Katy Tur Is Tougher Than She Looks

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Katy Tur Is Tougher Than She Looks

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The NBC correspondent Katy Tur sat in her unadorned office in the second floor of the network’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters, coiling her compact 5-feet, 3-inch frame on a swivel chair, and recounted with the chilly grin familiar to her TV viewers what it was like to have found herself an unexpectedly prominent figure in the 2016 presidential campaign.

“Look back there! ‘Little Katy,’ she’s back there,’” Ms. Tur remembered Donald J. Trump yelling at her at one of his rallies, as hundreds of heads turned in her direction. “She’s such a liar, what a little liar she is!”

Ms. Tur wasn’t the only member of the “fake media” Mr. Trump insulted over the course of the campaign season, but she was the target of some of his sharpest attacks. He could turn the crowd against her with such fury that at one point a Secret Service agent had to escort her to her car.

“Sometimes I questioned whether I was blowing it out of proportion in my head,” she said on a recent late afternoon. “Sometimes I questioned whether I wasn’t making a big enough deal out of it.”

“Was it personal?” I asked.

“I assume it was personal,” she answered quickly. “I don’t think he would mention someone’s name repeatedly if it wasn’t personal.”

Ms. Tur, 33, had been at work all day, anchoring her 2 p.m. show, “MSNBC Live,” and sitting in for Chuck Todd at 5 p.m. on “Meet the Press Daily.” Wearing little makeup, her hair pulled behind her ears, she shifted in her chair, slouching one moment and propping herself the next.

“I don’t know why he did it,” she said, shrugging. “But I will say this: I know that had I exhibited any sign that I was intimidated or scared of him, he would have rolled over me.”

Things between them didn’t get off to a promising start when she did her first sit-down interview with him, at Trump Tower. For the July 8, 2015, interview, she bought a pair of Jimmy Choos “to feel powerful.” Unclear if that worked. For 29 minutes he needled her when she tripped on words and became visibly angry when he didn’t like her questions.

[Video: Donald Trump: ‘I Will Win The Latino Vote’ (Full Interview) | NBC News Watch on YouTube.]

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Video by NBC News

Over the 18 months of the campaign, she got a close-up view of his unpredictable style and bombastic personality. “I think I fundamentally understand the way Trump thinks,” she said. “There were moments when he surprised me, but I was never shocked. I was not shocked when he won.”

Mr. Trump’s sudden rise mirrors that of Ms. Tur’s. Just two years ago she was a foreign correspondent for NBC, living in London. But she happened to be in New York when the future president announced his candidacy, on June 16, 2015.

“How would you like to spend the summer in New York?” an NBC News executive asked her. “We want you on Trump’s campaign. It will be six weeks, tops. But hey, if he wins, you’ll go to the White House.”

A year or so later, she had captured national attention. Colleagues rallied around her, thousands tweeted #iamwithtur, magazines came calling, and HarperCollins engaged her to write a book on the 2016 campaign; “Unbelievable” is due out in September. Then there is the afternoon anchor slot, which MSNBC gave her in January. In April, she received a Walter Cronkite Award for excellence. And this month she will become a contributor to the much publicized new NBC News program “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly.”

But what she won’t do is go to Washington.

“I did not want to go to Washington for a number of reasons,” she said, “one of which, the first and foremost of which being I’ve got a personal life now, and I’m engaged. I want to be in New York with my fiancé. And I’m a big believer in reporting from the outside. I’ve always been an outsider. I think being in the White House press corps, it’s difficult to do the sort of journalism that I would want to do.”

Actually she didn’t have to make that choice. NBC did not offer her the position of chief White House correspondent, one of journalism’s plum jobs. (It went to Hallie Jackson, a Washington correspondent who covered Ted Cruz’s campaign.) Instead, Ms. Tur landed an afternoon hour, not quite prime time, replacing Thomas Roberts, who was moved to weekend mornings.

“Do I miss going out and reporting? I do,” she said. “I feel like it was ripped away from me a little too soon. I want to continue to be a reporter. I don’t see the anchoring thing as like me just sitting behind a desk and reading a teleprompter. I don’t know if they’re going to like me in this role. I don’t know if I’m going to like myself in this role.”

If ratings are any indication, she’s a hit. All cable news networks are scoring big gains across the board since Mr. Trump’s inauguration. Her 2 p.m. hour has jumped 69 percent in total viewers since 2016, according to recent Nielsen ratings provided by MSNBC.

“Katy is old-school in the best ways,” her boss, Andrew Lack, the chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, said. “She’s tough, edgy, and operates with one guiding mission: Chase the facts. And you can’t rattle her. No matter what’s thrown at her, she stays focused, digs in and gets answers.”

Norah O’Donnell, an anchor of “CBS This Morning” and a contributor to “60 Minutes,” told me: “The hardest thing to do is to report the truth in the face of taunting, and Katy did that. The sky’s the limit for her.”

Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, sizes her up: “She’s a quick study, handling hard news in a conversational tone. She stumbles over names and words, but I don’t see that as a liability. It makes her human, and she brings also a sense of earnestness and candor.”

But she showed mastery of issues recently when she was a guest on “Charlie Rose,” handling with ease his questions on the Trump presidency and foreign policy.

Her cutting wit, which she underscores with a sharply raised eyebrow, comes through occasionally. When the White House press secretary Sean Spicer, on the receiving end of a barrage of questions, blurted, “You guys have an NBC thing,” Ms. Tur hissed back on-air: “Yes, we do. It’s called journalism.”

Though she spends hours talking about Mr. Trump and laboring over a book about his campaign, she has not met with the president, on or off camera, since the election. But she’d like to sit down with him again. If he had wanted to scare her off, he miscalculated. “You can’t scare me like that,” Ms. Tur said. “I grew up with my mother hanging out of a helicopter. I mean, my parents got death threats when I was a kid. Maybe it’s because I’m jaded, but not a lot scares me.”

Katharine Bear Tur was born Oct. 26, 1983, in Los Angeles County. Her parents, Bob Tur, a pilot and reporter, and her mother, Marika Gerrard, a photographer, founded the Los Angeles News Service to cover police raids, fires, plane crashes and chaos there. From their helicopter, they scored some of the first TV images of O. J. Simpson’s Bronco chase in 1994 and the beating of Reginald Denny, a truck driver, whose assault, along with the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of Rodney King, ignited the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

They won awards for their scoops but were put in danger. To escape death threats after the riots trial, they moved in with Katy’s grandparents, and Bob Tur started sleeping with a gun under his pillow.

“There was a push and pull with my parents,” Ms. Tur said. “My dad was the one who was running and gunning. He was the one pushing the limits. He was a maverick.” Her mother was steady, cautious, dependable.

“We had a lot of drama,” Ms. Gerrard confirmed in a phone interview from Los Angeles. She mentioned business ups and downs, the death of Mr. Tur’s mother, Judy Tur, who ran the business, and his volatile personality.

“Katy was always an astonishing child, always a self-assured child,” Ms. Gerrard said, though “she didn’t have this idyllic home.”

Ms. Tur said, “It was definitely tumultuous, and they slammed into a wall.”

Her lifelong friend, Kaylie Schiff, a singer who fronts her own band in Los Angeles, told me: “Katy had a broad view of the world, saw everything long-term. She’d always been like a little adult. What she has about her is all her, it cannot be learned. It’s in her blood, it’s in her bones.”

In 2003, Bob Tur and Marika Gerrard divorced. Ten years later, he told the family that he was undergoing hormone treatment to become a woman, a gender transition now completed. Bob Tur became Zoey Tur. She is no longer a helicopter reporter but is featured in documentaries including the Oscar-winning “O. J.: Made in America” and has a feature film in the works about her love-hate relationship with Los Angeles.

Last July, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Zoey Tur claimed that Katy Tur had been estranged since her gender transition. “It’s not that she’s transphobic,” Zoey Tur said. “It’s that her hero father has become this. And it’s fear of not fitting in. It’s the pressure of being on network television.”

When I brought up her father’s remarks, Ms. Tur went silent. After a pause, she disputed the accuracy of her father’s version and said that their rift had nothing to do with her father’s transition, and that they are speaking now. “We were not on speaking terms for a little while,” she said, “but that’s not because of the transition.”

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Later, from Asia, Zoey Tur emailed me: “About my transition, I demanded early on that my children accept what even I don’t fully understand myself. No child should have to deal with a father in transition from male to female. Perhaps it will be the subject of Katy’s second book!” One day last December, she said: “Katy called to tell me she was sorry and that she loved and accepted me. We agreed to set things right and have been working on that goal.”

Ms. Tur showed a knack for reporting early on. A family video taken when she was 4 years old shows her looking much as she does today, long blondish hair, aquiline nose, wide mouth, sidling up to her 2-year-old brother, Jamie, with a microphone in hand, asking him questions.

Growing up in Hollywood, she had rich friends and went to the elite Brentwood School, but “was not impressed by that, she knew it wasn’t real,” her mother said.

“She had friends who had everything and she didn’t,” her mother continued, “but she was never bitter about it.”

Close to her mother, Ms. Tur says she takes after both parents, impulsive like her father but methodical like her mother, unconventional but cautious. She planned to study medicine when she enrolled at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but switched to philosophy and art. She found she was not all that serious about art, but debates over free will can get her blood pumping to this day. Eventually, she wandered into journalism, found an editorial assistant job at the television station KTLA and began building a résumé.

Tired of Southern California, she moved to New York and got a job at a local cable station. She learned quickly, and eight months later moved to the television station WPIX and then to Fox 5 and the Weather Channel.

At that time — she was in her mid-20s — she was dating Keith Olbermann, the sportscaster and political commentator. He was 25 years her senior and a powerhouse personality at MSNBC. They were together for three years, from 2006 to 2009. After their breakup, she landed a job with WNBC and from there sprang to the flagship, NBC News, in 2012. She was 29.

“Keith is a wonderful human being,” she said when I press her. I knew this was a topic she doesn’t wish to discuss. “He is my friend. He will always be my friend.” Neither has said much publicly about the other. (Mr. Olbermann did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls to his agents requesting comment.)

Weeks after our first meeting, I arrived for dinner at the apartment she shares with her fiancé, Tony Dokoupil, a CBS News correspondent. A long hallway covered in framed pictures, caricatures and awards leads to a living room furnished in white — white sofa, white shag rug, pale walls, set off by a large TV screen. Mr. Dokoupil, 36, a genial man whom she calls “a heartbreaker,” was reading a recipe for a seafood dish. It became apparent that dinner would take too long to prepare, so we walked over to a nearby cafe.

A chatty waiter who remembered them brought the menus, and Ms. Tur ordered a bottle of Bordeaux. She was relaxed, in jeans and running shoes, flirting with Mr. Dokoupil, clinging to his arm. Leaning over to hear above the din of dishes and chatter, I told her that Kaylie Schiff read me a journal entry Katy had written when they were in middle school. It said, “We’re going to be cool and boys will think we’re awesome.” Ms. Tur let out a cackle.

Talking about her career and the odd turns it had taken, she seemed nostalgic about days on the road. Suddenly she said: “I have a dream! Someday I’ll show my children a map.” Her hands rolled out an imaginary world map, a finger pointing sharply at invisible places all over the globe, her voice rising with excitement, saying: “I will tell them, ‘Mommy was here and here and there and there.’ That’s my dream.”

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