DECEMBER 7, 2015. Three hundred and thirty-seven days to Election Day. Seventy-fourth anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Candidate Donald J. Trump is speaking at a campaign rally inside the USS Yorktown in Charleston Harbor. The news media are enclosed in a press pen surrounded by a cheering crowd.
We’re out of control. We have no idea who’s coming into our country. We have no idea if they love us or if they hate us. We have no idea if they want to bomb us. We have no idea what’s going on. […] By the way, I have friends that are Muslims. They are great people. But they know we have a problem. They know we have a real problem. Because something is going on and we can’t put up with it, folks. […] The mainstream media. These people back here are the worst. They are so dishonest. […] She’s back there, little Katy. She’s back there. […] Katy Tur […] Third-rate reporter, remember that. Third rate. Third rate.
This is just one of the many times that Trump publicly attacked NBC reporter Katy Tur by name, which she vividly describes in her delightful new book, Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History. In a campaign (and now a presidency) in which Trump has displayed one of the most hostile feuds with the press of any president in history, Tur is in a unique position to offer an inside account of Trump’s tireless efforts to threaten, mislead, manipulate, and intimidate the press. She combines that with a rare look at the grueling toll a national presidential election campaign can take on the journalists whose job it is to cover the daily — sometimes hourly — developments reported in our voracious 24-hour news cycle. From Tur’s viewpoint, the “Trump campaign was the most unlikely, exciting, ugly, trying, and all-around bizarre campaign in American history.”
Tur was the very first national TV news reporter to cover the Trump campaign. She did it for 17 months as the Trump correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC, traveling to more than 40 states, filing more than 3,800 — 3,800 — live TV reports. She won a Cronkite Award for her work. But to accomplish all that, she sacrificed a boyfriend, a long-anticipated vacation, a dream job overseas, a lovely flat in London, and her stability. In the most depressing moments of the campaign, she feared she was losing not just “a personal life — but a life itself, a way of being in the world.”
Tur has written a very personal, funny, and candid memoir that not only reveals a lot about a courageous TV reporter, but also helps us better understand how Trump got elected. It certainly does not presume to offer the comprehensive political analysis of a presidential election on a par with the works of Theodore H. White (The Making of the President, 1960 through 1980) or Joe McGinniss (The Selling of the President 1968) — and Tur does not tackle the larger question of whether Trump is the manifestation of some deeply racist, nationalist, white supremacist, authoritarian, and populist strain in American society. But she does contribute several shrewd observations about Trump’s victory, having studied his every word and deed for upward of 500 days.
Tur had been on TV for nine years, covering tornadoes, terrorism, murders, fires, missing planes, epic floods, and devastating hurricanes. She had broken stories, led national newscasts, and won awards. Most recently, she was an NBC News correspondent dispatched overseas, based in London. But she was also convinced no one knew who she was.
On June 16, 2015, Trump and his third wife, Melania, descended the Trump Tower escalator, in New York City, to announce his candidacy for president of the United States. (In one of the many juicy details that enlivens her book, Tur reports that Trump was greeted by a cheering crowd “padded with paid extras.”) A few days later, while visiting New York City, Tur got a call from her boss at NBC.
“We want you on Trump’s campaign. It will be six weeks, tops.” Tur said “Sure.”
And we’re off. Tur structures her book with a series of fast-paced alternating chapters set in various campaign events and encounters juxtaposed with hour-by-hour accounts of election night. The format is slightly jarring at first, but it quickly begins to make sense as the book takes on a cinematic quality, combining entertaining flashbacks with the hours leading to the foreboding climax we all know is coming.
On July 8, 2015, less than a month after Trump jumped into the race, Tur is scheduled for her first sit down interview with the candidate. At 7:45 a.m., she’s jarred awake by her alarm clock and reaches for the snooze button, safe in the knowledge that the interview isn’t until 2:00 in the afternoon. She pauses to check her emails and spots one from Hope Hicks, Trump’s communications director. The interview has been moved up to 10:00 a.m.!
“‘Motherfucking fuck,’ I yell, jumping out of bed.”
At 9:30 a.m., Tur is waiting in the Trump Bar, surrounded by her camera crew. She has showered, dressed, had coffee, and gotten advice from NBC News’s political director Chuck Todd. (“Keep the questions short. Let him do the talking. See what he says.”) At precisely 10:00 a.m., Trump arrives. According to Tur, he’s one of those people who fills “the room with significance, or at least a perfect imitation of it.”
“And he’s orange. There’s no other way to describe him. He’s the color of orange marmalade, perhaps a shade darker, like marmalade on toast.”
Trump shakes her hand but looks confused. “Don’t you want a picture? Come here, Katy.” She found it awkward. “I’m not a fan. I’m a journalist. This is a network news interview.” She goes ahead with the photo thinking it’s a mind game and Trump is trying to charm her, knock her off balance. Or “maybe he just figures he’s a big-shot celebrity and pre-interview photos are routine.” Or readers may see the moment as a snapshot of Trump campaign and now presidency: keeping everyone off balance.
Instead of just five questions, the interview lasts for 29 minutes. They shake hands and it’s over. But then Trump starts yelling at her.
“You better air that interview in full! You’re going to edit it. Deceptive editing. I know what you guys do. Deceptive editing!” He adds, “If you don’t, we have cameras in here; we’ll release the full footage!”
But he’s not done. “You stumbled three times,” he says. Tur tells us it sounded “as if I killed a puppy.” She responds, “It doesn’t matter if I stumble. I’m not running for president.” And he fires back, “You’ll never be president!” And she thinks but does not say: “Neither will you.”
Hope Hicks chastises her: “He’s a presidential candidate. You can’t speak like that to a presidential candidate. It isn’t respectful.” Tur thinks, but does not say: “Speak like what? What wasn’t respectful? The man basically called all Mexicans rapists.”
Hicks instructs her to wait because Trump’s campaign manager wants to talk to her. A small, skinny man with a buzz cut confronts her. “Mr. Trump is ‘very upset.’” He tells Tur she is unprofessional. He’s Corey Lewandowski, campaign manager, who will later be let go, after being charged with simple battery for allegedly assaulting a reporter.
Back at NBC News, Tur’s bosses decide to air the entire interview uncut on Chuck Todd’s hour-long show. They admit she stumbled but say the interview is “newsy from top to bottom.” She sits with Todd on air as the interview runs. She watches herself press Trump about him calling Mexicans “rapists” and “drug dealers” and “criminals.”
“We have a lower incarceration rate for Mexican immigrants and illegal immigrants than we do for any U.S.-born citizen,” she says.
“It’s a wrong statistic,” he spits back. “Go check your numbers! It’s totally wrong.”
“It’s Pew Research,” Tur says.
And so it goes. The birther movement, ISIS, the Second Amendment. Does he own a gun? Yes. Does he use it? “It’s none of your business.”
When she quotes Republican pundit Charles Krauthammer who called Trump a “rodeo clown,” Trump mocks Krauthammer, who has waist-down paralysis, as “a totally overrated guy […] a guy that can’t buy a pair of pants.”
He brags about his income and says he will release his financials. He calls the press dishonest. He says he’ll win the Latino vote, “because I’m gonna create jobs.” He rants about China stealing votes. When Tur asks if he’s afraid of pissing off world leaders with some of his language, he takes exception to the word “piss” and demands she rephrase the question. She obliges and asks if he’s worried he might “anger other countries.”
When she flubs a line, he calls her “naive.” He belittles her: “Try getting it out. I mean, I don’t know if you’re going to put this on television, but you don’t even know what you’re talking about. Try getting it out. Go ahead.”
As she will demonstrate throughout her book, Tur is a professional. She can take it and stay on track to get the job done. “He’s trying to get under my skin. I smile. Close my eyes, take a breath, and continue. He can’t shake me. I’m not weak. If he wants a fight, so be it. He might like fighting. What he doesn’t know is that I do, too.”
After the entire interview is broadcast uncut, she’s on the air live sitting next to Chuck Todd, “the moderator of Meet the Press, the most notable and storied public affairs show in history, and Chuck is talking to me, the least notable and storied political journalist at NBC.”
Todd shifts to reading a statement the Trump campaign has just released. “We’d just like to reiterate our disappointment with the extremely negative positioning of the questions that were asked of Mr. Trump today.” Todd turns to his panel of political commentators including Andrea Mitchell, NBC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, whom Tur says she has looked up to since her first day at the network. Mitchell offers several keen observations and then concludes: “A very strong interview. Katy Tur gave back as good as she got, really extraordinary television.”
Tur writes: “I’m dead. I can’t believe it.”
This kind of colorful, self-effacing reporting of her personal encounters with Trump and members of his campaign staff are the best part of Tur’s book, and it’s full of them. For example, in December 2015, in four minutes, on Twitter, Trump called Tur out in what she labels the “nastygrams”: “@KatyTurNBC, 3rd rate reporter,” “incompetent @KatyTurNBC incorrect story,” and “@KatyTurNBC & @DebSopan should be fired for dishonest reporting.”
Tur says the job is hell. “On relationships. On your body. On your mind.” So why does she do it?
We do it because it is important to show the public who is running for president. It’s important to show how they behave. How they think. What they believe. Who they admire and why. Yes, we give Trump a ton of air time and article space. But that’s because he is unlike anything anyone has ever seen. And despite what folks who don’t like him might want to argue, he is resonating. And we have an obligation to document it.
But it comes at a cost. At the Pearl Harbor Day event when Trump attacked her by name, the crowd became so hostile toward her that the Secret Service had to escort her and her crew out of the event. Her mother has called repeatedly, crying. “And it hits me. I’m a target.” Over the course of the campaign, she will receive several death threats and a Trump supporter will spit in her face.
By election night, she has 21,376 unread emails and 300 unopened text messages. But she’s proud of what she’s accomplished. “I’ll be on the main Trump story for the network tonight and I’ll be the lead at Trump’s election headquarters at the Hilton. Whether he wins or loses, this is a professional victory for me after a year-and-a-half-long fight to own this beat for NBC News. The work has paid off. Tonight will make history.”
During the course of the endless campaign, Tur moves steadily from total skepticism over Trump’s chances of winning to the conclusion on election night before the returns come in that he will become the president-elect that evening. “I’ve been saying for months that Trump has more of a shot than the polls are giving him. I’ve been saying don’t write him off. I’ve been saying it’s not going as smoothly as the Clinton campaign suggests. And at times I felt like a raving lunatic, the living embodiment of that old Simpsons meme: ‘Old Man Yells at Cloud.’”
She’s among the very few people in the United States who has attended virtually all of his rallies, campaign events, debates, and press conferences. She’s interviewed his avid supporters. She’s watched their faces as they enthusiastically cheer him on despite all the outrageous things he’s said and done. Summing up, she recalls hearing him “insult a war hero, brag about grabbing women by the pussy, denigrate the judicial system, demonize immigrants, fight with the pope, doubt the democratic process, advocate torture and war crimes, tout the size of his junk in a presidential debate, trash the media, and indirectly endanger my life.”
A year before the election, he’s drawing unheard-of crowds and he still exaggerates their size. Twenty thousand in Mobile, Alabama (he claimed 40,000). Four thousand in Phoenix (he claimed 15,000, then 20,000). Ten thousand in Springfield, Illinois. (“He said he beat out Elton John’s crowd at the same venue — without a piano. True!”)
But it’s more than just attendance. While pundits, commentators, and civil liberties organizations are appalled that Trump has called for a Muslim ban, no one who is asked for a comment at one of his events is disturbed. “It’s a wise decision,” says one. To allow Muslims to come in would be a “kick in the face to every veteran,” says another. The only thing better would be mass deportations. “Ship them all back.”
And she reports it to eight to 10 million viewers on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt:
This is just the latest in a long line of extreme comments as he’s become more hard-line on the campaign trail. […] His supporters tell us they like this. They believe it is a wise decision. And they believe Donald Trump is going to keep them safe. Why? In our latest MSNBC poll we found that 60 percent of Republican voters say that one of their biggest concerns is being the victim of a terrorist attack.
And the virulent hate of Trump’s opponent cannot be overstated. Tur reports seeing T-shirts at rallies reading TRUMP THAT BITCH; HILLARY SUCKS BUT NOT LIKE MONICA; KFC HILLARY SPECIAL; 2 FAT THIGHS, 2 SMALL BREASTS, LEFT WING; SHE’S A CUNT, VOTE TRUMP; and I WISH HILLARY MARRIED OJ.
After one of the presidential debates, a cab driver tells Tur what a great job he thought Trump did against Clinton. Asked if he was bothered by the Access Hollywood tape, he’s not. Why? “Because Clinton is a liar,” he says.
According to what Tur observed, his “supporters feel that he is fighting for them. They identify with him. They can relate. ‘He’s talking just like us,’ supporters say over and over again. He’s the rich guy they would be if they were rich. And he knows it.” “‘Nothing short of Trump shooting my daughter in the street and my grandchildren,’ can dissuade me from voting for Trump, a women told Ashley Parker of the New York Times,” Tur reports. And he continued to gain support even after it appeared he “had violated a key, if unspoken, tenet of Republicanism: thou shalt not brag on tape about grabbing pussy.”
But Tur warns us that most of Trump’s supporters are not a “basket of deplorables.” “A lot are your coworkers and your neighbors. They’re your taxi driver, your fireman, and your supermarket cashier.”
Sixteen days before the election, Tur is attending a Trump rally in Miami among cheering supporters, when she hears: “Katy, you’re not reporting it, Katy. But there’s something happening Katy. There’s something happening, Katy.”
But Tur does think she knows what’s happening. She’s learned that an Electoral College majority of American voters have:
decided that this menacing, indecent, post-truth landscape is where they want to live for the next four years. Look, I get it. You can’t tell a joke without worrying you’ll lose your job. Your twenty-something can’t find work. Your town is boarded up. Patriotism gets called racism. Your food is full of chemicals. Your body is full of pills. You call tech support and reach someone in India. Bills are spiking but your paycheck is not. And you can’t send your kid to school with peanut butter. On top of it all, no one seems to care. You feel like you’re screaming at the top of your lungs in a room full of people wearing earplugs. I get it.
In Unbelievable, Tur does not mount a lofty or glib defense of the First Amendment or freedom of the press. She does offer a brief but salient analysis of why surveys regularly place the news media in low esteem among the American people. She believes it is because the public has an extreme discomfort with conflict. While Americans supposedly love conflict — the contest of ideas — secretly they hate it. “I think we dislike and ultimately distrust the media because journalism, honestly pursued, is difficult and uncomfortable. It tells us things about the world that we’d rather not know; it reveals aspects of people that aren’t always flattering. But rather then deal with journalism, we despise journalism.”
Tur’s book and indeed her courageous coverage of Trump are a living defense of freedom of the press. Every day during the campaign she worked her heart out to gather and broadcast the news and to report to her audience what Trump was saying and doing. The First Amendment speaks of “exercising” our rights. Tur was exercising “freedom of the press” every day.
James Madison asked in Federalist No. 48 whether the provisions of a Bill of Rights would be but mere “parchment barriers.” Judge Learned Hand in 1944 wrote that the spirit of liberty “lies in the hearts of men and women” and “when it dies there no constitution, no law, no court can save it.” Madison and Hand understood that our rights need to be exercised or they will atrophy, shrink, decline in effectiveness, and eventually disappear due to neglect. In no small measure in covering Trump, Tur nurtured and strengthened that spirit of liberty, the indispensable freedom of the press to hold leaders and would-be leaders accountable, to ask tough questions, to alert the public to what such leaders believe and what they say.
Now as the 45th president of the United States, Trump has not let up on his attacks on the press. He called the news media “the enemy of the American people” and “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.” He has suggested that libel laws should be strengthened to make it easier to sue the press for defamation. He has blocked mainstream news organizations from press briefings. His attorney general has threatened to indict journalists under the Espionage Act of 1917. He has recently called on the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate media companies for reporting “fake news.”
Last April, in an editorial entitled “Trump’s War on Journalism,” the Los Angeles Times warned that by “delegitimizing journalism” and “muddling the facts so that Americans no longer know whom to believe,” Trump can “deny and distract and help push his administration’s far-fetched storyline.” In August, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof insisted that “journalism remains an indispensable constraint on power” and serves as “a bulwark of democracy” by providing an institutional check on powerful leaders.
For First Amendment scholar Leonard Levy, freedom of the press meant “the right to criticize harshly the government, its officers, and its policies as well as to comment on matters of public concern.” The very existence of our democracy depends on “the vigilance of the press in exposing unfairness, inequality, and injustice.”
In the face of Trump’s relentless threats against the press and by extension against our democracy itself, we need more journalists like Katy Tur, who are willing to serve as an institutional check on the president and to remain vigilant by exposing not only unfairness, inequality, and injustice, but also corruption, collusion, conflicts of interests, violations of the Constitution, and, yes, High Crimes and Misdemeanors.