MSNBC Anchor Katy Tur’s “Rough Draft” Reveals a Tumultuous Childhood

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Photo credit: Author photo: Courtesy NBC
Photo credit: Author photo: Courtesy NBC

Time and again, MSNBC reporter and anchor Katy Tur has proven her journalistic mettle, going toe to toe with crowds of partisan supporters who don’t think she’s being fair to their candidate, or with people in the highest offices in the land, speaking truth to power. She’s covered tragedies such as the Boston Marathon terrorism attack with poise, authority, and compassion. But what few know is that she had a tumultuous childhood with parents who were news junkies, dragging their small kids with them to cover breaking events such as riots and fires and earthquakes from helicopters for L.A. News Service, which they founded. When they weren’t out at all hours choppering from one L.A. hot spot to another, often they were arguing, at times violently.

In Rough Draft, Tur’s stunning and revelatory memoir, she details the rush of adrenaline she experienced being pulled from bed at all hours to accompany her parents on these adventures, and also the anxiety and fear she felt witnessing their altercations, as well as their career ups and downs. More recently, her father transitioned; Bob Tur is now Zoey, and while she has had many difficult conversations with her father (he asks that Katy still address him as “Dad”) about his past behavior, at this juncture, they are estranged.

As I read Rough Draft, I kept thinking about the bravery it took for a woman known to the public for her journalistic chops to open up to readers in the way she does in the book. I asked her why she chose to share her most private thoughts and memories so publicly. She told me she felt compelled to, both for herself, and for her children. And though her parents’ flaws are on display in the book, it also seems like an ode to Bob and Marika Tur’s insatiable desire for adventure, which they passed along to their daughter.

Leigh Haber: You have what seems like an innate poise and confidence as an MSNBC reporter and anchor. After reading Rough Draft, your pretty astonishing new memoir, I know why. At a very young age, you were thrown into a lot of really challenging situations. I would even say tumult. Your parents were helicopter journalists in L.A. How did you deal with those early years being dragged out of bed and into choppers chasing O.J. from the air or covering out of control fires?

Katy Tur: Oh, gosh. It was mostly just a big adventure. My parents were always on the go. It didn't seem out of sorts to me because that's how I grew up. And it was fun. We could be in bed or in the middle of lunch or dinner. I learned to eat very fast because at any moment we could be called away by the scanner and rushed to the airport. And then you'd get up and you'd fly in a helicopter and see Los Angeles unfurl below you. It felt very much like my parents were important, and because my parents were important, I was important. And we were always on the front edge. I knew stuff before everybody else did.

Sometimes it was also scary.

But mostly, I look back on a lot of my childhood now and I think, Wow, how cool, how lucky you were to have had these unique experiences and to have experienced Los Angeles in a way that none of your friends did. I certainly wasn't sheltered at all.

And there was a lot of family drama, especially between your parents. Your father admitted about your mother in the documentary Whirlybird: "I don't know how to communicate with you except through violence." That's terrifying stuff, and you were a witness to that violence.

For a lot of my life, it felt normal. It felt just standard for a relationship. This is how people who are married communicate. This is how people who are married deal with one another. This is what love is. It is explosive at times, and it can be complicated.

When I was a little kid, the anger was very scary, but it was always coupled with these unbelievable highs. So there were very frightening moments followed or preceded by incredible love or incredible fun or incredible excitement. I don't think I had too much time to dwell on the fear of it because we were always moving so fast. I didn't know any better.

Then when I got older, as everyone does, you start to understand that your reality is maybe not the best reality. I started to defend my mom and stand up to my father, and it got hard. When I got into my 20s and 30s, I started having my own relationships and feeling some of that same rage that my dad had. I thought volatile was normal. You were supposed to yell and scream, because if you're yelling and screaming, that shows that you really care.

And I had a series of relationships that just didn't work because of that. The dynamic wasn't right. And when I met my husband, everything was so easy between us and so natural and normal. He, too, had this tumultuous, chaotic childhood. I finally began to confront the idea that a relationship is not supposed to be hard. It doesn't have to be something that you need to work at. It can be something where two people get along and respect each other and don't yell and scream and throw things.

And that's when I started looking back on my childhood with a different set of eyes and thinking, Okay, it wasn't normal. It wasn't right. It wasn't the way to do things. It's a cliché, but how do I break the cycle of that?

You describe losing your grandmother, Judy. Not only was that a huge loss but you heard about her death on your parents' answering machine. Can you say a little about that?

Judy was my best friend. Everybody loved her. She had this bright blonde hair, and she wore red lipstick and black cowboy boots with really short shorts and sweatshirts. She always had on these big black sunglasses. To me, she was glamorous. She had this raspy voice—she used to smoke a lot. But she was cool and she was interesting and loving and exciting. I do this thing with my son now where I tickle his back. She used to tickle me like really lightly on my arm and my back. And it would calm me down. She felt very much like my personal protector.

I guess I should have seen it coming because she was in the hospital and she was not doing well. But I was 14, and I wasn't prepared to lose her. On the day I learned of her death, I called my parents to remind them to pick me up at school because Judy was usually the one to do that. I didn't expect them to remember. When I called their answering machine at the L.A. News Service, there was this message: "We can't come to the phone because we've had a death in the family. Judy Tur died today." All the blood left my head and went to my feet.

I was in shock. It was like I went into a catatonic state. And then I got angry because I thought, Why in the world, would you leave news like this on a voicemail? To this day, my mom and I talk about it. She regrets it greatly.

Part of the tragedy of it all I think is that if Judy had lived, the Tur family dynamic would've been a lot different, a lot better. And I don't think that we would be in the place I am now with my father. She was the glue that held the family together.

You picked up so much about journalism being with your parents, literally hanging out of helicopters as they shouted at each other and reported the news. The family business came naturally to you, though at first you wanted to be anything but, right?

I saw what journalism did to my parents. It tore apart their relationship. They lost everything to journalism. They were so invested in it. Every dime they had went back into the business. They never bought a house because they were putting money into the helicopter. They put everything into Los Angeles News Service.

When that all fell apart they had nothing left to fall back on, except for their videotape library, which decreased in value the longer they weren't gathering new material. I thought, I want something stable. I want something that I know I can build a life with. Let's be a lawyer. Let's be a doctor. "Everyone always needs a lawyer. Everyone always needs a doctor" is what my dad would tell me.

In college I was prelaw. I loved arguing and the idea of being paid to fight with people for a living. But something happened when I sat down with a counselor in my senior year and she said, "Here's the LSAT score you need to get into UCLA." And I thought, I just don't want to study like this for three more years.

At the time, Malibu was on fire, because Malibu is always on fire. I was in a car with my boyfriend and the fire was blocking the Pacific Coast Highway, so we had to take an alternate route. But my reaction was: I don't want to take an alternate route. I want to get as close to that fire as possible. This was an itch that I hadn't been scratching. I would see ambulances or fire engines drive by and wonder where they were going. What was happening off in the distance? So I got this idea to pass these fire lines and to use my fake press pass to get closer. And the officer let me in.

So what happened next?

It's really a great foundation for journalism, isn't it? My boyfriend said, "I've never seen you so confident as you were lying to that officer." It was funny, but it showed me in that moment that this was something that I enjoyed, that I wanted to do. And that maybe I should consider journalism, despite my parents. Maybe what I need to do with my life is to be chase adventure, chase news. I couldn't wait to tell my parents, because I thought, Hey, listen, I'm following in your footsteps. I'm going to help revive L.A. News Service. We're going to make this work again. They weren't thrilled. My dad said, "No, you should definitely not do this. This is a terrible idea. It's going to ruin you. You're going to be asking if you want fries with that for a living." But I persevered.

Your parents did help, after all, though....

I got my first job in L.A. through my mom as a news director's assistant. On weekends I shadowed reporters to learn how to do their jobs. But I quickly figured out that nobody in L.A. was going to take me seriously, because I was Bob and Marika Tur's kid. They just had too much of a legacy. I needed to go somewhere else and build my own reputation. And I didn't want to go to a small station in the middle of the country. So I moved to New York, where there was a little station called News 12's Bronx in Brooklyn. I could start there with no experience. And I that's what I did. The other thing about leaving L.A.: I needed to get away from my dad because at the time he was spiraling and falling apart. I felt like if I didn't, I was going to get dragged down as well.

And at that point, you made a lot of connections. You worked in local news. You ended up going to London. So what was that like? I mean, it seems like you were really, really in your element as soon as you stepped into the world of news yourself.

It felt like home. When I was a kid, my grandmother would take me to news stations to drop off tapes. We'd go into these newsrooms and I'd be holding her hand and she'd drop off the tapes. And she'd kibitz with the news director or the assignment editor, and then we'd leave. Those were some of my fondest memories—driving back and forth from Hollywood to Santa Monica, listening to oldies on the radio. When she died, that memory kind of died along with it. When I stepped into KTLA for the first time, it smelled like home. It smelled like old video tapes and musty carpets and dust. It smelled like my childhood. That hit hit me even harder when I got to NBC News and went to the Burbank bureau, which had not been touched in decades. I walked in there, and it just washed over me. All of the adventure of my parents and my childhood, of what L.A. was like in the '80s and '90s: the center of the universe for news. It was like lighting a fire within me, and I was so excited to do my version of it. And so, local news was great, but NBC News, where I got to travel the country, and then I got to travel the world and learn about new places and learn about people, new cultures, and try to understand these cities that I'd parachuted into, was thrilling.

When you were covering the Boston Marathon massacre for NBC, you got a call from your father. What was that call about?

So at this point, my dad and I didn't have the best relationship. It was rocky. And I'm in Boston, and I thought my dad was calling to say, "Hey, what a crazy story you're on. What's going on with the hunt? You're doing a good job" or something. And instead, it was a call where my dad told me he was becoming a she. He was actually a woman. And it caught me totally off guard. My dad had always been this kind of gonzo journalist, this cowboy. He wore big bomber jackets and aviators and billowy khaki pants, and his shoes were total dorky dad-wear. He just screamed masculinity. He got into fistfights with cops. He was so male-forward while I was growing up, so this was just not something that I was expecting.

So at first, I thought maybe he was joking. He was not. And then it was a conversation filled with some pretty fundamental and basic questions like, "What do I call you now? Do I still call you Dad?" And my dad said, "Yes. You do still call me Dad. Nothing's going to change that. I'm your dad." And then it had moments of silliness where we were talking about makeup and clothes. But our relationship at the time was always on a knife's edge between having fun and a happy conversation, and getting into a very difficult and angry one. And he…she brought up his anger issues and said that their transition was going to wipe all that away. I wanted to believe that, because that anger haunted me. And I wanted it to be addressed in a real way so that we could move on. We could all transition into something better together.

But that's not really how it unfolded.

No, it's not. I go into detail in the book. I tried to have that anger conversation with my dad multiple times. Ultimately, that didn't get resolved, and is what led us to where we are now, which is that we don't have much of a relationship at all.

I'm sorry.

It's hard. It's hard.

Well, to shift to your incredible career, I watched you during the Trump campaign, and then I was just watching before this on YouTube, when you went back to a Trump rally for the first time after 2016. And I was just struck, again, by your poise. And you're getting up close to the people you're interviewing, who are clearly not supportive of your work. They're in your face, but you're in their face. You're not letting them bully you into not asking questions, into backing down. What are you thinking in those moments?

I'm trying to understand. I'm actually very curious about why people believe what they believe in the face of facts or in the face of information that goes against what they think is true. Why do you believe that somebody who has not given you a job, not created a better economy that allowed you to get employed, why do you still think that they're going to do it at some point? Why do you think, after two years of not getting a job, the next two years are going to be better? Or why do you think that you're going to get a better healthcare plan, even though it's been promised over and over again, and no plan has been delivered? And why are you so angry at the media? Why are you so angry at journalists like me? Without trying to understand and get to the bottom of that, I don't think we can move on as a country.

But you also seem fearless.

Well, because it's curiosity. Curiosity overcomes fear.

Let me ask you where you think we are as a country right now.

I think we're in a bad, dark, scary place. Honestly, it keeps me up at night. I'm worried. I'm worried for my kids' future. I'm worried that we could be on the verge of another world war. I'm worried that we could be on the verge of a collapsing democracy. I'm worried about inflation, like everybody is. I'm worried about climate change and what's coming with that, and how many more generations we have left on this planet. And I'm mostly worried because it doesn't seem like we, as a global population, have the tools to communicate, to find a way to tackle these big problems. We are all so separated and so striated, and we can all go to our own silos and say, "I like what this person is saying," or "I like what this information tells me. It makes me feel comfortable. I'm going to go over here, and I'm going to go to this other place, because this is where I feel comfortable."

And there's nobody meeting in the middle, and it scares me. And social media is playing a large role in keeping us divided. I don't know how we tackle that, because we don't have a Congress that seems willing to talk to each other, to find a way to regulate it or to find a way to make sure people have childcare. All these, from the small to the large, we are not able right now to come together to find solutions.

What do you say to people who equate MSNBC with Fox News, but from the other side?

We're based in facts. We're based in reporting, and I can't say the same for Fox. I think there are good journalists at Fox, but they can be overshadowed by the people who are advancing their own interests.

Do you think Trump will run again?

That's a really good question, and I'm not in the habit of predicting anything with Donald Trump, because he is pretty unpredictable, but I would be surprised if he did not run again.

My last question, Katy, is what prompted you to write such a personal book? You could stay behind the camera and not share your story. What compelled you to share it?

I don't think I had a choice. It was what I had to do. We were in the middle of the pandemic. Everybody was at home. I was in my basement doing my broadcast every day and I felt very dark about things. I felt very isolated and very much in my head. My mom sent me this hard drive with all of our family memories, and it was stuff that I had been running away from for decades. I had thrown a potato at my husband's head and I...

And it wasn't a mashed potato.

It wasn't a mashed potato. I hated that, and it scared me. I was pregnant with my second child. I was turning 38. My parents fell apart at 38. I felt a little paranoid about that, and I guess I could have gone to therapy, but instead I just started to write it all down. In part for me to understand it better and understand how I feel about it all. In part to just remember it all again, to relive some of it, because I do miss a lot of it.

I wanted to make sure my kids have a record of my life. My kids know this New York version of me. I don't expect to live in California again, and I feel like if they don't know how I grew up, something of California and how my parents grew up, and who they were, and what they did in the helicopter, I just feel like they won't really know me. I want them to know me. My dad's lived her life for the past 10, 15 years.... A lot of the disagreements she has with me, she's been very public about.

That must be really painful.

It was really painful to live through it, and it always felt like I never knew when the next one would land. The documentary came out, and there was so much in it that triggered me, and at the end of it, when she said that she had hurt a lot of people and she feels bad about it, I thought, Gosh, I wish you had said that to me. I wanted to get down how I felt and what I experienced.

Millions of people deal with this. I've given the book to a few people in my life and people that I know well, and people that I don't know quite as well. I've expressed that I'm very nervous about it and I don't know if it was a good idea to do. Super scared for it to come out. And they said, "Well, I'm happy I read it because I have a difficult relationship with my father, or I have this difficult relationship with my mother and this made me feel like I wasn't alone in it." Or "I had this rage or my dad had this rage and I don't know how to talk about it." So I'm glad that someone else feels the same way. I'm not going to say that that's the reason I wrote the book, but it makes me feel better about having written it.

Thank you, Katy. It really is a wonderful book.

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