By BERNIE BELLAN Jake Tapper is a very well-known CNN anchor (and chief Washington correspondent) whose manner is totally opposite from the firebrands who populate Fox News.
Whereas individuals such as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson thrive on inflaming their audiences, Tapper’s soothing tone and low-key style serves to calm his audience. However, while Tapper may appeal to the type of liberal audience that attended the most recent Kanee lecture on June 2nd, according to a recent report in Forbes magazine, Fox is trouncing CNN in the ratings. After listening to Tapper deliver what was, in essence, a review of the way in which Donald Trump was responsible for the assault on the US Capitol for on January 6, 2021, which was undoubtedly totally familiar to members of the audience who might have expected him to offer a more illuminating or stimulating talk than he did - it’s not hard to understand why viewers have been tuning CNN out.
To be fair though, when it comes to delivering a lecture, an individual like Tapper, who no doubt is quite mindful of not straying too far afield from a moderate position, is not the kind of person who is likely going to offer great insight into the issues of the day.
Such was the case on Wednesday evening, June 2nd, when approximately 350 individuals attended this year’s Sol & Florence Kanee lecture at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue. (It was the first live in-person Kanee lecture in three years, with everyone in attendance required to produce proof of vaccination and remain fully masked for the entire evening.)
Prior to Tapper’s talk, Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada President Mark Kantor gave a brief rundown of the current state of the JHCWC. Kantor noted that the JHCWC has now achieved its goal of having raised $1 million for what is known as the Norman and Florence Vickar Archival Fund at the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba.
Jake Tapper is first and foremost a reporter, and what he proceeded to do during his 45-minute talk was give a summary of the events that had led up to the current situation the very moment he was speaking – when, he said, the fact that the Congressional hearings into the January 6 insurrection were going to be televised live the next night meant that he was unable to be in Winnipeg in person.
Before moving on to a discussion of the events of January 6 and the fallout thereafter, Tapper amused the audience with stories of his ancestry, including having had a great-grandfather who, for a very short time (four days) served as mayor of Winnipeg. It was in his quest to find out more about his roots that, Tapper explained, he actually got in touch with the Jewish Heritage Centre. One thing led to another and JHCWC Executive Director Belle Jarniewski ended up inviting Tapper to deliver this year’s Kanee lecture.
Tapper noted that he became interested in exploring his ancestry during the first year of the Covid pandemic, when he had more time on his hands than usual, and he became involved in doing a story about ancestry.com. He went on to explain that he had been told that he might be related to some Tappers in Winnipeg, but after researching the subject – partly with the assistance of the JHCWC, he realized that what he had been told was wrong.
Thus, he declared to the audience: “I’m talking to you tonight entirely because of a mistake.”
Further, Tapper explained that while his father is Jewish, his mother had converted to Judaism. It turns out that members of his mother’s family had actually fought in the American Revolution, Tapper discovered in doing research on his ancestry.
“They did fight in the Revolutionary War – but on the ‘wrong’ side,” he disclosed. As a result, “they fled to Canada,” hence his Winnipeg connection through his mother’s grandfather (whose name, by the way, was David Dyson).
An anchor with CNN since 2013, Tapper also serves as CNN’s Chief Washington Correspondent. In that capacity he’s been deeply involved in reporting on the incredible story of an incumbent president trying to overturn the results of a democratic election – which we’re now witnessing unraveling in prime time.
Yet, unlike a historian such as Margaret MacMillan, who offered profound insights into the chaos ensuing in the aftermath of World War I four years ago during her own Kanee lecture, someone like Tapper is perhaps too closely enmeshed in the day to day events as they unfurl to offer the kind of perspective on events that perhaps a historian might have been able to deliver.
What he gave to the audience on June 2nd instead was a fairly long overview of how we got to where we are, but without offering any analysis of what the longterm consequences will be of having had a scoundrel of such epic proportions as Donald J. Trump in the White House for four years.
Tapper noted that early on in his presidency Trump declared that “journalists are the enemy of the people,” but in saying that, Tapper suggested, Trump “put people’s lives at risk.”
“I’m amazed that no journalists were killed during Trump’s presidency,” he admitted, with the exception of Ahmad Khashoggi, who was likely killed by the Saudis because Mohammed Bin Salman knew that Trump could care less about the murder of a Saudi journalist.
“Something else was lost” during the Trump presidency, Tapper observed: “facts and the truth.”
Tapper noted that Trump had a specific purpose in attacking journalists, which Trump revealed when he said to a group of journalists, “I do it to discredit you all, so that when you write critically about me, you’ll be discredited.”
During an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” correspondent Leslie Stahl, Trump delved deeper into his methods (but after the cameras were turned off), Tapper said. Trump told Stahl that he was going to treat “any negative polls as ‘fake news’,” adding that “if it’s bad I say it’s fake, but if it’s good I say that it’s the most accurate poll ever.”
For Tapper, the ongoing war between Democrats and Republicans in the United States is “not about Republicans versus Democrats, it’s about truth versus lies.”
Yet, Trump did accomplish some good things during his presidency, Tapper acknowledged, including helping to bring about the “Abraham Accords” and pushing for the rapid development of vaccines to combat Covid-19 with a plan that was labeled “Operation Warp Speed.”
“It’s ironic that Operation Warp Speed saved millions of lives,” Tapper noted, so “Why didn’t he (Trump) fully embrace the vaccination program then?”
“He was vaccinated in secret before he left office,” Tapper added. “It was his handling of Covid that cost him the election.”
At that point in his talk Tapper delved into a very detailed review of events immediately preceding the January 6 insurrection. I continued to take copious notes but, in reviewing them I’ve said to myself: “Who doesn’t know the details of what happened immediately following the US election on November 3, 2020?” I suppose someone totally indifferent to world events might not know that Trump tried to claim that the election was “stolen”, but, in any event, there’s no need to regurgitate Tapper’s detailed chronology of those events here. (I do have them in my notes, though. If you want to hear what Tapper had to say give me a call and I’ll read you my notes about that part of his talk.)
Tapper did offer some suggestions as to why it’s important to continue to examine those fateful days between November 2, 2020 and January 6, 2021, saying: “It’s important to have clarity, it’s important to say lying is not good.”
Tapper quoted the very brave Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who said that the lie Trump told – and has continued to tell “is a lie that’s going to be deployed in the future.”
“We must stand up for the facts,” Tapper declared. “Facts are messy and inconvenient…but in order to push a narrative you have to have facts….News media should be committed to facts and ignore the narratives.”
As an illustration of how people commit to a certain narrative – such as that Joe Biden has to be supported no matter what, Tapper said that he’s been told that “if you ask tough questions about Biden’s handling of the economy, you must be for Trump.”
There was one point in Tapper’s lecture when he actually mentioned a term which I, along with most others in the audience, had probably never heard before, when he referred to something known as the “Overton Window.”
That term, he explained, refers to “the range of policies that are acceptable to discuss” at a certain point in time. It was inconceivable to discuss the emancipation of the slaves until a certain period in American history, Tapper noted.
Now, it is possible to discuss “reparations for slaves”, “defunding the police” and, perhaps most alarmingly, “disenfranchising the voters of Pennsalvania and Wisconsin” by disallowing huge numbers of perfectly legal ballots, which is something “two-thirds of House Republicans voted to do,” Tapper observed.
“Trump’s plan is to overturn the results of the 2024 election if he or his chosen successor fails,” Tapper predicted. Consequently, “democracy in the US is at risk when so many voters have proven to be susceptible to lies.”
Tapper ended his lecture by quoting Thomas Jefferson, who had this to say about the importance of newspapers to democracy: “If I had to choose between government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I would choose the latter.”
Following Tapper’s remarks, he fielded questions from audience members. (I took notes until both the pens I had brought with me ran out of ink. At that point I left. I apologize if I’m omitting some good questions which I may have missed as a result. Honestly, the question and answer session was more illuminating than hearing Tapper’s remarks to that point, especially when he found himself squirming talking about his disgraced colleague, Chris Cuomo.)
By the way, that was the first question asked of Tapper: “What have you learned about integrity and honesty with what’s gone on at CNN?”
Tapper: “You have to learn to recuse yourself or be fully transparent. Nobody in journalism wants to be the story. You don’t want to have to answer questions like that” (the one just posed to him).
Question: “As bad as Trump is are we going to see worse?”
Tapper: “I am more afraid that there are Republicans who have been going on with the ‘big lie’.”
Question: “How can you remain objective?”
Tapper: “The question is: ‘Are you aware of your biases?’ Do you try to understand points of view other than your own?”
Question: “How does a reporter handle what you’ve seen in Ukraine?” (Tapper spent two weeks in May reporting from Ukraine.)
Answer: “A lot of news organizations remind us that if we need to talk to people (about what we’ve seen), we have people there for you – but let’s remember first responders face the same problem.”
Tapper was then asked a question about a possible connection to some Jewish Tappers from Winnipeg.
He responded that “I looked for months to try to find a connection with the Jewish Tappers of Winnipeg. We even went so far as to try to get someone (from Winnipeg) to take a DNA test.” (Apparently that endeavour was aborted when it became clear that it was fruitless.)
Question: “What do you think is going to happen in the mid-term elections?” (Afterwards, someone suggested to me that it would likely be impossible to find an American audience anywhere that would want to hear from a Canadian journalist about Canadian politics.)
Tapper: “We haven’t lost our democracy yet. The guardrails buckled, but they’ve held. We have to remain vigilant…but I’m not applying for Canadian citizenship. I don’t know that things are going to get worse.”
Question: “Have you felt any anti-Semitism at CNN?”
Tapper answered that he’s experienced anti-Semitism most pronouncedly on social media – from “both the right and the left.” He noted, however, that his colleague Ben Shapiro, who presents quite clearly as a conservative on most issues, has also been subjected to anti-Semitic attacks from both the right and the left.
Tapper added thought that the roughest period for him as a Jewish reporter was when he was covering the Israel-Gaza war (I’m not sure to which one he was referring. It was probably the war in 2014, which lasted almost seven weeks – one which I also personally experienced.) when he came under attack for both being too critical of Israel and too supportive.
Yet he added, with reference to any anti-Semitism he may have experienced, “compared to what my female colleagues who are Latino or Asian go through, it’s nothing.”
In retrospect, thinking about how I began this report of Jake Tapper’s lecture, perhaps I was a shad too dismissive of what he had to say. It would have been unfair to expect him to offer the kind of learned wisdom that a Margaret MacMillan was able to impart – 100 years after the end of World War I, about the long term effects of that war.
Still, there are commentators out there, including on CNN – such as Fareed Zakaria, who specialize in offering deep insight into the issues of the day. And maybe next year whoever is invited won’t have to use the excuse that he was called upon to anchor his network’s coverage of congressional hearings as a reason not to appear in person. Say Jake, when did you actually decide you weren’t going to be coming to Winnipeg? I dare say it was long before you knew you were going to be anchoring CNN’s coverage of the congressional hearings, wasn’t it?