The life of Jake Tapper: how a high school prankster became a journalistic icon, author, and champion of truth

Journalist Jake Tapper poses for a portrait in the Getty Images Portrait Studio Powered by Pizza Hut at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival on March 9, 2018 in Austin, Texas.Journalist Jake Tapper poses for a portrait in the Getty Images Portrait Studio Powered by Pizza Hut at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival on March 9, 2018 in Austin, Texas.Corey Nickols / Contour for Pizza Hut / Getty

  • CNN's Jake Tapper is one of the most well-known television journalists in the United States. 
  • He didn't always want to be a journalist. He wanted to be a cartoonist. He tried public relations and politics, but finally, he turned to reporting.
  • In 2017, he really started to get traction after several his interviews went viral, in particular with President Trump's advisors Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller
  • Here's his life so far. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Journalist and anchor Jake Tapper has gone from drawing cartoons to holding presidents to account.

Tapper is CNN's man. He hosts "The Lead" every weeknight, "State of the Union" on Sunday mornings, and he's the network's chief Washington correspondent. 

Despite the success, he didn't take a traditional path to journalism. After university, in his years of "misery and woe," he tried public relations and politics, before writing as a freelancer. He finally became a full-time journalist five years after graduating. Since then he's steadily ascended, from print to television, to become one of the most recognizable journalists in the country. 

Tapper values truth, transparency, honesty, and kindness, according to interviews. He's naturally skeptical and, to remain neutral, he doesn't vote. He's known for his dogged interviews and he's said it's not always the answer that matters, sometimes the questions are more important.

As Politico's media columnist Jack Shafer said, he could be the best current television interviewer in the US, and "he's probably the only genuine romantic in TV news."

Here's his life so far. 

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Jake Tapper was born on Staten Island in New York on March 12, 1969.

Jake Tapper was born on Staten Island in New York on March 12, 1969.

He grew up in Philadelphia, in a "hippy" household, but one that was focused on what was right and wrong. His parents divorced in 1977 and he lived between Merion and Queen village. The divorce helped him see things from both perspectives.

He went to school at Akiba Hebrew Academy, now called Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, and was editor of the school paper. Here, he addresses graduates in 2012.

He went to school at Akiba Hebrew Academy, now called Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, and was editor of the school paper. Here, he addresses graduates in 2012.

Sources: Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer

He wanted to be a political cartoonist like Garry Trudeau.

He wanted to be a political cartoonist like Garry Trudeau.

Tapper was inspired by Trudeau, who created the Doonesbury comic, which covered things like the Vietnam war, homosexuality, and racism.

Tapper's first major cartoon was in the senior yearbook. It was particularly memorable since, when the book was folded in a certain way, it revealed male genitals. When the prank was discovered he was suspended and forced to do community service, but he still graduated in 1987.

As a senior, Tapper interned for Ed Rendell who was running to be mayor of Philadelphia.

As a senior, Tapper interned for Ed Rendell who was running to be mayor of Philadelphia.

While Rendell lost, it was a first taste of politics for Tapper.

Tapper went to Dartmouth University. He joined and then quickly left the Alpha Chi Alpha fraternity, as the drinking and sexism made him uncomfortable.

Tapper went to Dartmouth University. He joined and then quickly left the Alpha Chi Alpha fraternity, as the drinking and sexism made him uncomfortable.

Instead, he kept himself busy with a daily comic strip called Static Cling, which didn't pull punches and made fun of all — football players, feminists, protesters, fraternities and the administration. He graduated from Dartmouth University in 1991, with a degree in history and art.

He enrolled in film school at USC School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles.

He enrolled in film school at USC School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles.

But he quickly realized, after spending an entire film production class listening to the Clarence Thomas hearings, that he didn't want to be there. After a semester he dropped out.

After that, he began to work for Marjorie Margolies, a family friend, who was running or congress.

After that, he began to work for Marjorie Margolies, a family friend, who was running or congress.

Once she was elected, he continued to work for her as a press secretary. But he found politics depressing. Margolies said she loved his humor — one memory that stood out was when Tapper photocopied the face of an "annoying" volunteer and hid her face in unexpected places around the office.

In 1994, he began contributing to Roll Call with a cartoon strip called "Capitol Hell."

In 1994, he began contributing to Roll Call with a cartoon strip called "Capitol Hell."

The cartoon strip ran for nearly a decade. Around this time, while trying to figure out what to do with himself, he also wrote a novel that was never published.

His cartoons have been featured in the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

For three years he worked at a public relations firm called Powell Tate, and in 1997 he worked as a spokesman for Handgun Control, a gun control group.

For three years he worked at a public relations firm called Powell Tate, and in 1997 he worked as a spokesman for Handgun Control, a gun control group.

He calls these his years of misery and woe. He told Politico, "That was goatees and American Spirit cigarettes and 'What am I going to do with my life?' kind of thing. 'On the Road' in my back pocket. I wish this was a joke. I wish I was just trying to describe how BuzzFeed would describe a stereotype from the '90s, but that actually was me."

While on a ski trip to Vermont he read a story in the New Republic, which he idolized, written by a young freelancer, and he had an epiphany.

While on a ski trip to Vermont he read a story in the New Republic, which he idolized, written by a young freelancer, and he had an epiphany.

He realized he could also freelance. The New Republic rejected all of his story ideas in the 1990s, but his byline appeared in Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post.

His first full-time journalism job was at Washington City Paper.

His first full-time journalism job was at Washington City Paper.

He was mentored by his editor David Carr, who convinced Tapper to abandon PR and its paychecks. Carr taught Tapper a lot. When he died in 2015, Tapper wrote about how he'd once misattributed a quote and Carr had not been afraid to let Tapper know it was unacceptable.

"While I can't say I've never made a mistake in the 20 years since, I will say that I hear his voice all the time in my head when I'm making sure that what we're doing on the show is right," Tapper said.

In 1998, he published his first cover story called "I Dated Monica Lewinsky," about a date he went on with Monica Lewinsky, several weeks after her affair with then-President Bill Clinton hit the news cycle.

In 1998, he published his first cover story called "I Dated Monica Lewinsky," about a date he went on with Monica Lewinsky, several weeks after her affair with then-President Bill Clinton hit the news cycle.

Tapper has since said if he could go back he would not call her chubby. "I was in my 20s and a single guy and I would say not the most enlightened version of myself."

In 1999, he published his first book "Body Slam: The Jesse Ventura Story," about the former wrestler-turned-governor of Minnesota.

In 1999, he published his first book "Body Slam: The Jesse Ventura Story," about the former wrestler-turned-governor of Minnesota.

The book shows Tapper's interest is more in policies and facts rather than the gruesome or salacious. He told the Washington City Paper in 1999, "I don't care about prostitutes or when he lost his virginity, and I don't think anybody else does, either." But according to the paper, Ventura's competing book was, at least then, selling a lot better.

After three years he left Washington City Paper to become the Washington Correspondent for Salon.

After three years he left Washington City Paper to become the Washington Correspondent for Salon.

His editor at the time Joan Walsh said he was always writing and wasn't afraid to contact her late at night if he wasn't happy with a headline. It was also clear that he wasn't ideologically driven.

While working for Salon, Tapper covered the Gore Bush presidential campaign.

While working for Salon, Tapper covered the Gore Bush presidential campaign.

His knack for brutal takes can be seen in headlines he wrote like, "Gore: Still unlikable. Bush: Still dumb. Feels like a tie." Tapper was content not to be liked by politicians.

In 2001, he published "Down and Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency," about the 36 days the country spent waiting to see if there would be a recount after the election between Bush and Gore.

In 2001, he published "Down and Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency," about the 36 days the country spent waiting to see if there would be a recount after the election between Bush and Gore.

In the book, Tapper admits to drinking too much bourbon, which a review for The Telegraph thought was unusual for a Washington journalist.

In 2001, he landed his first job on TV, as a host on "Take Five," a CNN roundtable program.

In 2001, he landed his first job on TV, as a host on "Take Five," a CNN roundtable program.

On "Take Five." the young panel discussed politics for the next generation. It aired every Saturday night. It had a six-month contract and ended in September 2001. He then spent six months working for VH1 reporting on music and pop culture.

In 2003, he began working as a host on ABC's "Good Morning America."

In 2003, he began working as a host on ABC's "Good Morning America."

In his early days at ABC, he didn't find it easy getting on air. But Peter Jennings, anchor of "ABC World News Tonight," told him he had to keep persevering and that eventually, he'd get there.

In 2004, he spoke with Columbia Journalism Review about the move from print journalism to broadcasting.

In 2004, he spoke with Columbia Journalism Review about the move from print journalism to broadcasting.

He said anyone who didn't miss greater depth, wider coverage, and more output shouldn't have been a print journalist in the first place. But he liked television — it could make stories more compelling, reached more people, there were more resources, and information was easier to access.

In 2004, he met his future wife Jennifer Marie Brown in Des Moines, during the presidential caucus.

In 2004, he met his future wife Jennifer Marie Brown in Des Moines, during the presidential caucus.

They went out the following night, and Brown said after that first date she knew something was going to happen.

They married in 2006 at the Clubhouse in Kansas City.

They married in 2006 at the Clubhouse in Kansas City.

Source: Oprah Magazine

She says her husband isn't too hard to explain. He's honest and truthful and gets mad when other people aren't. They live in a leafy suburb in Washington, DC...

She says her husband isn't too hard to explain. He's honest and truthful and gets mad when other people aren't. They live in a leafy suburb in Washington, DC...

Sources: GQ, Politico

... With their two children Alice and Jack. Alice is named after suffragette Alice Paul...

... With their two children Alice and Jack. Alice is named after suffragette Alice Paul...

Source: Esquire

... While Jack is named after Jackie Robinson, the first African American athlete to play Major League Baseball.

... While Jack is named after Jackie Robinson, the first African American athlete to play Major League Baseball.

Source: Esquire

The day after the 2008 presidential election, Tapper was named ABC's senior White House correspondent.

The day after the 2008 presidential election, Tapper was named ABC's senior White House correspondent.

It was there he learned the tougher the question he had to ask, the calmer the delivery had to be. He was described as "famously scrappy," and his relentless grilling of White House spokespersons was an entertaining part of the briefings.

His co-anchor Diane Sawyer thought he was an impressive journalist.

His co-anchor Diane Sawyer thought he was an impressive journalist.

She told GQ, "It's not that he learns the facts and that he studies. It's that he wakes up in the morning so curious, and I think you can tell."

In 2009, former ABC News anchor Charles Gibson said Tapper could be brash, but he was also "hungry, hardworking, and hard to ignore."

In 2009, former ABC News anchor Charles Gibson said Tapper could be brash, but he was also "hungry, hardworking, and hard to ignore."

Source: Washington Post

As ABC's senior White House correspondent, Tapper interacted a lot with former President Barack Obama.

As ABC's senior White House correspondent, Tapper interacted a lot with former President Barack Obama.

And Tapper is sure Obama did not like him. He says he was a pain in Obama's ass and did not "drink the Kool-Aid." He also said the media were more supportive of Obama than they are of Trump, and because of that, the former president got away with a lot.

Despite his hard work, Tapper was passed over for host of ABC's "This Week," a Sunday morning news show, in 2010 and again in 2012.

Despite his hard work, Tapper was passed over for host of ABC's "This Week," a Sunday morning news show, in 2010 and again in 2012.

But he wasn't always left out in the snow. In his tenure as senior correspondent he won the Merriam Smith Memorial Award three times for his breaking of presidential news. Tapper's thought to be the first person to win it three times in a row.

In 2012, he published "The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor."

In 2012, he published "The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor."

It's the book he's most proud of and it took him years to write. It also opened his eyes to the military.

He told Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, after interviewing two soldiers he came home and said to his wife Jennifer, "I've sacrificed nothing. All I've done is pursue my own self-interests and tried to get ahead in the world for myself. And look at these guys—these are the guys who should get the attention." And his wife reminded him that it was his role to write their story.

In 2013, he became CNN's host for "The Lead." It plays every weekday.

In 2013, he became CNN's host for "The Lead." It plays every weekday.

According to Slate, unlike other media personalities who sway one way or the other, Tapper's brand has been to stay neutral. In that way, he's "old school."

The history degree might have been a long time ago, but as his CNN office shows, he's still very much a student of history, at least in politics.

The history degree might have been a long time ago, but as his CNN office shows, he's still very much a student of history, at least in politics.

His office is littered with failed presidential candidates from Henry Clay to Chris Christie. He also owns letters signed by Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. The most indulgent thing he's ever bought is a signed copy of "Profiles in Courage" by John F. Kennedy.

To keep up with the rigorous schedule, he likes his coffee constant. Note the four coffee cups on his desk.

To keep up with the rigorous schedule, he likes his coffee constant. Note the four coffee cups on his desk.

"This is an IV drip situation that begins when I wake up and doesn't end until the last possible moment," he told Bon Appetit.

In 2015, he started hosting "State of the Union with Jake Tapper," where he interviews world leaders about controversial topics.

In 2015, he started hosting "State of the Union with Jake Tapper," where he interviews world leaders about controversial topics.

It also has a cartoon segment, which often shows his own cartoons. It's on Sunday mornings.

That same year, the conservative news site Breitbart described him as one of few mainstream reports whom both sides of the political spectrum could trust.

From 2015 on, he's become one of CNN's go-to election debate hosts.

From 2015 on, he's become one of CNN's go-to election debate hosts.

Sources: Vox

In 2016, he asked then-presidential candidate Donald Trump 23 times whether comments he made about a federal judge were racist.

In 2016, he asked then-presidential candidate Donald Trump 23 times whether comments he made about a federal judge were racist.

According to Vogue, this was when "it began" for Tapper. Trump would play a big part in Tapper's career. Since joining CNN, he'd covered the Israel-Gaza War, the Paris terrorist attacks, and the Boston bombing. But despite all of the reporting, it wasn't until Trump entered the ring that Tapper began to come into his own and become a "viral sensation."

In 2017, Tapper started to have what GQ called the "Jake Tapper Moment."

In 2017, Tapper started to have what GQ called the "Jake Tapper Moment."

Tapper says he's always been a "pain in the butt to people in power," but in 2017 people were beginning to notice it. According to New York Times' media columnist Jim Rutenberg, Tapper's blunt delivery and fact-checking were cathartic for his audience. "They're all so anxious and they want to see a lie called a lie so badly."

Tapper said it was nice to be recognized, but he realized it might not last. "A lot of people who are happy with me now are not going to be happy with me in four to eight years."

In January 2017, in response to Trump's advisor Steve Bannon telling media to keep its mouth shut, Tapper opened his show with one word: "no."

In January 2017, in response to Trump's advisor Steve Bannon telling media to keep its mouth shut, Tapper opened his show with one word: "no."

Source: Mediaite

His critical interviews started getting a lot of traction.

His critical interviews started getting a lot of traction.

Tapper is dogged. He fact checks before interviews and continues to ask questions until he gets an answer.

In February 2017, he had his now-infamous interview with Kellyanne Conway.

In February 2017, he had his now-infamous interview with Kellyanne Conway.

What was scheduled to be a 10 minute interview ran for 25 minutes without breaks. He took on Conway about CNN's coverage of terrorism, false reports on murder rates in the US, and an entirely made-up massacre. He listed inaccurate statements made by Trump and said "false" after every one of them.

So now we sit and wait to see which obedient attack dog follows orders. Arf arf!! https://t.co/GXBrHDblQp

— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) February 8, 2017

And he was mocked for it on Saturday Night Live.

And he was mocked for it on Saturday Night Live.

In the skit, based on Fatal Attraction, Conway broke into Tapper's house, trying to get an interview.

His wife thought it was sexist, but Tapper was impressed to be a subject fit to mock. "When you look at SNL's history of satirizing politicians and reporters, I feel very lucky. Beck Bennett is younger and handsomer than me. I feel like I got off scot-free, especially in comparison to Sean Spicer."

In January 2018, he had a combative interview with Stephen Miller, one of the president's advisers.

In January 2018, he had a combative interview with Stephen Miller, one of the president's advisers.

Memorably, he ended the interview, saying enough of CNN's viewers time had been wasted. But Miller wasn't done and he was so worked up, he had to be escorted off the premises, Business Insider reported.

Along with his focus on facts, Tapper's become known for the faces he pulls.

Along with his focus on facts, Tapper's become known for the faces he pulls.

As Samantha Bee tweeted after his interview with Kellyanne Conway, "We are all the crease between Jake Tapper's eyes." But according to his childhood friend Uri Monson, he's been pulling iconic faces since high school.

We are all that crease between Jake Tapper's eyebrows. pic.twitter.com/AToXTWqgZf

— Full Frontal (@FullFrontalSamB) February 7, 2017

In February 2018, he moderated a town hall meeting about gun control after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

In February 2018, he moderated a town hall meeting about gun control after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

The event was applauded by many, said to be the first of its kind to be aired on television.

In April 2018, he released "The Hellfire Club," his first published book of fiction, a political thriller set in the 1950s.

In April 2018, he released "The Hellfire Club," his first published book of fiction, a political thriller set in the 1950s.

It took him four years to write, working in the evenings after his children had gone to bed. It went on to be a New York Times bestseller.

In 2019, he moderated the second Democratic presidential debate and was criticized for his relentless observing of time restrictions.

In 2019, he moderated the second Democratic presidential debate and was criticized for his relentless observing of time restrictions.

Source: New York Magazine

Since Trump became president, Tapper's said he's been reminded a journalist's job is to take a stand over facts, truth, and human decency.

Since Trump became president, Tapper's said he's been reminded a journalist's job is to take a stand over facts, truth, and human decency.

In a speech he gave in 2018, he said it was time to stand up for what was right. "If standing up for truth and decency is speaking truth to power, then so be it — but let's make sure that we speak it consistently to everyone in power."

It doesn't look like his job will get easier anytime soon. But he isn't feeling cynical about politics. Instead, he sees the current political climate as a chance to bring people with different political views together.

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