Many of the 1,600 people who came to Congregation Emanu-El on April 22 to hear CNN’s chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper talk about “Speaking Truth to Power” probably were expecting a full-throated condemnation of the Trump administration.
They indeed did hear plenty of criticism of President Donald Trump’s disregard for the truth, but what they really got was a denunciation of lies and unproven accusations from both sides of the U.S. political spectrum.
Tapper, the headliner at a program celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco, spent most of his talk focusing on dishonesty from both left and right, as well as the difficulty journalists face in staying objective while calling out falsehoods.
“We in the media today find ourselves trying to stand up for basic standards of decency and truth,” Tapper said. “It’s time for all of us in the Fourth Estate, and all of us in the United States, to stand up for truth.”
Tapper was in San Francisco at the invitation of his younger brother, Aaron Hahn Tapper, director of the Swig program as well as chair of USF’s department of theology and religious studies. The Swig program was the world’s first Jewish studies program at a Jesuit university when it launched in 1977.
Hahn Tapper set the bar pretty high in his introductory remarks when he compared his brother to Abraham, who “spoke truth to power” when he pushed back on God’s plan to wipe out the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah. And Tapper made it clear from the start of his talk that his job was not to speak truth to power, but to cover those who do so.
Tapper said a good example of that came during a CNN town hall following the deadly school shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, when students and others grilled Sen. Marco Rubio and National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch about gun control issues.
“You could feel the grief, it was raw,” said Tapper, who moderated the Feb. 21 CNN meeting. “People were angry and they said things they would normally not say to a senator. That was true speaking truth to power.”
He said journalists need to point out when Trump and his supporters make false claims, such as accusing former President Obama of tapping Trump’s phones, or labeling stories and facts they don’t like as “fake news.”
“The sheer number of falsehoods and lies coming from this White House is staggering,” Tapper said. “It’s challenging for all of us in the media — we have a situation where prevarications are not only supported by the administration, but by this dark army of internet trolls.”
Though he reserved most of his criticism for the Trump administration, Tapper said falsehoods and a lack of respect for political opponents are wrong no matter which side they come from. He pointed to Hillary Clinton’s recent talk in India in which she said her campaign “won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward” and that Trump’s message was in large part based on racism and misogyny.
Tapper pointed to the 200 U.S. counties that Obama won twice and Trump captured in the 2016 election, and said the 63 million people who voted for Trump did not simply become racists overnight — they had their own reasons for their vote.
The sheer number of falsehoods and lies coming from this White House is staggering.
Tapper’s fourth book, “The Hellfire Club,” which was released April 24, is a novel set in Washington, D.C., in 1954, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy was hunting for Communists in the government, the military and the entertainment industry.
Many of the same conditions exist today, he said — politicians who refuse to stand up to a person who distorts the truth because it is politically expedient, and some media members who have “an indifference to any idea of empirical fact.” Though he didn’t name those reporters, he clearly was referring to his counterparts at Fox News.
“We’ve been there before,” Tapper said. “Whether in 1954 or 1972 or 1998 or today, the great discomfort here is we want our leaders, even if we disagree with them, to be credible, decent people.”
At the end of Tapper’s talk, four community members were chosen to ask him questions. Rita Semel, executive director emeritus of the Jewish Community Relations Council, asked the CNN anchor about journalistic objectivity and the bygone era when reporters didn’t give their opinions.
“I try to make it clear that I don’t have an opinion professionally about immigration or tax policy or trade or North Korea,” he said. “Where I try to take a stand is just what’s true and what’s not true; those things are not subject to debate.”
Tapper then mentioned Trump’s false contention during the 2016 presidential campaign that the father of Republican rival Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was photographed having breakfast with Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated President Kennedy.
“It’s important to take a stand on things that there’s no debate on — facts, decency,” Tapper said. “I don’t think that’s partisan.”