Katy Tur, MSNBC star & best-selling author, recalls her Brooklyn beginnings

Jacket courtesy of Dey Street. Photos by Elena Seibert
Jacket courtesy of Dey Street. Photos by Elena Seibert

By Peter Stamelman

Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Now a best-seller, the new book by MSNBC anchor Katy Tur could not be more timely. Already high profile, the news reporter appears weekdays at 2 on MSNBC Live with Katy Tur.

Now her book, entitled “Unbelievable: My Front Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History” has become a page-turner that many are reading at one sitting.

That was the verdict of Eagle writer, Peter Stamelman, whose interview with Katy Tur appears on BrooklynEagle.com, and in the Brooklyn Eagle Weekly Magazine.

Tur’s recollections of her start at News 12 Brooklyn were filled with classic newbie reporter stories: at 5’2” she stood on a chair to interview then-councilman Bill DeBlasio; hailing from un-drenched LA, she could not believe that an outdoor protest rally in East New York would actually take place in foul weather: and squaring off with feisty then-Councilman Charles Barron in Brooklyn was good practice for her later encounters with Donald Trump.

With nearly 400,000 followers on Twitter and her status as a national anchor covering poitics, Tur seems destined to grab headlines with any book she writes.

Indeed, she confessed to Eagle writer Stamelman that she kinits and likes to cook. It was suggested to her that “maybe that’s your next book, Recipes from the Road.” Laughing, Tur told the Eagle: “I like that idea…maybe that WILL be my next pitch.”

Stamelman’s article is below:

* * *

I am a news junkie. I come from a family of news junkies, so it’s hard-wired into me. When my father would get home from work, he’d read the Times, the Herald Tribune, the Post (the pre-Murdoch Post, obviously, when it leaned left, not right), the Daily News (to find out what the opposition was thinking), the Forward (“is it good for the Jews?”) and, yes, the Brooklyn Eagle. After dinner, he’d watch Walter Cronkite on CBS or the “Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC or Charles Daly on ABC. That was followed by retreating to his study to grade papers and then to read The New Republic, The New Yorker, Esquire, the New York Review of Books, the Saturday Review. (After my father died, I remember getting invoices from all those magazines. Numbly, I renewed. Almost 50 years later, I still get, and read, all of them, except the Saturday Review — that went under in 1986.)

The qualities my father liked and admired most, in journalists were erudition, righteous indignation and intellectual stamina. The feistier the writing — and the writer — the better. Whether politics — Walter Lippmann, Dwight Macdonald, Jimmy Breslin, Jack Newfield — or sports — Paul Gallico, A.J. Liebling, Robert Lipsyte, Dick Schaap, Red Smith (until he crucified Muhammed Ali) — or theater — George Jean Nathan, Stanley Kauffmann, John Simon, Walter Kerr — those were the journalistic attributes my father looked for. Among television journalists my father liked Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, Morley Safer and, of course, Howard Cosell. Anyone who took on the establishment with wit, fortitude and consistency.

My father would have loved Katy Tur for many reasons: her pugnacity, her persistence, her smarts and her grace under pressure. Most especially when she’s confronted by the non-stop bigotry, bullying, ignorance and mendacity of a certain buffoon-turned-accidental President. As is now widely known, Trump belittled, taunted and threatened Tur throughout the 2016 campaign. But she never cried “uncle.” She gave as good as she got. My father would have watched and applauded. And he would have been the first in line at Brentano’s or Scribner’s (no B&N.com or Amazon in those innocent, pre-digital days) to buy a copy of Tur’s ringside, no-holds-barred account of Trump’s frightening and implausible rise “Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History.” (Published by Dey Street, an imprint of William Morrow.)

Like father, like son: I devoured “Unbelievable” in one sitting. I was already a Tur disciple, regularly DVR-ing her “MSNBC Live with Katy Tur” afternoon program. I originally took notice of Tur when she was based in London and filed reports from all over Europe. While on leave in 2015 to take care of personal matters in New York, NBC News shanghaied Tur to cover the then-nascent Trump presidential campaign. A “six-week” assignment turned into a full-time gig. Like Mad Max, she became a hardened road warrior. According to her official MSNBC bio, “[s]he set foot in over 40 states and logged nearly 4,000 live television appearances.”

This summer, the interview (bout might be a better description) that truly earned Tur her stripes was when she harpooned and reeled in Chris Christie’s flack Brian Murray during “Beachgate.” He resisted and blew smoke, but by the end of the interview Tur brought him — and the pale, bloated whale on the beach — on-board and filleted them both. How did this 33-year-old bantamweight learn to so ferociously punch above her weight?

Another Tur trademark: Her remarkable repertoire of smiles. There is the arch “I’ve heard that one before” smile; the droll, worldly “you’ve got to be kidding me” smile; the smug “gotcha” smile (one of her best); the exhausted “enough already” smile (the default smile she used with Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso when he repeatedly ducked answering a direct question); the sheepish “I screwed that one up” smile. She can also be disarmingly and endearingly self-deprecating, as when, after mangling some closing remarks, she handed off to Ali Veshi by dropping her head on her news desk in exasperation. Or mocking herself for her overuse of the verb “pivot.” She is a refreshing antidote to all the humorless, scolding, overbearing, “take your medicine, it’s good for you” anchors. (Are you listening, Erin Burnett and Chris Cuomo?)

On a recent telephone call, I discussed with Tur the success of her book (No. 3 on The New York Times bestseller list), her early career (including a baptism under fire and rain at News 12 Brooklyn) and her clean-up position in the remarkable lineup of anchors and reporters (Kristen Welker, Hallie Jackson, Kasie Hunt, Kelly O’Donnell, Nicolle Wallace) that MSNBC has assembled.

Below are edited excerpts of our conversation.

Eagle: Were you always so feisty and pugnacious, even as a child? Did you always try to win every family argument? Every schoolyard dispute?

Katy Tur: (Laughing) Well there were many family arguments, as there are in any family, but I certainly did not win all of them. But, yes, I guess you would have described me as pugnacious. (Laughing again) I remember being 5 years old, standing on a chair and yelling at my basketball coach.

 

Eagle: About what?

KT: About not putting me in the game!

 

Eagle: You grew up in Los Angeles, with a father and mother (Robert Tur and Marika Gerrard) who were television journalists who covered the news from heights as high as 1,000 feet to as low as 70 feet (when they famously tried to scare off Reginald Denny’s attackers during the 1992 Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict). Plus, they were part of the airborne phalanx that tailed O.J. That’s heady stuff. Did you ever ask them to teach you to fly a chopper?

KT: Not really. They did let me hold the joystick and my dad showed me how all the instruments worked, but we lost [the helicopter] by the time I would’ve started really learning. I was 14. It’s too bad. I occasionally consider signing up for flying lessons.

 

Eagle: MSNBC has put together a remarkable lineup of anchors and reporters: You, Hallie Jackson, Kristen Welker, Kasie Hunt, Kris Jansing, Stephanie Ruhle, Peter Alexander, Chuck Todd and, of course, the Queen Mother Andrea Mitchell. Was this the result of foresight or was it serendipity?

KT: It was a combination of foresight and serendipity. We all started at NBC at different times. I knew Peter, Kris Jansing, Kasie, Andrea and Kristen from assignments before the campaign or from the office. Chuck and I were friendly as well. Stephanie came to NBC much later. Hallie started around the time I moved to London, so we didn’t know each other. We were all friendly before; we became much closer in 2016, during the campaign.

 

Eagle: Trump called you out early in the campaign and continued to do so during the campaign. Yet that — and the “lynch mob” hysteria he tried to ignite — didn’t dissuade you. Now that he’s president, do you think that, as Nixon did, he might have an “enemies list” and that you’re on it?

KT: Truthfully, I don’t think that way. I never have, I never will.

Author, Katy Tur

Author, Katy Tur

 

Eagle: How did you decide on your “voice” for “Unbelievable”? Unlike many first-person campaign accounts, you avoid the wonkish and your approach is snappy and crisp. Did you know from the start this was the approach you would take?

KT: I wanted to write a book that I would want to read. I deliberately avoided the wonkish; I wasn’t aiming for a plodding, political tome. Nor was I aiming to be comprehensive. I wanted the book to be very much “in the moment.” That’s why, for example, I alternate a chronological timeline of the campaign with a detailed breakdown of election day/night.

 

Eagle: To flashback — and because this is for the Eagle — what are your memories and impressions from your time working at News 12 Brooklyn?

KT: (Laughing) It was the hardest job I ever had! I had to really “learn” Brooklyn — all of Brooklyn. From doing stories about projects with no heat in the dead of winter to mixing it up with Charles Barron. [Barron, from 2001-2013, represented Brooklyn’s 42nd District in the New York City Council. Currently, he represents the 60th District of the New York State Assembly.] Actually, going toe-to-toe with Barron was good practice for my later encounters with Trump. I also remember interviewing — standing on two chairs because he’s so tall! — then-City Councilmember Bill de Blasio. [Tur is 5-foot-2.] I also covered some truly weird stories, such as one about a really eccentric guy in Sunset Park who built his own submarines!

 

Eagle: Was there a big learning curve in transitioning from KTLA Los Angeles to News 12 Brooklyn?

Tur: The biggest was learning to cope with the weather. (Laughing) I remember a summer day I was assigned to cover an outdoor rally in East New York. It was pouring rain…I mean a monsoon. Assuming that the rally would be called off, I called my assignment editor to ask what other story he’d like me to cover. He said, with irritation and incredulity: “What are you talking about? I want you to cover the protest in East New York.” By now the monsoon had turned into a squall, but I jumped back in the car and drove to East New York. The protest…the very large protest…was in full swing.

 

Eagle: Coming from Los Angeles, where everyone panics when it rains and no one knows how to drive in it, I imagine you were astonished.

KT: I was floored!

 

Eagle: I’m very impressed by the brevity and concision of the questions you ask — and by your decorum in allowing your guests to respond in full. As my wise grandmother used to say, “You learn by listening, not by talking.” Did you also have a wise grandmother or did this approach evolve over time?

KT: (Laughing) Well, actually, both of my grandmothers would’ve yelled at me to cut off more people! They were two tough, no bullshit women. I find it’s more informative to poke holes after someone has finished. But if someone is just trying to obfuscate or run out the clock, I’m happy to jump in.

 

Eagle: Oh, I definitely didn’t mean to imply you’re not tenacious. It’s that I like your Sgt. Joe Friday “just the facts, ma’am” line of questioning. Proceeded by your Perry Mason prosecutorial follow-up

KT: Well, as you know from reading the book, after graduating UC Santa Barbara, I was going to take the LSATs in anticipation of going to law school.

 

Eagle: Then, like another “Friday” — Rosalind Russell in “My Gal Friday” — you walked back into the KTLA newsroom and came back to your senses.

Tur: (Laughing) Guilty as charged!

 

Eagle: Finally, for me, the book’s most startling revelation: Katy Tur knits??!!

KT: I do! I love it, I find it relaxing. I like to cook, too.

 

Eagle: I think we have a proposal for your next book: “Recipes from the Road.” You can get Hallie and Kristen, Kasie and Peter to contribute.

KT: Hmm…I like that idea. Maybe that will be my next pitch.

 

“Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History” is published by Dey Street, an imprint of William Morrow.

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