MSNBC’s Katy Tur on covering Trump and relentless tragedy on TV: “It drags me down”

“We’re all rough drafts … we don’t know how we do in our lives until the very end,” MSNBC anchor and journalist Katy Tur told me me in a recent “Salon Talks” conversation about the dual meaning behind the title of her new book, “Rough Draft.” Of course there’s the truism that journalism is a first draft of history, which Tur laid out in her first bestseller, “Unbelievable,” about her time covering Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and being bullied by the former president.

This time, Tur sharies the stories of her childhood, including details about her parents, trailblazing journalists who utilized their own helicopter to videotape iconic events from the air, such as the 1994 low-speed police chase of O.J. Simpson in his white Ford Bronco. She also writes about her father’s abusive behavior towards her mother and herself and the economic pain the family endured when her parents’ journalism career took a tailspin.

Her parents’ journey took an even more unexpected turn when Tur’s father, Bob, called her one day to say, “I’ve decided to become a woman.” Tur was brutally honest in sharing her visceral reaction to her father’s declaration and the challenges that flowed from her father’s transition from Bob to Zoey. There’s no made-for-TV, happy Hollywood ending to this tale. Tur says she currently has no relationship with Zoey, who has not even Tur’s two children because, as Tur sees it, Zoey refuses to address what happened in the past.

Tur and I also discussed the troubled state of journalism. As she notes in her book, public trust in the media is down to 32% in recent polls. That makes it almost impossible for the media to hold those in power accountable, if the public only believes those journalists they agree with politically. “I don’t know how to fix it,” Tur said, adding that she’s not optimistic it can be fixed. Watch my interview with Katy Tur here or read a transcript of our conversation below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

In your book, “Rough Draft,” you talk about the idea that journalism is the first rough draft of history. I think people would have expected that this book to be a political book, but instead you’v shared your family’s personal story. What inspired you to go there?

That’s a complicated answer, but “Rough Draft” is also a spin on us. We’re all rough drafts. The final draft isn’t until we kick it and then that’s it. We don’t know how we do in our lives until the very end. I was supposed to write a follow-up campaign book about 2020, but the pandemic hit and I didn’t leave my basement. So it wouldn’t have been a very interesting book. Instead, I, like so many of us, found myself thinking about my life, having a period of reflection and wondering where I was going and whether it was where I was supposed to be going.

Was I doing what I wanted to do for a living? Who am I? All the stuff that we all dealt with in the solitude of the pandemic, especially in those first early months. And during that time, my mom sent me a hard drive with all my parents’ videotape library. They were helicopter journalists. They documented everything from their career, but they also documented all our lives, and it unlocked a flood of memories and emotions. I found myself forced to get the rough draft of me and my childhood down to be able to answer the questions of: What am I doing? Where am I going? Who am I?

Share a little bit about what your parents did during their career in journalism and some of the things they captured on camera?

They did amazing journalism. They have more awards than I could hope to gather in my journalism career. Every single one of them, Peabody, Edward R. Murrow, Emmys, Golden Mics, everything. They’re best known for a couple of very big global stories. One of them is that they found O.J. on the slow speed pursuit in Los Angeles. They were the first ones to pick that up. They had it for 10 or 20 minutes, which is an eternity on live television. And that ushered in a whole era of reality TV-style journalism that we’re still dealing with today. I think it peaked with Donald Trump.

They also covered the L.A. riots in 1992. They were at the intersection of Florence and Normandie when a man was pulled out of a red gravel truck and beaten viciously on live television within an inch of his life, with a brick thrown at his head. They were airing it live, and it ended up being broadcast around the world. It was the moment of the L.A. riots that showed how brutal things got. Those were their two biggest stories. They’re also most notably famous for televising one of the first, if not the first, police pursuits in the country. They made it very popular. They covered it all through the ’90s. Some people at the time said that they were responsible for the downfall of local news, and maybe national too. They don’t dispute it, and I don’t dispute it. It certainly changed this business a lot. 

In the book you share a very personal moment where your father calls you up and says, “I’ve decided to become a woman.” When you first hear your dad say that to you, what was your reaction?

It’s really hard, because you have a whole history of somebody being a certain way and then they tell you that way is not the real them at all and they’re actually this entirely different person. It’s hard to wrap your mind around, especially in the first few moments. That conversation, at the time, felt like it was coming out of nowhere, because I just didn’t see it coming. It was a difficult conversation, not because of the transition, but because of him transitioning from the person who was wonderful, but also very scary in my childhood, and was trying to write all that off. And I said, “If you want to make this break, and if we’re going to all do it together and come on the other side of this as a tighter, stronger, happier family” — because things had been really rocky before that — “we need to confront some of the stuff that happened growing up, some of the violence, the anger and the emotional abuse.” That was just a hard thing for my dad to reckon with. She didn’t want to do it then.

“I don’t think journalism is going to save us. … It’s up to Americans to decide that they want to engage with facts and reporting.” 

How is your relationship with your father Zoey now?

My relationship with my dad is there’s not much of a relationship, and it’s sad. It’s really sad. It’s another reason why I wrote the book because I miss so much of it. I was trying to understand if I made the wrong decisions, if I was partly in the wrong here for how our relationship has turned out. And those are just really hard questions to answer, even after writing the book. When I read it, I go through a lot of emotions. I had to read it again to edit it and I found myself really, really, really missing my dad. And then I find myself really, really angry. I go back and forth. Mostly though, I’m just really sad. I’ve got two kids, I’ve got a husband, and my dad’s never met her grandkids. She’s never met my husband. She’s missing out on a lot. I think we’re all missing out on a lot. 

In your book you talk about how when you were younger you dated Keith Olbermann, and he told you that when you’re on the air you should talk like you’re speaking to just one person. Do you still do that? Is it a different person every time? Or is it just a generic person?

I don’t consciously pick a person every day. That was really good advice that Keith gave me. You never want to say, “Hey, everybody,” because most of the time people are watching alone and they’re engaging personally. So you want to engage directly with that person who’s watching, as opposed to making it about everybody. But I tend to try to talk to one of my best friends growing up who still lives in Los Angeles. She is not engaged with the daily news cycle. In fact, during the insurrection, she texted me, “What do you think of these pillows?” I’m like, “You’re not watching TV?” I looked at the text and responded, “Oh, my God. Turn the television on.”

It reminds me that there’s a large segment of the population that is just not focused on the daily news cycle. But even though I am limited in who I can talk to because not everybody is forced to watch three different networks, I do try to make it valuable and insightful for somebody who has just turned it on and knows the broad strokes. Even though you might not be engaging in the cable news cycle, you know the broad strokes of everything that’s going on because we all have a smartphone. So I try to explain it and give some context.

You’re on an hour a day, sometimes covering fun stories, but generally not. We live in a harsh world, and we’re just going through the aftermath of two mass shootings right now. Are you able to compartmentalize things?

It drags me down. It drags me down more now that I have kids. It’s much harder to compartmentalize. It was much easier when I was younger. Also, even though I was covering a lot of tragedy, it didn’t feel so relentless. And lately it just feels relentless, one horrible, awful thing after another. After the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, with all the kids that got killed, I went home and I played with my kids and then I put them to sleep, and I turned on one of my streaming networks and I just chose anything else. I didn’t pick up my phone. I didn’t turn on the news. I just knew that I couldn’t engage with it that night because I would have to engage with it all the next day. Beyond just trying to book the show, I would let the details wash over me and I’d dig into all of it today. But if I keep my phone on and if I watch news 24/7, I won’t be able to breathe. Especially with Ukraine. There was a while where I couldn’t get enough of Ukraine. I was just constantly consuming it. And that was so awful that on the weekends, I just had to take a break. Obviously, it’s not as awful as anybody that’s experiencing any of these things, so I don’t want to compare, but it’s hard for all of us to watch something so horrible.

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You’ve talked about how you felt like you had this odd connection with Donald Trump. Did you feel like there was something there? Did you feel like he understood you and you understood what kind of person he was, and it gave you more insight in covering him?

I think that was part of it. I think he focused on me for probably a handful of reasons, but one of them was I was the first network reporter to cover him full-time. I think he saw me being there as a validation that he was being taken seriously. I was there from the beginning, I became the most familiar face. I think the early stages was one of the most important phases because he was getting on network television. But that type of personality, that very big, outspoken, in-your-face personality that he has, it was very familiar to me. It was very much like — I’m not saying it’s the same — but very much like my dad’s personality. So I felt like I understood how to talk to him and maybe that’s what he saw. Who knows what it was on his end. But I certainly understood that in the face of someone like that, standing up and not backing down is the more effective tool.

You wrote in your book about trust in the media, how it peaked the time of Watergate and slid down by the Clinton era to 53%. Now it’s down to 32%. How do you hold people accountable if they’re just looking to their own news sources and they won’t listen to the other side? How do we address this? Because I think it is an existential threat to our democracy in the long run.

I don’t think journalism is going to save us and I don’t think journalists can fix it. I think it’s up to Americans to decide that they want to engage with facts and reporting. But it’s really hard because people have been led to believe that anything that disagrees with their worldview or their chosen political team is a lie and wrong and insidious and anti-democratic. It’s a very big problem. It’s made worse by social media. It’s made worse by all the different ways you can get your news. It’s no longer just three major gatekeepers. I think there’s something to be said about a certain level of quality control. Understanding that certain stories were not covered or were under-covered and the fact that everyone can shed light on things now has been a positive addition, but everything has its good and bad. It’s a double-edged sword. I don’t know how to fix it. I’m not optimistic, and I hate to say it, but I’m not.

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People in the media have told me that a lot of times when they feel like there’s a choice between covering drama versus democracy, they’ll pick the drama. How much of a balance is there? How much is there a push and pull between what we should cover but really isn’t the most appealing?

I think you’ll different answers to that on different outlets. Climate change is not something that rates well, but we cover it. I wish we covered it more, but it’s on my end. It’s a lack of resources and getting reporters on the ground. If I could assign reporters, I’d be assigning them every day to stories like that. It’s difficult. The flashiness gets the ratings. Look at what my parents covered with the police pursuits. The first police pursuit televised live in Los Angeles was a red Cabriolet where a guy carjacked another driver. He shot the person. He ended up dead, and they took it live and it beat “Matlock.” And so that was born. This is a ratings-getter. Is it the most substantive? No, but it started driving the news. It would blow up poll rundowns, which would anger a lot of producers.

I wish it wasn’t driven by ratings entirely — and I don’t think it is driven by ratings entirely. Part of the problem is what people choose to watch. We’re corporate media because we’re not funded by the government, and maybe you don’t want us funded by the government because that’s problematic too. And we’re not nonprofits. I mean, it’s just the way that it works: In order to make the money we need to sustain a news-gathering operation, which is a very expensive endeavor. You’ve got to have people watching your channel so you can get advertising. Advertisers can buy time and pay you. I mean, it’s the nature of the beast. It’s problematic.

Near the end of your book, you talk about Jan. 6, 2021, and Donald Trump’s role in all of that. Are you surprised that 500-plus days later he has not been held accountable in any way, shape or form?

No, because that’s the world we’re living in. There are all these seminal moments that we’ve had in the past few years where you thought, well, this is going to be the moment that changes things. When Steve Scalise was shot, this is the moment that they’re going to figure out something on assault-style rifles at the very least. And they didn’t. Jan. 6, where hundreds or thousands of people stormed the Capitol and chanted, “Hang Mike Pence.” You thought that might be the breaking point for the Republican Party to say, “Hold on. We got to be serious about what we tell people. Otherwise, if we perpetuate this lie that the election was stolen, we might find ourselves in mortal danger, or democracy might fall apart, and it’ll be on us.” We live in a weird, scary time and who the heck knows what’s going to happen? It’s nerve-wracking. It’s scary to bring up kids.


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