Last night’s prime-time presidential address may have been like prom to the White House press corps, but every high-schooler knows that reputations are made in the schoolyard. And for the freshman class of 44, the first skirmish happened last Thursday in the White House briefing room between presidential Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and ABC’s Jake Tapper.
Tapper, the network’s ambitious, telegenic Senior White House Correspondent, has made a name for himself as a tough questioner, but last Thursday, Tapper’s tenacity didn’t just get the story—it became the story, in a sudden, testy exchange with Gibbs that was instantly snapped up by blogs, posted on YouTube and rebroadcast for good measure on Fox News’ Hannity.
It was the first tense—dare I say hostile?—media moment of the Obama administration
Tapper had asked Gibbs about getting copies of ethics disclosure forms for Cabinet nominees—a reasonable question, asked with a bit of a jab: “Based on listening to the president’s rhetoric, I’m sure this is something he would want to do.” Retorted Gibbs: “Well, knowing of your crystal clarity on his opinion, I’ll certainly check.” Oh, snap! And it was on:
Tapper: He doesn't believe in transparency?
Gibbs: Did you have another more-pertinent question?
Tapper: I think that's fairly pertinent to your Cabinet nominees and whether not they pay their taxes and whether not they have speaking fees with all sorts of industries you are supposed to regulate, I think that’s fairly pertinent, you don’t?
Tapper won that point—we’ve seen just how pertinent it is to Cabinet nominees that they pay their taxes—but with it came something else: the title of Briefing Room Badass.
On Twitter, the audience was divided: “Tapper humiliates White House spokesman over transparency”… “ABC's Jake Tapper looked like a jerk today”… “I love Jake Tapper: He's easily the least in-the-tank reporter I've seen in a long time”… “Is Jake Tapper hoping to move to Fox News? He has good questions, but the sneering contempt is over the top. Why not save the editorial tone?” Veteran D.C. smartass Ana Marie Cox even enshrined the moment on her Twitter as a faux-pickup line: "I wanna be on you like Tapper on Gibbs."
Whatever side you’re on, it was clear that moment had meant something: It was the first tense—dare I say hostile?—media moment of the Obama administration. This is different than Politico’s Jonathan Martin lobbing a hopeful question at Obama during a surprise press-room walkthrough and being shot down. It was a formal, organized press event and it was on live, national TV. However spontaneous it may have been, it was clear that both sides meant to send a message: Don’t even think about it, tough guy. In an administration all about conciliation, it was a moment that highlighted that, ultimately, the relationship between the president and the press is adversarial.
So was that moment about transparency—or Tapper? Press-room conventional wisdom says it was a little bit of both. “The feeling in the briefing room after that dustup with Gibbs was that Tapper was right but took it too far,” said one fellow correspondent. “That's not what we are there for, to needle them and get into pissy little spats.” The 39-year-old Tapper, who first gained renown as a Salon columnist (and Monica Lewinsky dinner date), is known for having ambition impressive even by Washington standards. At President George W. Bush’s final press conference, Bush called on Tapper and asked him jokingly what he’d been doing since 2000. Tapper’s reply, from his new spot in the front row of the briefing room: “ Working my way to this chair.”
There’s another chair that Tapper may be trying to fill: David Gregory’s. No less than three separate Washington political reporters spontaneously compared him to Gregory, who made his name being a thorn in the side of various White House press secretaries. “I think it’s safe to say that he's calculated, meaning that if he's being tough, it's likely because he sat down one day to say, ‘I want to be this administration's David Gregory,’" said one colleague on the D.C. political circuit. (Note where Gregory ended up.) Others have also compared him to Sam Donaldson, whose scrappy briefing-room questioning is still legendary. “[Tapper] works really hard, he's really smart, and he does have good questions that you just can't dismiss as showboating,” said another D.C.-based political reporter who has known Tapper for years. And while more than one other person also used the word “showboating,” a briefing-room colleague was a little more Zen: “It's too early to judge anyone... And I wouldn't get too worked up over the press briefings. Judge all of us on the reporting, analysis, and packages.”
It should be noted here that Gibbs is not exactly a shrinking violet: He may look unassuming, but he knows his way around a body check (let’s not forget that he was once the guy who ran a commercial comparing Howard Dean to Osama bin Laden). “Gibbs' style is to be a little sarcastic and push back—he's aggressive and combative,” said a frequent member of Obama’s traveling press corps. “He uses the same strategies the Bush press secretaries used—make a joke, or find a way to be dismissive of the questioner. But Jake’s not easily dismissed.”
What does Tapper say? Though he declined to comment specifically on the Gibbs exchange, he did reply via email that he took his job very seriously, in part as a reaction to the rather permissive press corps of the last administration: “There's a big lesson for all of us—not just reporters, but the nation—in the need for a vigilant press that questions the decisions our leaders make, whether going to war or spending $800 billion on a stimulus package. I don't always live up to that lesson, but I try.” He also said that the job “still feels daunting and intimidating”—even if he doesn’t show it.
Tapper’s not the only toughie in the briefing room—there are cameras there, you know—but so far, he’s the one pushing the hardest. And if that makes Gibbs’ job tougher, oh well. Says Tapper: “I certainly don't think that it's the job of any journalist to make the presidency work.”
Rachel Sklar is the former media editor of the Huffington Post and author of A Stroke of Luck: Life, Crisis and Rebirth of a Stroke Survivor. She is working on Jew-ish, a humorous book about cultural identity and recently launched an online micro-giving site, Charitini. Follow her here.