ABC’s Jake Tapper: ‘As agnostic as possible’

By Gail Shister 

Given what happened to Juan Williams and NPR last week, did ABC senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper have any trepidation about appearing on Bill Maher’s “Real Time?”

“I was confident that I could get through it without saying something that would get me fired,” says Tapper, serious as a heart attack.

The key, according to the newsman, is not crossing the line between analysis (OK) and punditry (not OK), a transgression that cost Williams his NPR job. (At Fox News, it got him a raise.)

It’s a tough balancing act for anybody, particularly on Maher’s frenetic Friday food fight.

“People mess up,” says Tapper, who just signed a deal for his third book, on the war in Afghanistan. “They say things when their guard is down. That’s what can be perilous about the media world these days – it can be unforgiving.”

Tapper is careful not to throw meat to the hungry lions. Even if it means he has to endure labels like “too restrained,” “too mellow” or “too boring.” (Can a person be too boring?)

“I think I was probably the fifth most interesting person [out of five] on that stage,” Tapper says. “I can be fairly boring. Professionally and personally, I try to be as agnostic as possible; try to see things as objectively as possible.”

Though loathe to pass judgment on the Juan Williams maelstrom, Tapper does say that Williams’ firing “distracted NPR from what was an opportunity to have a conversation” about the issue he raised – that some Americans feel uneasy when Muslims are on their flights.

“I generally feel that the solution to speech that people find offensive is more speech,” Tapper says. “You should talk about it, discuss it. NPR has a lot of hours to fill every day.”

Most of the time, it’s easy for Philly-born Tapper to be Switzerland. Two exceptions: Phillies slugger Ryan Howard, who crapped out in the just-completed National League championship series; and “Jersey Shore,” Tapper’s guilty pleasure.

Howard “does have a tendency to disappoint,” he says. “I wish he had swung. You always go down swinging.” As for “Jersey Shore,” Tapper’s theory is that each character represents one of the Seven Deadly Sins – The Situation is vanity; Jwoww is wrath; Snooki is sloth, etc.

Tapper’s new book, “Enemy in the Wire,” tentatively set to be released in late 2011, will chronicle a major battle in Afghanistan. In October 2009, 54 U.S. soldiers held off more than 300 Taliban attacking Combat Outpost Keating in the northeast part of the country.

When Tapper first heard of the story, “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he says. “The more I found out, the more I wanted to know. It fed on itself. It’s not my beat. It’s not necessarily what people would expect I would write about.”

He says what intrigued him was the combination of the heroism of the American troops and the “mystery” of why the base was located in such a vulnerable area, in a valley surrounded by three heavily forested mountains near the Pakistan border.

Tapper has never been to Afghanistan, but he plans to for the book, he says.