Peter Bart: As TV News Is Critiqued For Blurring Fact & Rumor, CNN’s Jake Tapper Confuses Us Further With Novel That Blends RFK, Sinatra & Jeffrey Epstein
“Gossip nowadays passes for news,” the late Bobby Kennedy once told me. Except I never met him and he might never have said that.
I read it in a new book by Jake Tapper, the CNN anchor who, like some other TV newsmen, cheerfully invents dialogue between famous people. In doing so, he (and they) further contribute to the blur between the real and unreal that characterizes the media today. Tapper, to his credit, at least labels some of his inventions as fiction, albeit well-researched fiction.
Across the media landscape, documentaries ranging from Tiger King to My Octopus Teacher occupy an increasingly prominent role on the home screen, even though they are often steeped in “re-enactments” and “re-imaginings.” Most of last year’s Oscar contenders also depend on fictionalized re-creations of past events, from trials to nightclub performances. And then there’s the much-hyped domain of deepfake videos that flawlessly deliver celebrities like Tom Cruise (or their carefully crafted look-alikes) selling products or ideas that they’ve never endorsed or even heard of. For that matter, viewers of Sean Hannity on Fox News or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC regularly receive streams of rhetoric that are passed off as “hard news.”
The New York Times produced and publicized a podcast about a Middle East spy master who, it turns out, was a complete fake (which it now admits). Further, the Times now is recycling its much-contested rewriting of the American Revolution, titled The 1619 Project, in podcasts and documentary form, thus giving important play to its own version of the nation’s founding (1619 is now self-described as “a Times initiative,” not merely an extended news article).
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Tapper admits up front that he is delivering fiction. His new novel The Devil May Dance is a thriller set in 1961 about a congressman who is recruited by Bobby Kennedy for an urgent mission: He must embed with the Rat Pack to determine whether they’re involved with the mafia in a scheme that could endanger the president.
In telling this multi-tiered story, Tapper mixes his cast of fictional characters with re-imagined versions of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and just about every other star of the period. The novel thus veers uncertainly between intense Washington intrigue and Hollywood shtick.
Tapper is a competent, if often clunky, novelist. His invented characters play out credibly, but his depictions of Hollywood personae are scandalously ludicrous in word and comportment. Thus his novel, heavily promoted and soon to be translated to the screen, illustrates the dilemma of most “news” shows: Truth becomes a blur.
True to form, some critics are applauding Tapper’s literary work: It’s “buoyant,” says the New York Times, with its critic, Janet Maslin, praising Tapper for “humanizing Sinatra as a hapless victim of forces he never understood.” Further, Sinatra emerges as “less racist” than Martin, or his other compadres, she reports.
Having had many personal encounters with Sinatra in years past, this particular reader (and one-time reporter) found Tapper’s depiction of the star to be, once again, fictional. At least he’s usually combative and rude in his chapters and greets most women as “doll.”
But then the ubiquitous CNN anchor also gives us first-person accounts of long-secret events: There is Janet Leigh’s intimate version of how the shower scene in Psycho was shot by Hitchcock. And how Tippi Hedren survived her traumatic scene when she was under attack in The Birds. And the inside story of how Sinatra almost committed suicide when Ava Gardner dumped him. Or how John Wayne threatened to out the congressman, the book’s hero, as a draft dodger.
All of this, to be sure, is intermixed with a plot about the political allegiances of the Rat Pack and their supposed interactions with Sam Giancana and his mafia allies. The mob’s intimate connection to Hollywood celebrities seems to be a given in Tapper’s rendition.
Tapper’s professional background as a newsman encouraged him to “source” the book with assorted footnotes. The buddy talk between Martin and Davis, he assures us, stems from an actual onstage recording at the Sands. Some lines about underage girls are taken from the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, as though lending credibility to this fictional exercise.
Again, having been around at the time and hung with most of the real, but fictional, principals, I wince as Tapper’s characterizations fall into pedestrian caricature. Also at his incidental character descriptions: “His wit was deployed like a surgeon with a scalpel.”
Despite all this, Tapper clearly enjoys writing his thrillers (this is his second) and his readers may relish the confusing mix of intrigue with celebrity gossip. Readers also might find it a challenge, however, to select which elements of the story to follow and which merely to dismiss. And that, indeed, translates into a similar dilemma on Tapper’s newscasts, or those of his fellow TV anchors. At what point are we, as viewers or readers, simply expected to shake our heads and dismiss all of it?
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