Jake Tapper Talks About ‘United States Of Scandal’ And The Jon Stewart Effect On News

Do you remember when politics first broke your heart? The first scandal that turned you from an idealist into a cynic? Maybe it hasn’t happened yet, maybe it never will, but to others it can be a real touch-the-stove moment that lessens their enthusiasm when it comes time to vote. If they vote at all.

Jake Tapper, the host of CNN’s The Lead and State Of The Union, doesn’t fault people for still believing in politicians, but he acknowledges the impact of political scandals and how they can separate people from a pure belief in the political process. In his new series, United States Of Scandal (which debuts Sunday at 9 PM on CNN), Tapper takes a deep dive into some of those moments, over the last twenty years, that have come to define a sometimes dysfunctional system that is ripe for abuse.

Tapper’s look at the outing of former CIA operative Valerie Plame and the downfall of former Senator John Edwards and former Governors Jim McGreevey, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, and Rod Blagojevich isn’t just about politics and it isn’t solely about the past. United States Of Scandal is also an exploration of the way the media picks up and puts these stories down and, with the Plame episode specifically, what happens when a narrative turns into a bloody tidal wave. And if those above names have faded from your memory a little, consider the idea that yesterday’s crooked politicians can and do serve as inspiration for aspiring frauds who have studied their moves, tracked their consequences (such as they are), and developed an immunity to public embarrassment.

Below, we spoke with Tapper about all of the above; from the heartbreak of politics and its effects on voters to our flagging faith in a battered mainstream media. Why didn’t the show focus on oft-scandalized former Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump? What’s the impact of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show‘s focus on political hypocrisy and showing receipts (and the spread of political comedy into mainstream news)? Let’s dive in.

Cambridge University did a study — millennials are the most disaffected generation with regard to politics as of 2020.

They have a lot to be disillusioned by.

Going back, I can remember being deeply heartbroken over Bill Clinton admitting that he had lied, and all these other scandals definitely ping on my own personal life experience with politics and kind of being disenchanted with it. Do you think these scandals are a root cause with that overall disillusionment?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think the more important ones hit harder. Like, for instance, the Valerie Plame weapons of mass destruction one. That’s one where there are actual people killed as a result of lies and the scandal, because remember the whole outing of her was in defense of the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and they didn’t. And in that war, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost.

So I think ones like that matter more, hit more. And then there are other “scandals,” like how we exited Afghanistan. It’s not a scandal per se, but obviously a controversy. And then the questions about what were we there for for 20 years? But I do think that the daily slog of news that this “politician, that politician…” that people believe in… and every one of these folks that I profile had thousands of supporters, thousands of people who believed in them. John Edwards, Jim McGreevey, Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer. And so yeah, I could see that having a real disillusioning factor or disillusion impact or effect on millennials.

When I grew up, Watergate was the big scandal. And then I got a little bit older and it was ABSCAM. So I mean, it’s not like the scandals are new to millennials, but it does seem like there were more than enough politicians in whom people believed [who have been] proven to have been corrupted one way or another to have that impact on people.

As long as you’ve been doing this, as long as you’ve been following politics, as much of this as you’ve seen, and as close as you’ve been to it, is it odd to you sometimes to still see people that believe in politicians on either side?

No, it’s not. What’s odd to me is the fact that these politicians, usually men, almost always men, give up what they have worked so hard for so long for, forgive me, but for stupid reasons and for hubris, thinking they can get away with it over and over and over again. I don’t fault people who believe in politicians. I mean, I’m a journalist, so I’m a professional skeptic, so I generally try to not instill my hopes and dreams in any politician. But I’ve known Mark Sanford since 1999, and I, very early on, did not believe he was doing anything untoward because, not that I believed in him, but I knew him or I thought I did. So I don’t fault people for believing in politicians at all.

The Plame episode really focused on this idea of trust in the mainstream media, and you were talking, of course, about the Iraq war and the rise of narratives that it seems like everyone believes in, and it sort of becomes this tidal wave that just either takes you with it or you are very much on the outskirts. With that, and how many times people have been burned by that, is it surprising to you that there’s so much distrust in media and so much willingness to believe things that sort of just cement your own personal narrative?

The news media is not perfect. So obviously I think we in the news media have made mistakes that have contributed to a lack of faith and trust. But it’s also worth noting that there are entire institutions that are built upon a campaign of trying to discredit the news media for corrupted reasons.

Yeah, of course.

Fox is constantly attacking legitimate news organizations because they want to sell themselves as the only truth-tellers, whether or not they have to pay $787.5 million in defamation settlement payouts. Donald Trump, according to Leslie Stahl from 60 Minutes, he said to her that the reason he attacks the media is so that people don’t believe them. His supporters don’t believe us when we report on negative things about him.

So there’s a lot of reasons why there is distrust in the media, but certainly during the buildup to the war in Iraq, it was weird watching. As a journalist, it was weird watching people in my profession… not all of them. There were some very striking exceptions to this rule, but it was weird watching people set aside their skepticism, set aside their professional skepticism, because it felt more fun, maybe, to be in the herd. And that’s one of the reasons why I think there was a lot of distrust of the media after 2004, 2005, 2006.

I’m curious about how you selected this roster and also why there are a couple of omissions — Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Why don’t you focus on their scandals at this point?

Clinton and Trump, we felt like, had been and will be pretty well covered. People weren’t clamoring for a documentary about the Bill Clinton scandal because it has been covered. There was a Ryan Murphy TV show about it.

It’s definitely over-covered. I definitely get that.

Yeah, so we wanted to go for ones that the people might remember but not really understand. And also, a lot of it was like who could we get? A lot of it was booking when we got Rielle Hunter, when we got Valerie Plame, when we got Jim McGreevey, when we got Rod Blagojevich when we got Mark Sanford’s chief of staff, when we got Eliot Spitzer’s mentor/aide, that helped us make those decisions. Obviously, if the powers that be want to do a second season, we got a lot more. There’s a lot more territory to cover.

George Santos feels like a two-parter at this point.

Santos, maybe Matt Gaetz. I don’t know. It depends on how that story ends, I suppose.

When you’re in an interview with someone and you know they’re lying to you, what’s the thought process for you in that moment?

I mean, it depends on the kind of interview. Look, for this series, one of the things we wanted to do was try to understand. It’s not just what were they thinking, like dismissively. It’s legitimately a sincere question. What were they thinking? So that was the offer to Rod Blagojevich, McGreevey, et cetera. We want to hear your story, we want to hear your side of it.

And I feel like we let them present the world according to Blagojevich, the world according to McGreevey, et cetera. And then if we didn’t think they were telling the truth, we would say that in the documentary if there were facts that needed to be corrected or perspective that needed to be countered. But that said, if it’s a live interview, it depends on how big the lie is in the context of a lie. But it’s always a challenge for any interviewer, especially when you’re doing an interview. How much do you want to challenge an individual lie? Which means you won’t get to these other three issues you want to discuss, and it’s just a judgment call you have to make in the moment. It’d be better if they didn’t lie. I would say I prefer that.

Are we in an era absent consequences or does it just feel like that? Because we’re constantly inundated by coverage of not necessarily fully developed scandals, but it almost feels like we go three feet in one direction towards the scandal. Then we get distracted by another one. We go another three feet in another direction.

Well, it depends on the scandal. It does sometimes feel like we’re in a consequence-free world. But at the same time, Donald Trump is on trial right now for a number of his scandals, whether it’s January 6th or inflation of his net worth or any number of other indiscretions. But one of the reasons we did this series is exactly what you say, which is there will be a scandal and we will understand it, and we will see what’s happening, and then we’ll kind of move on.

The John Edwards prosecution is a good example of that. John Edwards was prosecuted and ultimately he did not serve a day in prison. Ultimately, I believe, the jury was hung and it was a mistrial. A lot of times people will follow it until they’re confident that there will be some comeuppance and then that won’t happen. So it really depends on the scandal. But the main thesis of this story is that when these scandals happen, we don’t get the full story because the players are in the bunker, and seldom do we follow it all the way to the end.

I noticed in the episodes that I had seen, there were a few clips woven in from things like The Daily Show. A weapon of Stewart’s throughout his initial run was to highlight hypocrisy. I don’t know how well that’s going to fly now. I’m very curious to see how the show is now, but I’m also curious about what you think the role is of comedy shows like that and hypocrisy to call out and highlight scandals alongside your own role, obviously, in news.

Well, Jon Stewart did a lot of good.

Oh, sure, 100%.

In using old video to make points about hypocrisy, flip-flopping, and the like, and in fact was, from a broadcasting perspective, he and his researchers were very innovative and hugely influential, I think, in a positive way on news in general. Even though he was a comedy show, not a news show, his ability to use that research to make points, I think, was one of the most positively influential parts of his show, encouraging people to call out hypocrisy and to use clips to do it. So I hope he brings that back, his crack team of researchers, because they were great and really effective.

We’ll have to see what happens with his show. Obviously, it’s a different era. We don’t have a Republican in the White House. We’re not in the middle of a march to war, with American troops at least. And there are a lot of culture war issues that the left has won since Jon first got The Daily Show, same-sex marriage and the like. But who knows? We’ll see what happens.

It’s funny. I’ve interviewed a bunch of people from The Daily Show over the years, and I’ve asked the question a couple of times about just sort of where they sit as far as where that job fits on the Venn diagram of news and comedy. And there is a pushback from any notion that they’re anywhere close to journalism. And I get that, because it’s in deference to what you do.

Yeah, and they are not prisoner to… I mean, I remember one time they used a clip of mine completely falsely. There had been a shooting, and I came out and said something along the lines of, “Often police share information as much as they can, but often first reports are incorrect. That said, here is the latest they’re sharing,” and whatever it was, three shooters or whatever. And of course there was only one, and they only used the part of me saying there were three shooters and not the context of the caveats and the warning and all that stuff. And then I realized like, “Oh, yeah.” I mean, they’re not constrained by… They’re just trying to make a comedy show and they’re just looking for ways to do that.

Now, on the other hand, Fox does that all the time (Laughs). Taking clips and using them in a false way, so they don’t have an excuse. But I did learn that lesson. And they do insist on it that, yes, it is a comedy show, and their only imperative is to get people to laugh.

You’re a funny guy. I follow you on Twitter. You’re funny on there. You’ve been funny on the news. Anderson Cooper can keep it light every once in a while. Obviously it’s not a comedy show, but a little quip here and there. Did their success make it easier to loosen up a little bit when covering some stories?

I don’t know. I mean, they do something different than I do.

Yeah, of course.

But I would say that as a general note, we’re not in the ’50s or ’60s where people are only on television for 22 minutes a night, or even before that, before evening news went to 30 minutes, it used to be 15 minutes a night where there wasn’t really space for that sort of thing. I was on yesterday for seven hours. I mean, I think it’s for a viewer to feel comfortable watching, they have to feel like they’re seeing the authentic you for seven hours and not the 12 minutes of whatever they did in the ’50s. And so part of me is to make a light quip here and there, and it’s just more that. I don’t think it’s influenced by The Daily Show. I think it’s just a matter of just what we’re doing on cable. The evening news folks on NBC, CBS, ABC, generally don’t. They don’t have the time and it’s just not the right medium.

I imagine it also helps you to stay sane when you’re on for that long, also.

You’re assuming that I’m sane?

‘United States Of Scandal’ premieres Sunday February 18 at 9PM ET on CNN.