Book review: Unbelievable, by Katy Tur
Asked by Brian Williams what she’s learned after 510 days of Trump, MSNBC reporter Katy Tur thinks to herself, “I’ve learned that Trump has his own version of reality, which is a polite way of saying he can’t always be trusted. He also brings his own sense of political decorum. I’ve heard 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. I’ve learned that none of this matters to an Electoral College majority of American voters.”
Apologies for two similar political, election-themed posts in a row, but mid-September seems to be the sweet spot for campaign memoirs and I couldn’t wait to read this one because I thought Tur would unleash on whatever insanity she’d seen along the way.
Throughout the course of covering the 2016 presidential election, Tur found herself the frequent target of Donald Trump’s ire against the media. And thanks to her short stature and most likely her young age, Trump gave her a nickname, like he does for all his great adversaries – “Little Katy”. Tur knows that it’s meant to demean and diminish her, as Trump seems to inherently equate anything small with bad, but she’s developed a necessary extra-thick skin (unlike him.)
Tur was called back to New York after being given her “dream job” of a foreign correspondent posting in London. In 2015, she assumed this would be a temporary gig, covering Trump’s bizarre campaign until he ran himself into the ground. But it was the beginning of a nonstop whirlwhind, and she was assigned exclusively to him, part of a roving press corps that doggedly followed him as he crisscrossed the country for his frenetic rallies, trying to stay on top of the scandals, shocks, and soundbites Trump and his camp flooded the news with.
As the very first national TV news reporter to cover the Trump juggernaut, I was there from the beginning – covering it every day for nearly two years until the shocking end…First (conclusion), no one can make perfect sense of it. Second, I’m smart enough not to try. The Trump campaign…roiled America and with it, my little life. I won’t pretend to explain it. I will tell you what I saw.
This book is very much a personal story. Tur lets us in on the less-glamorous side of TV reporting, and isn’t shy about showing how tough, exhausting, and grimy the job can be. That’s not exactly what I was reading for, I was much more interested in parts where she observed the rally atmosphere, interacted with the electorate, or gave blow-by-blows of events as they played out.
But with the knowledge of what her job really entails, smooth and organized as it may appear on-air, it’s all the more awful to know how Trump treated her and what he knowingly subjected her to at the hands of his followers.
And, delightfully, she gives some gossipy insider info about Trump and his staffers, one reason I was so looking forward to this. Arriving at Trump Tower for a sit-down not far into the campaign, she tells us what she sees and I’m here for it: “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.” Just as I imagined.
She also relates instances of his remarkable unprofessionalism, like when he badgered her to take a photo with him. “Why in the world would he think I want a photo? I’m not a fan. I’m a journalist. This is a network news interview.” Yeah, but he’s Trump and you’re not. Therefore you must be starstruck and awed, no? There’s no other acceptable answer.
In not-at-all shocking news, Trump alternates between uncomfortable flattery, like barreling down when he spies her to kiss her cheek and the above insistence on a photo-op; and calling her out at rallies, saying she’s dishonest and a “third rate reporter.”
At the end of this interview, where he got progressively more enraged, thus insulting and intimidating, resorting to ridiculing Tur’s tongue slips in a bullying attempt (side note, he makes me sick), Trump tells her she stumbled three times. Which leads to this illuminating exchange, important now as Hope Hicks assumes a bigger White House role having managed to keep a low profile thus far:
“It doesn’t matter if I stumble. I’m not running for president,” I say…He looks me straight in the eye and lands what he must think is the harshest insult of all: “You’ll never be president!'” Neither will you. Thankfully, I bite my tongue before the words are out. Hope Hicks interjects: “He’s a presidential candidate. You can’t speak like that to a presidential candidate. It isn’t respectful.”
So if anyone had any illusions that she’s something different from her colleagues thanks to her silence compared to their shrieking, go ahead and ditch those now.
The problem is that the book’s narrative jumps chaotically back and forth in time, alternating between Tur’s campaign trail beat, and election night in the lead-up to Trump’s win, which is where the book ends. This can work when done well, but the events themselves were so hectic and fast-paced that any sense of time completely falls apart in this structure. It’s hard to follow.
I liked the parts focusing on Tur’s feelings about some unreal-seeming but very frightening situations she found herself in, like being spat on by a Trump supporter and harassed online and at rallies by others. This was such a chilling aspect of this election cycle. She relates her thoughts openly and, like any good reporter, puts these incidents into greater context.
Or observations of scenes like this one:
“Nothing short of Trump shooting my daughter in the street and my grandchildren” can dissuade me from voting for Trump, a woman told Ashley Parker of the New York Times. So imagine how you would feel if every time you turned on NBC, you saw my reporting on this figure you love – this figure you think will lift you up, save your job, make your country great again. Imagine how you’d feel if every night and all day this…girl was shining a critical light on your beloved figure. Who is she to question his plans? Double-check his statements? Follow up on his promises?
You would hate me.
And people do.
Its mostly chatty tone includes gossip about reporters hooking up on the campaign trail and competition between networks for scoops. A lot of minutiae about how the sausage gets made in news broadcasting. Stories about how she could be completely burnt out and exhausted but still have to cake on makeup and find clean clothes despite a harrowing travel schedule were interesting the first time, but not when they reappeared. It gets boring and repetitive.
But a big part of her life and this job was the relentless, exhausting beat of the campaign trail, so that dizzying perspective does make up the bulk of the book.
It’s a quick read and there are interesting moments and insights that definitely make it worthwhile, plus a lot to learn about journalism during an election cycle. But I didn’t love the voice and some of the memoir elements. As a whole it felt very quickly composed; a risk for accounts and analysis of the past year when the news changes lightning-fast.
I’ll close with one of my favorite moments, also one of Katy’s, when a correspondent remembered a call from a Trump communications staffer.
“Are we off the record?” the staffer asked.
“Sure,” the reporter said. “What’s going on?”
“Great. Off the record: Mr. Trump wants you to go fuck yourself.”
This, from the man who arrogantly chastised Tur during their interview for using the phrase “pissing off” about the reaction he provokes in other countries. His pettiness is unrivaled: he’s got the best pettiness, everyone is saying it’s the most tremendous pettiness they’ve ever seen, I’ll give him that.
A light, fast-moving if disorganized and chaotic account of modern journalism in an unusual campaign cycle, with personal insights from a reporter who found herself simultaneously in Trump’s crosshairs and on the receiving end of his unwanted attentions.
My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History
by Katy Tur
published September 12, 2017 by Dey Street (Harper Collins)
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