March 22–29, 2001
At first, Salon political writer and CNN talk show host Jake Tapper, a Philly native, was angry with Philadelphia magazine simply for planning to run with a piece on him that he says contains inaccuracies. Now, he’s furious that the magazine apparently is trying to use his annoyance to generate some buzz.
On Tuesday, Philly Mag provided City Paper with an advance copy of "Beer and Loathing," a brief article by young George refugee Sasha Issenberg on Tapper’s new book on the election, Down and Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency. The advance came with word that Tapper was mighty pissed off over the story.
"He was concerned from the outset," says Issenberg, a Swarthmore College junior, who originally intended to write the piece for the since-folded George. Issenberg admits that in a piece he did for George last summer he was hard on Tapper’s television work during the presidential conventions.
But after hearing from a Philly Mag fact checker, Tapper called the reporter in a snit. Issenberg says Tapper called him "a fucking pussy" and said, "It’s not going to be good for your career."
Tapper also called Philadelphia editor Loren Feldman. "He was upset," Feldman recalls. "He was concerned about what he suspected was going to be in the piece, and no amount of convincing could make him feel better about it."
Tapper admits to calling Issenberg a fucking pussy — "Because he is," he tells City Paper— but denies making a threat. "How am I going to threaten his career?" Tapper asks.
Tapper says he became concerned when the fact checker read him the following anecdote: "While rolling through New Hampshire [on Sen. John McCain’s campaign bus] in January 2000, Tapper, seated next to USA Today’s Jill Lawrence, put his gum in her newspaper, crumpled it up, and insisted that she hold onto it, joking that Tapper detritus would be worth something someday."
Tapper says his recollection of the exchange was different — and that Issenberg didn’t even ask him or Lawrence about it until after Tapper complained. Lawrence tells City Paper that she told Issenberg that "if it did [happen], I don’t remember which one of us said [that Tapper’s discarded gum might be valuable someday]. … It’s a pretty rowdy atmosphere on a bus like that." (Feldman indicated that Issenberg had another source on this.)
Inside.com senior writer David Carr, who was Tapper’s editor at Washington City Paper and who is quoted in the Philly Mag story, confirms another Tapper assertion: that Carr got the impression from Issenberg’s questions that he might be out to do a hatchet job on Tapper.
"After I hung up the phone," Carr says, "I thought, You know, that smelled like a hit." So he e-mailed Issenberg and asked that his quotes "be framed by the fact that I like this guy" and respect his work. Tapper, Carr says, "is a complicated guy but a force for good, journalistically. … Part of the reason he’s rising so quickly is that he’s fucking good."
Carr says Issenberg responded by assuring him that his comments would be presented in the proper context, "and I believed him when he said it." Later, he adds, Tapper relayed to him what he’d learned from the fact checker about the gum anecdote. "I think I would have freaked, too," Carr says.
The gum story aside, it seems unlikely that Tapper’s annoyance will rise further when he sees the piece. Over all, it’s fairly respectful, calling him "a luminary in the New New Journalism" and noting his astounding capacity to churn out copy.
When the issue is released, says Feldman, "It’s going to be hard for Jake to explain what he was so upset about."
"This is ridiculous," says Tapper, referring to the attention. "A stupid thing about a fourth-tier reporter who didn’t do something a 20-year-old kid said he did. … There are so many negative things about me they could print that would be true. I don’t know why they would write something that isn’t."