Towards the end of last year’s election, NBC correspondent Katy Tur and her colleagues played a game no other presidential contest had inspired: name a campaign headline too crazy to be real.
“No one can do it,” she recalls in her new campaign memoir, Unbelievable. That isn’t really so surprising: on 19 October, this one was published: “Buzzfeed CEO: I Heard Ivanka Trump Talk About ‘Mulatto Cocks’.”
Tur’s subtitle is “My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History”, and there is barely a page in her book that does not confirm that description. Even the briefest summary of Trump’s outrages during his 500 days on the trail is still almost entirely unbelievable:
“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.”
Trump’s relentless attacks on the press in general and Tur in particular were among the most revolting aspects of a repellent campaign, and they made Tur a hero to the decent people who were familiar with her fair and thorough work. By the end of the campaign, she needed private security at all of Trump’s rallies. Everyone covering Trump at NBC was under armed protection outside the venues.
This is not normal. Nothing like it had ever happened to reporters covering any previous major party candidate for president.
The truth is, given Trump’s constant goading of his supporters against the reporters who covered him, it’s something of a miracle that Tur never suffered anything worse than spittle through a lowered van window. After all, this is a candidate who could raise the possibility of killing journalists before saying: “I’d never kill them … But I do hate them. Some of them are such lying, disgusting people.”
At that moment Tur felt like she was in the Roman Colosseum. She wondered: “When to they release the lions? What happens if someone in here can’t take a joke?”
Even after everything we have learned, some of Tur’s behind-the-scenes details remain startling. At the end of one of her first extended interviews with him, Trump explodes, and demands that she run their half-hour interview in full.
“I know what you guys do,” he said. “Deceptive editing.”
Even more surprising: afterwards, the Trump campaign emailed a statement to Chuck Todd’s show reiterating “our disappointment with the extremely negative positioning of the questions”, the network accedes to Trump’s request and runs the interview in full.
Trump alternates between trying to humiliate Tur by kissing her on the way into Morning Joe – and then bragging about it on air moments later – and attacking her in four tweets in four minutes, calling her, “3rd rate”, “incompetent” and “dishonest”.
Sometimes Tur almost inadvertently reveals the built-in shortcomings of American television journalism. One page begins with this declaration: “I need to break some news … I need to be a reporter.” Then she briskly segues to the talent which is even more important to her success: “Getting your TV face ready in the car is a skill that only years of practice can perfect … There’s nothing flattering about a fluorescent overhead and magnet-triggered mirror LEDs.”
Tur is correct in saying NBC Nightly News is “still a big deal” because it gets 8-10 million viewers a night. But she’s dreaming when she calls it “a broadcast that carries weight … It is more than that … It’s history.” As any regular viewer of that newscast knows, barely half of its nightly 22 minutes are ever devoted to anything a serious reporter would consider actual news. The rest is consumed by human interest stories and lots and lots of weather – even when there aren’t any hurricanes to report.
The razor-sharp observations of Tur’s book – Trump’s “sentences call to mind an aerial shot of a burning, derailed freight train” – are the sort of thing you hear nowadays on The Daily Show or Stephen Colbert’s Late Show and never, ever, on any of the networks’ evening news broadcasts.
The glory days of network news with Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley are now many decades behind us, along with the reliable seriousness and wit of great television correspondents like Roger Mudd, Morley Safer, Elie Abel and many more. Back then, the news was treated almost as a loss-leader by the networks, a way to maintain prestige while entertainment brought in the bucks.
But for many years now, news departments have been profit centers like every other part of the network. Tur only occasionally hints at this. For example, during one of her many feuds with Trump – and a week without any exclusive interviews with him on NBC – she becomes nervous because Trump is neglecting the Today Show and favoring ABC’s Good Morning America. The executive producer of Today assures her he doesn’t care, but it doesn’t sound like Tur believes him.
Tur never mentions the main problem with the way television covered Trump, especially at the beginning of his campaign. Producers realized right away that he was good for ratings, which meant he was good for the bottom line. The ultimate outcome may have been the same anyway, but this perception unquestionably translated into vastly more coverage for this obviously unqualified candidate than he ever deserved.
In the immortal words of CBS chairman Les Moonves at the beginning of last year, Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”.
Nine months into Trump’s presidency, it looks like the first half of his observation could turn out to be the understatement of the 21st century.