Covering Donald Trump
Despite having two L.A. journalists as parents, NBC News correspondent and MSNBC Live anchor Katy Tur didn’t aspire to become a reporter. As a kid, “driving down the road, my dad would say, ‘Katy, do a live report! What’s going around you?’” Tur told a Tufts audience on April 11 during the thirteenth annual Edward R. Murrow Forum on Issues in Journalism. “When I was four, it was fun; when I was fourteen, I wanted to strangle him.”
At UC Santa Barbara, Tur studied painting, then philosophy, then cardiology—and then during her senior year, while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, she ran across a fire in Malibu. “I just really wanted to see it,” Tur said. She pulled over at the police line and handed the sheriff her grandmother’s old press pass, onto which her father had taped Tur’s photo as a joke. “I said, ‘My crew’s right behind me, but I’ve got to get up to the fire,” Tur said.
The sheriff let her through. “My college boyfriend told me, ‘I’ve never seen you more confident than when you were lying to that officer,’” Tur said with a laugh. “I thought later, ‘I should get into journalism.’” And she did, reporting for WNBC, the Weather Channel, WPIX in New York, and News 12 Brooklyn, before becoming a London-based foreign correspondent for NBC News. “It is the best job in TV news,” Tur said. “You become a student of the world.”
Then Tur accepted an assignment to cover a certain long-shot candidate for the Republican presidential nomination: businessman and TV personality Donald Trump. What was supposed to be a detour of a few months turned into 510 days on the road, catapulting Tur to new heights in her career and resulting in her 2017 New York Times bestselling book, Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History.
Tur described eighteen-hour days racing to rallies all over the country, doing live shots, interviewing people, and calling campaign officials, vying with other morning correspondents to get onto the evening show, writing and rewriting and editing scripts, throwing it all away when Trump tweeted something inflammatory an hour before going on air, and dropping into bed at the local Holiday Inn at 2 a.m. “And then you get up at five in the morning and do it all over again for 500 days,” Tur said.
Tur ended up breaking up with her boyfriend, missing both a friend’s pregnancy and another friend’s mother’s funeral all to cover a candidate who often shouted at her, accused her of unfair coverage, and boycotted NBC in an attempt to get an apology from Tur—and a different reporter assigned to the campaign. NBC pushed back. “By asking that, you have ensured we will never put another reporter on the campaign,” they told Trump, according to Tur.
And Tur kept her cool, waving and smiling at the crowd no matter how Trump acted. “If I let him get under my skin, it’s going be so much worse,” Tur recalled thinking. “It’s like dealing with bullies at school—if you show weakness, they come at you harder.”
And the stakes were high. “Informing people about the election and the candidates . . . and giving them the tools to make their choices—it’s one of the most important jobs you can have in a democracy,” Tur said. “The job is more important than Donald Trump’s petty grievance, and more important than me feeling uncomfortable.”
The standoff culminated in an unexpectedly friendly phone call from Trump. “He likes confrontation from afar. He tweets insults, but he can’t fire his cabinet secretaries in person,” Tur said. Trump wanted to know what Tur thought his chances were; Tur took the opportunity to address what he perceived as her unfair reporting. “You’re in a very serious position. You’re not going to be treated with kid gloves, and you should take that as a compliment,” she told him. The conversation ended there. “I like you, Katy; let’s be friends,” she recalled Trump saying. Trump’s boycott of NBC ended, too.
Covering the campaign gave Tur unique insight into the mind of the man who’s now president—and the things that may lead to his downfall. “Donald Trump has learned, he knows it from real estate and from manipulating the New York tabloids, that if you say it often enough, it’s true. Jimmy Breslin would say he ‘created a razzle dazzle,’” Tur said. “Ultimately that’s what did [Joseph] McCarthy in. People got tired of it. . . . And at some point, maybe people will get tired of Trump.”
The #MeToo movement may also help bring Trump down in the end, Tur said, pointing to recent races in which women swayed the outcome. “A lot of aspects that put him in office are still there. . . . People are still frustrated with economy and that they don’t think they’re being listened to,” Tur said. “But his margin of error is very small, and if enough people in enough key places decide, ‘Hey, we’re done with this’ . . . he stands a real chance of being slaughtered by the next Democratic candidate.”
Asked whether she would accept an assignment to cover Trump’s campaign in 2020, Tur immediately said yes. “Whether you love him or hate him, whether you’re terrified or energized by him, this is the story to be on. It’s captivated not just America, but the world. People can’t get enough of it, because they can’t make sense of it,” Tur said. “I want to be the one telling that story.”
In the meantime, Tur urged journalists to continue holding power accountable. “Because Donald Trump is saying so many things that are not true, when journalists are doing their job, it looks like they’re just out to get Donald Trump,” Tur said. “We need to try to back ourselves up as much as we possibly can with facts and evidence. We need to take as much of the emotion out of it as we can.”
She encouraged students to consider becoming journalists. “Go out there and see the world and absorb as much as you can and write all the time and be critical and find relationships and travel and do everything you can to learn about people and places,” Tur said. “And then get an internship somewhere.” She added, “There are a lot of ways to break in now. Anything you want is at your fingertips.”
But you don’t have to become a journalist to find the truth, Tur said. “A lot of the burden is on the public—to be critical of what you are told, of your local politicians, of your journalists as well,” Tur said. “If you’re well-read and well-informed, you can reason out the truth—and it’s your job to do it. And if we all find a set of facts we can agree on, then we can lift ourselves up.”
Monica Jimenez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.