This is part three in a three-part investigative series on Jake Tapper. You can read parts one and two here.
CNN host Jake Tapper has cultivated an image as the consummate centrist of the Trump era, winning reams of positive publicity by bashing the president at every opportunity while serving as a megaphone for the American national security state and its favorite voices on Capitol Hill. Tapper rose to mainstream prominence from the progressive online news site, Salon.com, where he covered the 2000 presidential campaign.
His former boss, Salon founder and ex-editor-in-chief David Talbot, described him as an aggressive careerist who not only attacked right-wingers like Trump, but who “showed signs of that irritating liberal media establishment penchant for what I call ‘policing the Left.’”
On July 18 this year, Tapper put his left-punching gloves on and took to Twitter to launch an unprovoked dog whistle attack on the Women’s March, a protest movement that has drawn millions to anti-Trump events. Tapper’s beef stemmed from the Women’s March honoring the birthday of radical black feminist and fugitive from US prosecution Assata Shakur on its official Twitter account. In the same tweet, Tapper jabbed Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, a constant target of alt-right vitriol, and Chicago’s Dyke March, which was under heavy attack from the Israel lobby for ejecting pro-Israel marchers from a rally for bearing flags resembling those of the state of Israel.
“Shakur is a cop-killer fugitive in Cuba,” Tapper complained. “This, ugly sentiments from @lsarsour & @dykemarchchi …Any progressives out there condemning this?” (The CNN host’s broadside has been retweeted over 7500 times by now.)
When several Twitter users protested that Shakur’s guilt was established only by a racially and politically biased prosecution, Tapper simply linked back to the FBI’s online rap sheet, replying, “nope.” (The FBI is offering a $1 million reward for Shakur, who was found guilty of first degree murder).
A Twitter battle soon ensued between Tapper and Sarsour, with Sarsour accusing Tapper of “join[ing] the ranks of the alt-right” to attack her online. After an exchange of pleasantries, Tapper pointed to Sarsour’s diatribe against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the veteran anti-Muslim activist and serial fabricator, as an example of “a certain extremism and ugliness among progressive leaders.” (Tapper recently promoted an op-ed co-authored by Hirsi Ali, who has said progressive change was possibly only if “Islam was defeated,” in which she attacked progressives for their insufficient admiration of her and her ideological fellow travelers).
Tapper’s attacks on Sarsour and the Women’s March earned him promotion from right-wing outlets like the Daily Caller and the Washington Times, while the neoconservative Daily Beast published a lengthy defense of Tapper by Emily Shire, a self-identified Zionist and antagonist of Palestinian feminists.
Most recently, the right-wing Jerusalem Post designated Tapper as one of “the world’s 50 most influential Jews,” citing his attack on Sarsour as one of the acts that earned him a spot on its list.
From a public relations standpoint, the dust-up worked out perfectly for the CNN host who instigated it. Having been hammered by Trump supporters for months, Tapper managed to foment a Twitter war with elements of the left, and emerged basking in the admiration of conservatives. In the end, he consolidated the status he sought as a man of the center.
But Tapper’s centrism can hardly be confused with objectivity, particularly on the issue of race in America, a subject he scarcely ever engages on his primetime show, “The Lead.” Having signaled through his attack on the Women’s March his hostility to radical women of color, Tapper also inadvertently highlighted the paucity of female contributors of color on his show, which typically functions as an uncritical forum for fellow white male militarists like Rep’s Adam Kinzinger, Adam Schiff, and Sen. John McCain to advance America’s imperial ambitions around the globe.
A graduate of Dartmouth University from the affluent suburbs of Philadelphia, Tapper is a perfect product of the Beltway’s clubby media culture, where Very Serious People pontificate smugly about the many crises tearing at the country’s social fabric, blithely unaware of their own deep-seated prejudices and unalloyed privilege.
Back in 2003, when Tapper was working as the White House correspondent for ABC News, he put his own racial cluelessness on display in what seemed like an attempt to ingratiate himself with the all-white editorial boards of the The New Republic and The New York Times.
In what appeared to be a piece of parody for Salon, Tapper attempted to impersonate a gangsta rapper, freely rattling off terms like “nizza,” “behatch,” “H to the izz-O” and “ho-ing out,” while slapping nicknames on stuffy pundits like Peter Beinart — “P-Biddy” — and Leon Wieseltier — “L.W. Cool-L” — that were adapted from the pantheon of hip-hop icons.
I asked Talbot, the former CEO and founder of Salon, how content like Tapper’s “Gangbanging in media land” ever saw the light of day. Talbot was shocked when he read the piece.
“I have absolutely no recollection of that column Jake [Tapper] wrote,” Talbot remarked to me. “Are you sure it’s not Fake News? He was no longer on staff, and I’m not sure who edited it. If Salon really published it, reading it now, I find it weird, unfunny and racist.”
A historically anti-black magazine and the n-word
In the February 1, 2003 column, Tapper attempted to dramatize a battle between the then-neoconservative New Republic magazine and the New York Times editorial board over the invasion of Iraq. Tapper cast the drab centrist outlets in the roles of The Source and XXL, rival hip-hop magazines dueling it out in “nasty, over-the-top gangsta editorial slams,” and placed himself in the role of rap narrator.
“The TNR crew had been known for drive-bys for years. Franzen, Moody, whatever young nizza was livin’ lizzarge, L.W. Cool-L and his posse would sidewhow in their P-ride and turn the Charlie Rose green room into a killin’ field,” Tapper wrote in one passage.
More disturbing than the ambitious journo’s play on the n-word was his use of it to refer to the all-white editorial staff of a magazine that had dedicated an entire issue to arguing over whether blacks were genetically inferior, which ascribed the problems of black America to socially degenerate welfare mothers, and whose then-owner, Marty Peretz, would go on to declare that “Muslim life is cheap.” Indeed, Tapper had resorted to a racial caricature to amuse his media pals and ingratiate himself with colleagues at a magazine that had spent the better part of the 20th century establishing a legacy of racism.
As Jeet Heer noted in his post-mortem for the old, racially hostile TNR following the magazine’s 2015 purchase by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, “Throughout the first two decades [of TNR’s existence], white writers would throw around the n-word with the casual aplomb of characters in a Quentin Tarantino movie.”
But hardly anyone at the TNR or any other caucasian media haven had attempted anything like Tapper’s rap word salad. The ambitious young Tapper apparently thought he had composed a Hamilton-level masterpiece of nerdcore. What he produced, however, was an unmitigated editorial disaster that put his own cultural obliviousness and tastlessness on bold display.
As Tapper’s mock rap battle reached its peak, satire descended into self-parody:
“How you wanna carry it, nomsayin’?” he asked. “I mean, what’s with these homies dissin’ my Perle? Why do the Old Gray Lady gotta front?”
“Bee-hatch,” sneered Snoop-Kitty.
From the doorway strode the impressive silhouette of senior editor Li’l Cottle in full bling-bling.
“What up, shortie?” asked Snoop-Kitty, her beehatch.
But Li’l Cottle was serious serious. “Bust an Op-Ed in its ass, yo.”
There is, of course, a long tradition of affluent white boys earning the respect of their peers in hip-hop by demonstrating creativity and total dedication to the craft. Tapper does not appear to be among them.
Today, the CNN host’s connection to rap culture appears to be limited to bumping Outkast’s “Rosa Parks” from his car while staring across the Tidal Basin at the memorial to founding father and noted slave rapist Thomas Jefferson.
Slamming black “race-baiting hucksters,” defending “our sister” Fox News
Since arriving on the Beltway media scene, Tapper has regularly exhibited what his former boss, Talbot, described as a tendency to police the left. In a 2002 piece for Salon, for instance, Tapper hyped up the new class of neoliberal, corporate-friendly black politicians led by then-Newark mayoral candidate Cory Booker, while complaining that “[t]he usual race-baiting hucksters, like Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton” were tearing down Booker by accusing him of helping “whitey to get his meathooks into Newark.”
Tapper overflowed with contempt after viewing Oliver Stone’s 2003 sympathetic documentary on Cuba’s Fidel Castro, “Comandante.” Branding Stone a dupe for a “barbaric Third World superstar,” Tapper lambasted the filmmaker for failing to devote more time to Castro’s “tyrannical reign” — a task that has been sufficiently covered over the decades by American mainstream media and Cold War-era propaganda. In making his case for regime change in Cuba, Tapper described Cuba’s popular 1959 revolution against a US-backed right-wing dictatorship simply as a “bloody coup” — language he has never used to refer to the US-orchestrated coup in Honduras in 2009 or the NATO-led destruction of Libya.
In the early months of the Obama era, as Fox News sponsored partisan Tea Party rallies and promoted conspiracy theories that the president was a secret Muslim and not an American citizen, Tapper hammered Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, for the administration’s designation of the right-wing outlet Fox News as “not a news organization.”
“It’s escaped none of our notice that the White House has decided in the last few weeks to declare one of our sister organizations ‘not a news organization’ and to tell the rest of us not to treat them like a news organization,” Tapper protested from the White House press gallery, wondering openly how Fox was any different from ABC News, his own employer at the time. The exchange momentarily made Tapper a hero of right-wing blogs and elicited hearty praise from Rush Limbaugh.
During the Trump era, Tapper has won fawning reviews from glossy style magazines like GQ and Vogue as the president’s most dogged adversary in cable news. Meanwhile, he has sought to insulate himself from right-wing criticism by reminding Republicans of his full-throated defense of Fox news, while selecting soft targets on the left for social media attacks.
With his carefully calculated centrism, the fumbling one-time rap parodist has successfully cast himself as a very serious person.