Review: Katy Tur’s ‘Unbelievable’ an Exercise in Self-Aggrandizement
NBC reporter's new book documenting the Trump campaign heavy on Gen X tangents, light on substance
There is no question — ever since the Watergate scandal — that the media and journalists have come to think of themselves as the royalty of the Fourth Estate. To its opponents, the media are less the Fourth Estate and more the Fifth Column, though the two share similarities that make them almost indistinguishable at times. In more recent years, this cultural phenomenon has extended to cable television, as many of the newsreaders are held up as paragons of knowledge despite their frequent fatuity. I once saw a pretty young blonde reading a teleprompter make reference to “World War Eleven.”
Katy Tur’s book on the 2016 presidential campaign does not dispel any of these truths. And Teddy White’s and others’ legacies as chroniclers of American political campaigns are in no danger from the slim Tur book.
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“Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History” reads less like a political book and more like a puerile autobiography. Coming from a journalist, what would otherwise have been seen as forgivable becomes unbearable. Her first sentence refers to throwing up. This phrase is usually associated with high school co-eds. As if. Like, you know?
NBC’s Tur is only 33 years old, so she falls into the Gen X age group. Yet it’s curious how she has gained so much wisdom about everything. And that’s precisely what the problem is here. Those who should have been the main characters of the book — Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, campaign aides — are but mere secondary characters. The primary character, of course, has to be, as she describes herself, “Katy Tur, Fearless Foreign Correspondence and Lady Who Drinks Wine at Lunch.” Cheeky. The 2016 election revolves around her, not the other way around.
Do we, the readers, really need to know how she met her French boyfriend (through romantic Tinder, by the way), or the smell and sounds of Paris, or the commute on the Eurostar from London? It’s about her here. She talks of her (paid) vacation in Sicily (again with her boyfriend) as if this were her diary. “Our first real vacation — two full weeks together. We’ll swim in the Mediterranean, climb Mt. Etna, and see opera in the ruins of an ancient Greek theater. And eat pasta. A lot of pasta.” And so on and so forth. At some points we just have to put the book down and ask, “Why is this important?”
The answer, in Tur’s mind, can only be that it’s important because she is important. Her favorite word is always a first-person pronoun. (That’s I, me and my, for Ms. Tur’s edification.)
We have no doubt where she falls politically, either. Surprise: She’s a liberal, and she makes it clear as day when she reports, in the first pages of the prologue, “I’m about to throw up” after Trump wins on election night. And it’s not from excitement. Tur makes little snide remarks about Trump, referring to Melania as “his third wife.” That is factual, of course, but the need to point that out when they’ve been married for 12 years seems less “reporting the facts” and more “taking a swing.” She devotes half a page to describing Trump as “orange.” She makes it clear she did not want to even start reporting on Trump’s campaign — again, because she’s supposed to go on vacation!
Let’s be clear. She’s allowed to have her biases; she’s allowed to have her beliefs. But let’s not pretend that her constant belittling is professional journalism. The reporting of every obscenity, she says, is not professional journalism but more for the grocery-store tabloids. That’s what “Unbelievable” boils down to: unprofessional. “As a journalist, my job is to listen and probe, listen and probe,” she says while conducting her first interview. That’s not what this book is.
If she wanted to write an autobiography (at 33 years old, sure, the sky’s the limit), then she should’ve written an autobiography. We’re curious as to the relevance of it all. At only a mere 286 pages (tiny pages, giant print), perhaps all the egotistical fluff and filler was necessary to fit the minimum required number of pages. But everything about Katy is relevant to herself, since she has to put focus on herself through the entire two years.
When it comes to election night and Trump’s win, she puts the focus on how she “called it.” Sure, the pundits and many experts said that Hillary was going to blow him out of the water, but she is hardly the first or only person to say that he wasn’t guaranteed to lose. Laura Ingraham was one who did not give up. Ann Coulter was another. But perhaps because of their conservative beliefs, they do not count to Tur.
After all, it’s only about herself. The cover has a picture of her, and the subhead has it as “My Front-Row Seat.” Not “the,” but “my.” The prologue, a mere five pages in an already small book, contained over 65 instances of “I,” “me” or “my.” The book proper gets worse.
It says something that what is seen as unusual to many is acceptable to The Washington Post. In its review by Carlos Lozada, The Post slobbers over the book (because of course they would). “What elevates ‘Unbelievable’ beyond one more pedestrian campaign memoir,” the review states, “is Tur’s skill at capturing the constant indignities of campaign reporting while female, including the worst indignity of all: enduring the fixation of Trump himself.” Pulling the identity politics card isn’t beneath either The Post or the author. (Interestingly, the review also brings up a number of shortfalls of “Unbelievable,” so credit goes where it should.)
Those who wanted an in-depth, insider’s look at the “craziest campaign” shouldn’t look here. It’s a shame, because a journalist who has been with the Trump campaign since literally Day One should know who the main focus should be: not her, but the future president of the United States and the history of the campaign. Journalists should know when something is irrelevant and irreverent to their profession.
“Unbelievable” is unbelievably confusing and unbelievably disappointing. Perhaps that makes it the perfect book for self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing millennials.
Craig Shirley is a presidential historian and author of four best-sellers on Ronald Reagan, most recently “Reagan Rising.” His latest political biography on Newt Gingrich, “Citizen Newt,” is now available on Amazon. Scott Mauer is Craig Shirley’s researcher.
(photo credit, homepage image: nrkbeta/Gage Skidmore/Lorie Shaull, Flickr/Wikimedia; photo credit, article image: nrkbeta/Gage Skidmore, Flickr)