By GWEN OREL
People need to talk to one another, and listen to one another. That’s the only way we’ll be saved.
It was an emotional moment for MSNBC anchor/NBC correspondent Katy Tur as she spoke to a packed house at the Montclair Public Library’s Open Book/Open Mind last Friday.“It’s hard to find a way for Americans to talk to one another,” Tur said. “We’re at a crossroads.”
Open Book/Open Mind is a free series of talks featuring authors and thinkers, curated by the library and its foundation board members. The next Open Book/Open Mind conversation features Isabelle Allende and local novelist Christina Baker Kline, and will be held at Buzz Aldrin Middle School on Nov. 8.
Tur answered many questions from the audience after being interviewed by Montclair’s Tom Johnson, an award-winning news producer. The subject of this Open Book/Open Mind was Tur’s new book “Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History,” and her experiences on that campaign.
The talk began late, as Tur got stuck in traffic. “I left at 4:30,” she told the audience as she stepped on stage at 7:30 p.m.
Tur was famously called out by Trump at his rallies. He told the crowds, “Look at Little Katy,” which led to the Twitter hashtag #ImwithTur.
When she took the job covering Trump, she was only visiting New York from London, where she was working as an overseas correspondent. She said with a sigh, “It was my dream job.”
She ended up being on the road with the Trump campaign for 510 days. Sometimes she had no idea where she was. She’d take a shower in a hotel and try to remember.
“I did not sleep for a year and a half,” she said.
Early on, in a Republican primary field with 16 people running, “We thought he was a joke of a candidate. There was no structure to his speech.”
But Tur quickly realized “it was not a mistake to cover him. My boss said to find out how he ticks.”
And it became clear that the job might last longer than a summer. Being called out by him didn’t surprise her: she’d seen him on television firing people, she said. “I presumed he would go after me. That is part of his shtick.
Tom Johnson talks with Katy Tur. NEIL GRABOWSKY/MONTCLAIR LOCAL
“He probably thought it was a softball. Who is Katy Tur? She’s not a political correspondent. She’s five-two. She’s little.”
When she did her first interview with him in Trump Tower, he threatened her to air it all, saying “We have cameras in here.”
Tur looked up, making the library audience laugh. “I’m looking up. There are no cameras!”
But the harassment continued when she reported on Trump’s campaign promise to impose a Muslim ban. Johnson said, “We thought it was a hoax.”
Tur agreed, and said that on the air they put it into context: The December 2015 San Bernardino shooting had just happened, a massacre of 16 people carried out by the married couple Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik.
Donald Trump was telling people he’d be tough on terror, telling them their own neighbors were plotting against them, she said.
It was when Tur was in a press pen, a press area surrounded by bike racks, that Trump called her out.
Most rallies have press pens, she explained, but the difference with Trump’s was that reporters “weren’t allowed to leave the pen.” This rally was in the belly of a warship, with a lot of echoes, she said.
“The whole place turns around and boos at me.” Some people stood on chairs to see her. “I smiled and waved. What else are you supposed to do? I didn’t have time to be nervous. I had a job to do.” She had to do a “hit,” or a short appearance, on Chris Matthews’ and Chris Hayes’ talk shows.
It wasn’t until she looked at her phone and saw the worried messages from her mother and her bosses that she understood what had happened.
And there were other messages too: death threats.
The campaign assigned Secret Service detail to walk her out.
She thought, “I’m not in Mosul. I’m not in Turkey.” She was a journalist doing her job.
Johnson asked her about “access journalism,” or journalism where a reporter files stories in order to have better access to
a subject than others.
“I came to see, it’s not real journalism,” Tur replied. “It’s PR more than anything else. More valid journalism is contextualizing, shedding light on a person, fact-checking them, calling a lie a lie when you need to say it.
“Without journalism, it’s all propaganda.”
After the Access Hollywood tape came out, when Trump famously boasted of hitting on a married woman and grabbing women by their private parts, Tur did think the campaign was over “for a minute.” The sudden denouncements of Trump’s attitude to women reflect, she quipped, that “Lawmakers suddenly realized they knew a woman. It felt like the moment that could break him.”
But then she saw the rallies were just as packed. And women there weren’t upset about his comments.
Asked by an audience member about the degree of attention Trump received, Tur responded that his rallies were generating large enthusiasm.
To a question about the press, she said that after Watergate, people liked the press. “The silver lining is that people are paying attention, and forcing us to do better journalism.” Trump has brought “more eyes to the news.”
But, she said, “We can only do so much. It’s incumbent on the American people to find a way.”