Asked what his new CNN show, The Lead, would be like when it debuted later in the day Monday, Jake Tapper gave a curious answer.
He didn't know. Because he can't predict the news.
"We aspire to make our hour full of smart people; stories you haven't necessarily heard of, context you haven't necessarily heard of, guests you haven't necessarily heard from," he said of the show, which debuted at 4 p.m. Monday, pushing back Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room by an hour. Monday's show ended up featuring, among others, segments on politics and interviews with New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Comedy Central fake news host Stephen Colbert.
"Our show will have the sports lead, the culture lead, the business lead, the international lead, the politics lead," Tapper said. "... We'll stick a flag in each one and say, 'This is what we think is the most important story.'"
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That's a great answer for a dogged reporter known for bedeviling press secretaries as ABC's senior White House correspondent. (He once asked if President Barack Obama had seen The Devil Wears Prada when famously caustic Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who inspired the film, landed on the short list for a diplomatic appointment. His biggest punch line came in another question: "Is it important for a diplomat to be diplomatic?")
But that might not be such a great answer for an anchor starting at CNN in a crucial time, as the channel that invented the cable TV news game is struggling to reinvent itself.
All anchors are symbols of a sort. But Tapper, known in the TV business as the most talented guy ABC couldn't figure out how to promote, instantly became a surrogate for CNN's new face when he jumped ship from the alphabet network to the cable channel in December.
Tapper said he had been talking with CNN before anyone was speculating that former NBC Universal honcho Jeff Zucker might replace Jim Walton as the channel's CEO. But when Walton announced his retirement last year, Tapper met the new CEO to ensure his own goals fit whatever changes were coming from the new leadership.
So how does The Lead reflect Zucker's vision for CNN?
"My general impression is that there are a lot of people out there who want CNN to be as excellent as it can be," Tapper said. "My task as an anchor (is) to provide viewers with a reason to come even when there isn't a big-breaking story ... (with) aggressive, nonideological coverage. I think that's what Jeff wants for the whole network."
Which would be amazing if the cable TV news game was won by providing the best journalism possible.
Competitor Fox News Channel has changed the rules. It succeeds, not because it's best at covering the news, but because it's best at talking about the news everyone already knows, bolstered by an ideological focus that produces serious viewer loyalty.
CNN also has taken hits for its lack of ethnic diversity in recent moves, unseating anchor Soledad O'Brien, the channel's most prominent anchor of color, who leaves her morning show Starting Point on March 29. Top black executive Mark Whitaker also has left, as Zucker hired Tapper, Chris Cuomo and former ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols.
Still, CNN couldn't have nabbed a better person to kick off its reinvention.
Tapper, 44, is a tough journalist and savvy news voice who saw himself passed over twice at ABC to host the network's Sunday politics show This Week.
Tapper plans an expansive vision, vowing to venture past politics and Washington to talk pop culture while leveraging social media. Already an experienced and prolific Twitter user, he has asked followers to suggest stories. A feature of The Lead asks viewers for responses at the show's beginning, collecting the best tweets to read by the program's close.
And, of course, the show has a blog and Facebook page, though Tapper couldn't say for sure how social media would figure into the program.
"When I first (asked for feedback online), I got the typical bunch of liberals saying I need to cover how intransigent Republicans are, and Republicans saying I need to talk more about Benghazi," he said. "But Twitter, as you know, it's a news wire. It exposes you to a lot of bile, but it also exposes you to a lot of really smart and clever people."
Long known as one of the smartest — and smart-alecky — reporters in Washington, Tapper seems to take pains during our interview to avoid sounding arrogant or flip. "There are people who work in TV news ... because they want to be on TV, and there are people who are here because they love the news," he noted, before backpedaling a bit to note the obvious oversimplification.
But even now, the guy who started writing for the alternative Washington City Paper and online magazine Salon.com is in some way a little surprised to find himself with an anchor gig on a mainstream cable news channel.
"Yeah, my roots are in alternative journalism, running around with a flannel shirt and jeans and big leather jacket with a notebook in my back pocket," he said, laughing. "But that's still who I am. Maybe 20 or 30 pounds lighter, and my wife threw away that leather jacket a while ago."
Jake Tapper's 'The Lead'
4 p.m. weekdays on CNN