Broadcast journalist Katy Tur was living in London in the late spring of 2015, living out her dream job as a foreign correspondent for NBC News, when she briefly returned to the United States and was in the NBC newsroom at the time Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy.
“[NBC] Nightly News needed someone to cover it,” Tur explains, “and they said, ‘Well, who’s around?’ And one of my friends in the newsroom said, ‘Oh, Katy Tur! She’s here!’” Assigned to cover Trump’s presidential campaign, she expected to return to London as soon as his bid faltered. Instead, it led to a whirlwind of an experience she chronicles in her new book, “Unbelievable: My Front‑Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History,” which she discussed at the Montclair Public Library on October 13.
In a talk moderated by Bloomberg News’ Tom Johnson (as part of the Open Book / Open Mind series), Tur explained she had been given the Trump campaign assignment because no one took Trump seriously enough to think he could win the Presidency, and so none of the political reporters wished to cover him; Tur, a political outsider, was thus given the job instead. She said her lack of experience as a political reporter – ironically covering a candidate lacking in political experience – allowed her to see Trump from an outsider’s perspective and understand his supporters. She soon found herself in a intense situation, as Trump’s rallies grew larger throughout the 2016 presidential campaign and the tone among his backers grew uglier and meaner. She told Johnson that she got her earliest sense of the sort of a politician Trump was when he hosted a backyard campaign event in New Hampshire about two weeks after he announced his candidacy. Trump bloviated about building a wall to keep out Mexican migrants and called out the press for lying. Then he turned to Tur and showed her the disrespect toward the press that would become his trademark.
“Katy, you haven’t looked up to me once!” he said with a smirk.
Tur told Johnson she came to understand Trump and his supporters through a turn of events following the San Bernardino terrorist attack of December 2015. It was reported that Trump would propose a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. in the wake of the attack and she wanted to try to find some context for the story as it was breaking on MSNBC. When she covered the rally where Trump formally explained his proposal, she found herself at the receiving end of Trump’s insults, with Trump calling her a “third-rate liar,” with the crowd looking condemningly in her direction.
“I just smiled and waved,” Tur said. “What are you supposed to do in that situation?”
Tur – by December 2015 no longer a London-based reporter – found herself on the road for 510 days covering the Trump campaign, constantly on the road and living out of a suitcase while considering herself lucky if she got a meal at a Panera; most of her sustenance, she said, came from peanut butter packs. As grueling as the travel and the tasks of checking her e-mail and filing reports were, her responsibilities paled in comparison to the abuse she (and other reporters) suffered at the hands of Trump’s backers. “I was getting death threats on my phone,” she said. “You compartmentalize, you don’t try to think about it, but even still, I get nervous, sometimes in crowds.” She found it “depressing [and] appalling” that reporters were suffering the hazards of war correspondents, like a fellow reporter who got body-slammed by a U.S. House candidate (who was elected).
Tur also concurred with Johnson’s observation that what people were saying about Trump throughout America was not what political reporters were picking up on in New York and Washington, and she had to beg to get her reports on TV so people could see what was happening on the ground. Interviewing Trump himself was also shocking, as he grew livid and furious whenever she tried to ask him tough questions; after one such outburst, people Tur told about the interview were shocked at how a political candidate could treat a reporter like that.
Despite the obstacles, Tur was able to pick up the necessary savvy for political reporting. She said exclusive access to a candidate may be useful to some extent when a reporter needs to understand and get background information on a candidate, but she cautioned against it. She said she found access journalism to be more public relations than anything else; producing information that other reports can get just as easily. She said she also learned that Trump supporters couldn’t be easily dismissed as rubes, when so many college graduates and women were drawn to him because they wanted a candidate who would bring real change to Washington, and they were willing to overlook his flaws because of the image he cultivated for himself as a developer and businessman who could make deals. So while 54 percent of the American electorate may have voted for someone else, Tur explained, the enthusiasm that Trump generated was enough to get him over the 270-vote minimum in the Electoral College. She also told Johnson that it was unfair to say that the media got Trump elected when all she and other reports were doing was responding to the sort of enthusiasm that no one else in 2016 could generate – except Bernie Sanders, whose campaign Tur regretted was not covered more by the mainstream press.
In responding to comments and questions from the audience, Tur cautioned that the division of the country could lead half of all Americans to disregard any findings from special counsel Robert Mueller on the Russian-influence investigation, whether he brings charges against Trump or not, and she expressed her hope that Americans would “talk to each other, compromise and empathize” to overcome the disunity. Tur refused to speculate on what would happen to the Republican and Democratic parties, given the divisions within both parties, but on the question of a possible breakdown of the two-party system similar to the one in the 1850s, which crippled the Democrats and destroyed the Whigs while giving rise to the Republicans, she told Baristanet that the one rule of American politics today is that there are no rules. “It seems it’s a personality contest more than it is a policy contest,” she said.
Tur, who signed copies of her new book afterwards, also said any presidential candidate who aspires to succeed and/or defeat Trump will have to take a page form his own playbook – present an economic message that targets different groups of voters and cuts across racial, ethnic and class boundaries.