Behind the Guise of Adversarial Journalism, CNN’s Jake Tapper Is Taking America to War

Posing as Trump’s most dogged critic, Tapper has become the face and voice of American regime media.

Photo Credit: Screenshot

This July, Millennium Films announced it is producing an action film based on CNN anchor Jake Tapper’s “The Outpost.” The book is Tapper's dewy-eyed true life account of 53 American soldiers who bravely fought off an overwhelming force of Taliban insurgents from within their Alamo-style fortress in northeastern Afghanistan. Though Tapper conceded that he covered the war from “the comfort of the North Lawn of the White House,” his book won wide praise, including from conservatives like John Hinderaker, who wrote that it “required an almost unimaginable amount of work—of patriotism.” With President Donald Trump announcing a surge of thousands of new troops to Afghanistan, Tapper has provided Hollywood with perhaps the perfect vehicle to stir public sympathy for the troops tasked with continuing the 16-year-old war against the Taliban.

As the host of CNN’s highly rated "The Lead," Tapper has branded himself as one of the president’s most vehement critics, slamming Trump almost daily for his incompetence and hypocrisy. His indignant attacks on the president have earned him a fawning write-up in Slate as the "ideal newsman of our age," praise from CNN contributor Van Jones as “a god,” and a raft of puff pieces in glossy pop culture magazines. According to Vogue, he is “the internet hero — and journalistic sensation — of the Trump era.” Jim Rutenberg, the media critic for the New York Times, claimed to GQ that Tapper’s popularity stemmed from him “doing very basic fact-checking and calling things out bluntly.” Rutenberg added, “He doesn’t let anyone off the hook.”

However, as Trump transitions from a non-interventionist campaign platform to a crudely militaristic foreign policy, Tapper has not only let the president off the hook, he has played a central role in cultivating pro-war fever among the American public. I watched each episode of Tapper’s “The Lead” from August 1-10, as the North Korea crisis came to a head, as well as 14 editions of his show between April and July. Only two shows proceeded without an extended segment promoting regime change and expanded sanctions or hyping threats from North Korean ICBMs and Russian hackers.

Tapper has covered the Saudi-U.S. war on Yemen only twice, which was sadly two times more than many of his colleagues. He has not touched the Israeli-manufactured humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza all year. Yet Tapper seldom misses an opportunity to hammer one of a small cast of designated enemies, including the governments of North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela, and with just enough space to push sanctions on China as well. His international coverage seldom extends beyond the countries in Washington’s crosshairs.

While Tapper takes Trump’s aides apart for their “alternative facts,” he has become a human megaphone for the military-intelligence complex, providing some of the most reliable public relations services the Pentagon, NSA, FBI and State Department could want. He has also volunteered as a water-carrier for anonymous intelligence sources and faithfully recited their unsourced claims without skepticism. Voices opposing permanent war, sanctions and Trump’s massive defense build-up are seldom heard on Tapper’s show. Instead, he has become an accommodating host to a rotating cast of rent-a-generals, neoconservative movement leaders like William Kristol and former national security state principals hired as network contributors.

Blending anti-Trump tirades with a relentless drumbeat for regime change and sanctions, Tapper has found a formula for success, driving his ratings up by 58% since January. He is perhaps the most effective face and voice of American regime media, reinforcing the power of the national security state behind a patina of adversarial journalism, and winning reams of positive reviews along the way.

John McCain’s Hostage

Tapper launched his career as a national reporter at Salon.com, a progressive-branded online outlet born at the dawn of the online news era. David Talbot, the founder and former editor-in-chief of Salon, remembered Tapper as a driven careerist.

“The main thing I remember about Jake was his driving ambition,” Talbot added. “He seemed to be headed for the TV spotlight all along. So I don't find it surprising that he's become a fixture of centrist, mainstream news.”

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Talbot recalled Tapper transforming into what he called “a John McCain groupie.” Tapper gushed over the Arizona senator when the former CNN host Howard Kurtz asked him in February, 2000, “When you're on the [campaign] bus, do you make a conscious effort not to fall under the magical McCain spell?”

“Oh, you can't. You become like Patty Hearst when the SLA took her," Tapper joked in reply. "In fact, I think McCain was referring to me as Tanya at one point” (the name Hearst took after being kidnapped by and then joining the SLA). 

The same month, Tapper described McCain as “basically a cool dude.”

In April, Tapper followed McCain to Vietnam, where the senator had returned to visit the land where he was held as a POW after being captured on his way to bomb a civilian lightbulb factory. Tapper returned with a fawning portrait of McCain spreading the gospel of free trade and “putting aside whatever personal animus he had for the sake of bringing the country into the 20th century.”

Yet two months earlier, McCain had said of the North Vietnamese who held him captive, "I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live."

After the 9/11 attacks, McCain emerged as one of the most fervent supporters of invading Iraq, belting out, “Next up: Baghdad!” while touring an aircraft carrier on the Arabian Sea in early 2002. The senator’s support for the war was part of his zeal for further regime change operations in countries from Iran to North Korea.

Salon, for its part, was one of the key voices of opposition to the war on Iraq, condemning it and George W. Bush’s unilateralist foreign policy with a constant stream of op-eds and critical reporting. Tapper stood apart from his more impassioned colleagues, reporting dryly on the run-up to invasion and the occupation that followed. Talbot said Tapper “didn't exhibit a hawkish bias, as far as I can remember,” but did not distinguish himself as much of a critic of the war either.

“Jake was never out to change the world as many of us at Salon were,” Talbot recalled, “but simply to cover it, and to make a successful career from doing so.”

But Talbot wondered if Tapper’s admiration for McCain has led him to adopt the senator’s fanatical militarism. As the host of CNN’s "The Lead," Tapper has shed all pretense of journalistic objectivity to pump up regime change and sanctions across the globe.

Tapper’s Rearmed Reaganism

On May 5, Tapper delivered a lengthy attack on Trump’s foreign policy that doubled as an articulation of his own vision of geopolitics. Echoing a theme Trump’s opponents have pushed since his election, Tapper suggested that the president’s calls for diplomacy with autocratic governments were rooted in values he shared with dictators, and not in the pursuit of realpolitik. Tapper took special issue with Trump’s designation of Kim Jong-un as a “smart cookie,” a crude attempt to counter the widely held notion that the North Korean premier was irrational and therefore unfit for diplomatic engagement.

“Kim Jong-un had his uncle murdered. That does not make Kim Jong-un a smart cookie, it makes him a murderer,” Tapper declared sternly.

The CNN anchor lit into Trump for expressing openness to diplomacy with North Korea as well as the government of the Philippines, a traditional U.S. ally. Tapper slammed Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, as a “brutal dictator.”

There is little dispute that the methods Duterte has used against accused drug dealers have been exceptionally brutal. Yet the Philippine leader was democratically elected, defeating a Harvard-educated venture capitalist who had promised to continue his country’s longstanding subservience to the Washington consensus. 

Next, Tapper hammered Trump for stating what many Middle Easterners and much of the world understood to be an obvious reality: that Libya and Iraq were “in much better shape” before the U.S violently removed their leaders, spreading chaos and opening up the breach for Al Qaeda and ISIS to take control of large swaths of territory.

“Equating brutality and despotism with leadership. That’s not an American value,” Tapper proclaimed, crinkling his brow.

With a smiling image of Reagan flashing onscreen behind him, Tapper cast the former president as a human rights hero and delivered a passionate rendition of Reagan’s declaration that “a violation of human rights anywhere is the business of free people everywhere,” then asked the viewers, “Whatever happened to that?”

President Reagan foreign policy was heavily shaped by a 1979 essay by Jeanne Kirkpatrick that called for an explicitly selective application of human rights. Kirkpatrick, a neoconservative ideologue who eventually became Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, issued a vigorous call for American support for authoritarian anti-communist despots from Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza to Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi, alongside a policy of regime change toward revolutionary socialist governments. The arming and training of extremist death squads from Central America to Afghanistan to Angola flowed directly from Kirkpatrick’s thinking.

In holding up Reagan’s foreign policy as his own ideal model, Tapper placed himself squarely in the neoconservative camp. He has slanted his international coverage accordingly, hammering governments that defy American diktat while keeping mum about human rights violations by close American allies from the Gulf states to Colombia to Israel.

During Israel’s devastating 2014 assault on the Gaza Strip, an angry Tapper took issue with a Twitter user’s description of Israeli military spokesmen as “lying war criminals.” Noting that his critic identified as queer in a Twitter bio, Tapper tossed out one of the most hackneyed talking points of pro-Israel pinkwashing: “just read your bio. How is life for LGBT community under Hamas?”

During that same period, Tapper badgered Palestinian lawyer Diana Buttu to answer for what he called “the culture of martyrdom” in Gaza, a suggestion that Palestinians were deliberately sacrificing their children to Israeli missiles.

Since the assault on Gaza, conditions for its residents have deteriorated to unprecedented levels of humanitarian catastrophe. Tapper has been virtually silent about the situation, turning his attention to places like North Korea, a senior member of the neoconservatives’ “axis of evil.”

Pushing war on North Korea, regime change in Venezuela

Earlier this August, cable news was focused like a laser on North Korea, hyping up threats of intercontinental ballistic missile strikes from the country on Guam and California. The fevered coverage has had a perceptible impact on the American public. According to a poll released this August by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 75 percent of Americans, including 75 percent of Democrats, believed that North Korea was a “critical threat to the nation.” The numbers were up a full 15 points since 2016.

Wild threats from President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis of “fire and fury” and “the destruction of [North Korea’s] people” were fine-tuned not only to shake the confidence of a foreign regime, but to play on fear-inspired consensus of North Korea cultivated by cable news personalities like Tapper.

This August 2, Tapper led a segment on the tensions using the most alarmist language he could conjure: “Every day we’re getting starting details about North Korea’s military ambitions which seem to be proceeding at an increasingly rapid clip,” the anchor said. “It’s unclear what the Trump administration’s strategy is to stop the Kim Jong-un regime.”

The segment that followed was dedicated to an unconfirmed report about the danger of North Korean missiles colliding with passenger jets from the West. Barbara Starr, the CNN Pentagon correspondent who has established herself as one of the Defense Department’s most reliable stenographers, spun out a story about a North Korean missile cruising within several hundred miles of an Air France plane. “Not a close call but it is raising a lot of questions,” Starr conceded.

Though Starr essentially admitted CNN was manufacturing a threat out of whole cloth, the segment proceeded with a cameo appearance by Sen. Lindsey Graham, perhaps the most Strangelovian advocate of absolute war in Congress. “I don’t believe North Korea will ever change until they believe the U.S. is serious about the military option,” Graham stated.

Next up was Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a contributor who represented one of CNN’s ever-expanding cast of rent-a-generals. “You always have to apply overwhelming force to make sure your opponent doesn’t get the next move,” Hertling said, thinly disguising pro-war advocacy as analysis. “In North Korea you don’t know what that move is going to be.”

Though Starr admitted that the missile fired hundreds of miles near an Air France jet “wasn’t a close call,” CNN’s chyron read: “North Korea missile tests could endanger passenger planes."

As the segment descended into a Clockwork Orange-style piece of militaristic mind assault, viewers were forcefed another curious threat assessment, this time from a CNN “safety analyst” named David Soucie. It was a “billions to billions to one probability” that a North Korean missile would accidentally hit a passenger jet, Soucie said, “but it’s not something we can just discard and say, 'Oh well, it’s something we don’t think is going to happen so we don’t have to do anything about it'." According to Soucie, who previously worked as an insurance salesman and aviation safety inspector, the American military could not afford to sit on its hands and do nothing about a “billions to one” threat. 

Tapper smoothly transitioned the segment on North Korea into a dismal dispatch from Venezuela, where he said a “sham election” had just been held in the form of the country’s Constitutional Assembly. Tapper provided no details about the election. Like North Korea, Venezuela is a favorite target of Tapper’s, and by extension, the State Department’s, whose agenda he has faithfully advanced.  

A day earlier, Tapper introduced another segment on Venezuela by declaring that “democracy is in shambles.” Tapper asked CNN’s correspondent Leyla Santiago, in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, if President Nicolas Maduro “might be deterred” by the sanctions the U.S. had just imposed on his socialist government. Santiago lamented that “these sanctions don’t seem to be stopping him or having him bow down in any way.” She thus revealed what Tapper meant by deterrence: Maduro should “bow down” to Washington and relinquish power to his right-wing opposition.

As the U.S. ratchets up sanctions against countries that refuse to bow to its demands — including possibly the democratically elected government of Nicaragua — Tapper fills his show with hardline pundits to argue that the economic pain must be increased. On August 8, after the U.S. imposed the crushing sanctions on North Korea that U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley advertised as a “gut punch,” Tapper prodded Gordon Chang, an anti-China hawk, and the New York Times’ David Sanger, perhaps the most influential national security correspondent in the country, to explain why the sanctions were not harsh enough.

Chang urged a total siege on North Korea, demanding the U.S. “stop this incremental approach… what we have to do is go all in all at once, stop all of North Korea’s income.”

Sanger chimed in to agree wholeheartedly with Chang, urging the U.S. to “do something that makes Kim Jong-un wake up.” At no point did Tapper challenge his guests’ calls for total economic warfare or ask what the cost might be for civilians. Instead, he wondered, “Is the U.S. running out of time to stop this?”

“The U.S. needs to impose some costs on China,” Chang thundered, calling for crushing sanctions on Beijing. “Trump is not doing what it takes to protect the American homeland.”

The following day, after Trump promised a hailstorm of “fury and fury” on Pyonyang, Tapper hyped a claim sourced to “U.S. intel” that North Korea “has [a] missile-ready nuclear warhead.” He opened a 12-minute segment on the mysterious missiles by declaring, “The question here might be 'when,' and not 'if.'”

This time, it was left to Lt. Col. Rick Francona, another CNN rent-a-general, to sound the drums of war: “We thought in the past that we had some time to let diplomacy, to let the economic sanctions work. That decision cycle has almost collapsed and now we’re faced with a North Korea that could potentially launch a missile in a very short time.”

Francona was followed by a full screen graphic depicting an imaginary North Korean ICBM sailing into California — a literal cartoon of a threat Kim’s military has no capability to fulfill.

Finally, Tapper offered an uncritical forum for Republican Rep. Darrell Issa to liken the stand-off with North Korea to the Cuban missile crisis, when nuclear weapons actually were pointed at the U.S. ‘This is something that could hit us or our allies,” Issa warned without offering evidence. “And it’s with a rogue nation that we suspect would use it.”

The closest thing to a voice of sanity in the segment was National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, who had stated at a conference that Kim is “a very unusual type of person, but he’s not crazy.”

Those comments contradicted Tapper’s personal opinion that “Kim Jong-un is not a rational actor,” which he volunteered in an April 14 interview with Rep. Adam Kinzinger. 

To Russia, with hate

poll taken this June by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that American public opinion in support of efforts to cooperate and engage with Russia had flipped almost completely since June 2016, when the presidential general election began in earnest. Before the campaign, 58 percent of Americans supported constructive engagement with Russia. By this July, that number had been almost entirely reversed, with 53 percent of Americans declaring their opinion that the U.S. should make efforts to “limit Russia’s power.”

Those numbers were the direct result of the tidal wave of cable news and mainstream print media coverage of “Russiagate," the still-unproven scandal alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. While MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has dedicated more time to Russia-Trump conspiracism than any other issue, Tapper has gotten in on the act as well, larding his shows with segments hyping up Russia’s interference in American politics, while seldom presenting an alternative voice or even mildly critical perspective.

Tapper has been explicit about his intention to demonstrate America’s moral superiority to Russia. Back in February, he shared a link on Twitter to a group called the Equality Network, claiming it provided information on “LGBT Human Rights Abuses in Russia.” But the link Tapper posted was dead and the group he promoted was based in Scotland, with little record of any work in Russia. (He has never used social media to promote the work of LGBT rights groups operating in the US.)

When a Trump supporter responded to Tapper’s unusual tweet with a non sequitur defending the president’s supposed commitment to gay rights, Tapper channeled his inner exceptionalist: “it proves my point—there is no comparison between US and Russia on human rights issues.”

Tapper has provided a friendly platform to lawmakers like Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a freshman Republican who has become one of the neoconservative movement’s favorite finger puppets on Capitol Hill. In an interview last December, Kinzinger not only endorsed President Barack Obama’s ejection of Russian diplomatic personnel in retaliation for alleged Russian hacking, he openly yearned for more conflict: “We will not be pushed around by a country that’s basically a gas can in Europe with an economy that is roughly the same size as Italy,” Kinzinger said. “It’s an important step to push back and I’m looking forward to more, frankly.”

Rather than challenging Kinzinger, Tapper egged him on. “The only one who’s not united in this in Washington DC and New York is the president-elect…” Tapper interjected. “The only person I hear expressing any skepticism about our own intelligence agencies and saying, we all just need to move past this, is President-elect Donald Trump.”

In fact, plenty of voices have expressed skepticism over allegations of Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee. The widely quoted veteran cyber-security consultant Jeffrey Carr, commented to me that “if you start to break apart the evidence [alleging Russian hacking] piece by piece, you see that there is no real evidence here, it’s all highly circumstantial. Even hardcore attribution enthusiasts say you’re never really going to get a smoking gun.”

But like his Cold Warrior colleagues, Tapper has never hosted a skeptic of Russiagate or entertained a challenge to the drive for ramped-up conflict with Russia. He has provided a megaphone for virtually any anonymous claim the intelligence agencies and federal law enforcement want to disseminate into the public domain. Though not one intelligence agency has reviewed the Democratic National Committee servers that were supposedly hacked, and none have provided concrete evidence that Russia was behind the hacking, Tapper, like most of his media peers, has accepted the NSA and FBI’s “high confidence” assessments as gospel.

Among the most dubious stories advanced on Tapper’s program was one based entirely on claims by anonymous “counter-intelligence analysts” and “investigators” who had been scouring the Facebook pages of American voters for evidence of “negative stories being posted about Hillary Clinton, some about her health.”

Touting the story as a “scoop,” Tapper brought on CNN crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz to describe how “multiple sources” had identified “suspected Russian links to the accounts that appeared to be pushing the fake, negative stories with the White House.” Yet nothing about the story was rooted in concrete evidence or independently confirmed.

When Tapper asked Prokupecz if there were any civil liberty concerns surrounding what appeared to be an FBI spying operation targeting Americans through their social media accounts, the correspondent stated, “it was something they [the FBI] needed to do.”

It was just another day on "The Lead," where speculation and paranoia about foreign threats trumped nuance and fact-checking.

While Tapper has proven as eager as any of his colleagues for a new Cold War, he has demonstrated a special zeal for regime change in Syria, suspending any semblance of journalistic ethics to push for a military intervention that would have handed yet another previously stable Middle Eastern country over to jihadists and extremist militias.

In the next part of this series, we explore the strange and shady sources Tapper relied on to stimulate public support for regime change in Syria.

Max Blumenthal is a senior editor of the Grayzone Project at AlterNet, and the award-winning author of Goliath, Republican Gomorrah, and The 51 Day War. He is the co-host of the podcast, Moderate Rebels. Follow him on Twitter at @MaxBlumenthal.

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