If the stakes weren’t high—and rising—Katy Tur’s best-selling Unbelievable might be offered as a companion volume to Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Just as in Waugh’s novel the Daily Beast dispatched its nature columnist, William Boot, to cover a looming war in a land called Ishmaelia because he happened to be available (and bore the same surname as another writer mentioned by the Beast’s owner), Tur was less than an obvious choice when her bosses at NBC sent her to New Hampshire in July 2015 to cover the promoter-showman Donald Trump. Attached then to the network’s London bureau, where she was often used on light features, she happened to be in New York briefly courtesy of the Make-a-Wish Foundation when the idea of assigning a reporter to Trump was broached at NBC headquarters. His three-week-old candidacy seemed absurd and doomed at the time but it was generating lots of attention. Although she had little or no experience of national politics (and her clothes were still in London), Tur got the nod and thus became the first television reporter for whom Trump was a full-time regular beat. “It will be six weeks, tops,” one of her bosses at 30 Rock told her.
An editor who can look ahead six weeks qualifies as a visionary, given the accelerating around-the-clock pressure of news, real or fake or, as in this case, an indecipherable blend of the two. Tur’s six weeks spun out to more than seventy. “Trump wasn’t part of anyone’s plan,” she writes. “For that matter, neither was I.”
On the basis of what we’ve come to know, there’s another way to put this: Trump was improvising his own plan, seemingly on a daily basis, keeping himself at the top of the news with a barrage of demagogic promises and insults that soon elevated him in polls of Republican primary voters, shaping and reshaping the campaign. Before he was leading in polls, he was leading in air time on cable news. The master builder of failed casinos had an instinct for recognizing how threadbare the restraints on ordinary political discourse actually were, how far he could go, and where to locate promising sore spots and resentments among those who felt grievously let down in what they experienced as lifetimes of stagnation and decline.
All of this could be easily fixed, the boastful, supposed billionaire promised, as if you needed to be reminded: a “beautiful” wall could be built on the southern border at Mexico’s expense, illegal immigrants expelled in the hundreds of thousands and eventually millions, Muslims banned, climate change exposed as a “hoax,” long-gone mining and factory jobs brought back, trade pacts and treaties shredded in the restoration of a halcyon age, and torture similarly restored and expanded as a counterterrorism tactic. Skeptics, whoever they were, were easily brushed off like contestants on his reality TV show: John McCain wasn’t a war hero, having been captured and tortured; Barack Obama wasn’t only the worst president ever but the actual “founder” of ISIS; “crooked” Hillary, his co-conspirator, should be jailed.
These broadsides—more narrowly, tweets—didn’t come all at once, but once launched, they never stopped. They still haven’t, only now they seem as likely to target members of the Trump cabinet or Republican senators who step out of line. Addicted to bathing in the coverage he provoked, the candidate wrote off what he didn’t like as “fake news.” As president, he’d brand its purveyors “enemies of the American people.”
Present at the creation, Katy Tur inevitably became an early target. She’d just arrived at a modest backyard gathering for Trump in the Granite State and hadn’t yet been introduced to the candidate when she heard him pointing her out to his audience as a personification of media bias. “Katy hasn’t even looked up once at me,” he groused. “I’m tweeting what you’re saying,” she shot back from the other side of a swimming pool, winning his momentary approbation. With the opportunism of a more seasoned reporter, she parlayed that exchange into a request to a Trump aide for a “pull aside,” an exclusive on-camera interview, likely to be brief. When the candidate was whisked off to his private plane before that could happen, Tur shrewdly requested a rain check in the form of a “sit-down,” a more extensive one-on-one implying a commitment of significant air time on MSNBC and maybe even network news.
The transactional nature of the relationship between candidates and the reporters who trail them is thus underscored from the opening pages of Tur’s breezy memoir, which is related almost entirely in the present tense in the short, staccato sentences of a TV news script or a popular potboiler, interweaving the happenstance of her witness to the Trump campaign with reflections on what it meant for her career and love life. Inner monologues are set forth in italics (as in “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck” when she’s about to miss a flight at LaGuardia). It’s an engaging but not a deep book—a cross between The Boys on the Bus and Miss Lonelyhearts, only less sinewy—assembled in cutting-room fashion with scant regard to chronology, flashing back to her childhood and forward every forty or so pages, lest we forget, to election night with its mind-numbing outcome.
That first “sit-down” took place in the Trump Bar at Trump Tower. It was Tur’s first visit to the eponymous structure that Donald Trump erected as a palatial residence, a headquarters for his companies, a lavish condo development, and a monument to his own glory. “You know my whole life has been a win,” he let her know an instant before the interview began.
“Certain people have a presence that’s bigger than their physical size, an ability to ripple the air,” she writes. “They fill the room with significance, or at least a perfect imitation of it. Trump has that kind of presence. And he’s orange…the color of orange marmalade.”
The correspondent had done her homework, prepared a list of twenty-one questions edited down to ten. The first is slightly challenging, the rest more than slightly. She asks why he isn’t campaigning harder. He replies that he gets standing ovations wherever he goes, gets more coverage than his opponents, and has had a bigger impact already on the campaign as a result of his contentions that Mexico forces its worst criminals across the border and outsmarts “our stupid politicians.” She counters by saying there’s no statistical backing for his portrayal of undocumented Mexican immigrants as a big source of violent crime. “Go check your numbers,” he replies.
Still she persists. Shouldn’t voters be skeptical about a candidate who promoted the “birther” notion that the (supposedly) Kenya-born Obama was ineligible to sit in the White House? His answers come across as patronizing, dismissive, more so than Tur allowed herself to realize at the time. Looking back, she concludes that he was performing as he had in his reality TV show. “This is his soundstage,” she reflects retrospectively. She had become “part of his act.”
The “sit-down” ran twenty-nine minutes and NBC broadcast it in full, unedited. Trump’s verdict was that she mentioned “only the negatives” in her questions, skipped “all the positives.” He has his underlings tell her that she has been disrespectful. The on-air judgment of veteran Washington broadcaster Andrea Mitchell meant more to the newcomer. “Katy Tur gave back as good as she got,” Mitchell said, praising the face-off as “really extraordinary television.”
Tur senses that she’s starting to outgrow her status as a relatively unknown rookie in this league. Viewers who watch the interview today on YouTube may reach other conclusions—that Trump was indeed a presence, more than capable of holding his own against a spirited reporter with a determined smile, an uplifted chin, a sometimes quavering voice, and, it must be said, a limited grasp of the facts on which she quite properly challenged him. Time and again he doesn’t just brush her questions aside but bulldozes them with a self-aggrandizing assurance that uninformed viewers might find impressive, maybe even presidential, whatever the facts. What the interview can actually be said to have conveyed, sixteen months before the election, if any supposed experts were open then to the thought, was Trump’s potential strength as a candidate.
With the Iowa caucuses a couple of months away, the crowds drawn to his rallies sometimes numbered in the tens of thousands. That didn’t change the expectation among the political cognoscenti that the Trump candidacy would inevitably sputter and die. But Tur, as a regular witness to these “unheard-of crowds,” began to have her doubts. “I don’t see his demise so clearly,” she writes, looking back.
The candidate’s attitude toward her runs hot and cold, as does her access to him. One morning he walks up to her, grabs her shoulders, and plants a kiss on her cheek, then brags about it minutes later on the Morning Joe television show. Evidently he has heard a “stand-up” of hers that passed muster. The next month, with his press pack now routinely fenced off at rallies, he singles her out in his usual attack on the mainstream media: “These people back here are the worst. They are so dishonest.” The crowd hoots and boos but to her ear it’s standard stuff until she hears him tell the aroused throng: “She’s back there, little Katy. She’s back there.” Soon he’s branding her a “third-rate reporter.” On another occasion, he introduces her as “a great reporter,” adding after a pause, “sometimes.” Toward the end of 2015, her phone rings and Trump is on the line, “talking to me as if we’re old friends and it occurs to me that in his mind maybe we are.”
As the general election campaign nears, nasty misogynist texts show up more frequently on her phone along with occasional threats to her life. Eventually NBC and the other networks—except Fox, whose staffers are exempt from the candidate’s usual diatribes—hire armed former Secret Service agents to protect their correspondents following Trump.
Tur offers several conflicting assessments of the television beat reporter’s role in shaping what she calls on one occasion “the biggest story of the century.” She has her high-minded interpretation—that she’s “a witness to history,” that her words, some of them anyway, will be “recorded and remembered” by scholars researching the turning point of 2016, that they “will live on long after we die.” In the short term, as she says responding to a Trump complaint, she’s playing a vital civic role: “The American public deserves to know as much about their potential President as they can.” To the chicken-and-egg argument that his gains can be traced to his attracting too much air time and too much media space, she responds essentially that he’s a phenomenon “unlike anything anyone has ever seen.” Whether because of the outsize coverage he gets or in spite of it, she goes on, “He is resonating. And we have an obligation to document it.”
On other occasions she admits to doubts about how much she’s able to learn on the fly from one rowdy rally to another. On campaign days deemed to be newsy, she knows NBC anchors will ask her hourly, What have your sources been telling you? It’s “as if I have a tiny Trump staffer who lives in my ear and is constantly feeding me new information.” Obviously, a reporter’s neediness at such moments is not unknown to the campaigns monitoring her coverage. It’s there to be exploited.
Beyond the first-draft-of-history and civic arguments, Tur also has to grapple with the question of what her exhausting day-to-day, week-to-week campaign drill will mean for her life and career. She sees herself as fighting “to be taken seriously,” to be recognized by her network as “a major driver of news about the Trump campaign.” She needs “to remind my producers everyday that I exist.” When she’s chosen to be the lead reporter at Trump headquarters on election night, she considers it “a professional victory for me after a year-and-a-half-long fight to own this beat for NBC News.”
She’s “poised to benefit,” she acknowledges, if her candidate “goes all the way to the White House.” In the candidate’s victory, there’s a promise of access for herself. “Access means your calls answered. Access is safe and secure, because you’re the one at your organization who can always get a comment, a confirmation, or an exclusive interview.” But her struggle “to own this beat” has disillusioned her. “Access journalism is barely journalism,” she writes. So ultimately she doesn’t follow Trump to Washington. She becomes instead an afternoon anchor on MSNBC in a position to ask beat reporters in Washington and elsewhere what their sources have been telling them, when she knows, from her own experience with Trump, how tricky that question can be.
To maintain her status as an impartial observer, she claims, she didn’t root for or against him and didn’t vote. But in this book she dwells on “his daily lies and outrages,” without clearly stating how close she came in her reports from the campaign to uttering such judgments. “I live the Trump campaign,” she writes at its end, staying in the present tense when it’s now behind her. “I know him better than I know myself. I hear his voice, not mine, inside my head.”
That voice, along with the anger and ardor she witnessed at Trump rallies, persuaded her that a victory for her candidate might well be looming. On election night, so we’re told, her inner voice speaks up and says: Holy shit. I did call it.
Between the lines in regular type and italics, Unbelievable relates a cautionary tale. It could happen again in 2020 after who knows how much havoc.