Mix it up. Shake it up," is how he described the philosophy, adding that he didn't "want to reinvent anything, but try new things on Sunday." For instance, a new closing segment, "State of the Cartoonion," will showcase his skills as a former political cartoonist..

The overall idea, he said, is to make the show seem "more relevant" to the lives of potential viewers. But to do that, you have to get them to tune in first. So he is trying novel ways of getting the word out, like announcing the show's launch date through a tweeted pic of him with Conan O'Brien.

"We want them all to watch, whether it's frat boys watching TBS or moms watching 'The View' or whomever. We want them all to watch," said Tapper. "We want them all to feel like they're going to have a host who cares what they think and will talk to them online, and isn't biased against their point of view one way or the other, and cares who the next president is going to be."

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