Rough Draft: A Memoir
This book isn’t supposed to exist.
But in the middle of a terrible year in American history, as hundreds of thousands of Americans struggled with illness, and millions of others like me were shut into a kind of forced reflection—the mailman delivered an unusual package from my mother.
Inside was a small, extremely heavy hunk of metal, about the size of an antique Bible: a hard drive containing a digital copy of the thousands of videotapes my mother had been dragging around for years, the output of her and my father’s entire careers in journalism. It was my inheritance, of sorts. Every story they shot together, most of them catastrophes. Fires and robberies and car crashes. Their beat was someone else’s worst day.
My parents, Bob and Marika Tur, were helicopter journalists in Los Angeles in the eighties and nineties. In fact, they pioneered the form. Madonna flipping off the camera after her clifftop wedding to Sean Penn? That was them. Michael Jackson waving with a burned and bandaged hand in the back of an ambulance? Them again.
They found O. J. Simpson’s white Bronco and then carried an exclusive live feed of the police chase for about twenty minutes, an eternity in TV time, long enough for tens of millions of people to tune in. But perhaps their most consequential footage came out of the Los Angeles Riots. Their images rattled America’s second largest city and shocked the country. At one point, their video of the Reginald Denny beating sold for $5,000 per use.
At their peak, when I was in middle school in the early nineties, my parents were on-paper millionaires. They had a seven-figure helicopter (our second), two Porsches (one of them in taxi-cab yellow), a house in the Palisades with a Jacuzzi hut, and enough extra cash to pay private school tuition for both me and my brother. They were famous too, profiled by People magazine (“Hot Shots”) and The New Yorker (“Hot Pursuit”), cheered by the likes of Geraldo and Sally Jessy Raphael. The show Rescue 911 featured the story of my father finding a transplant patient in the desert.
“Charles Ridgeway, we have your kidney!” he yelled from the helicopter’s bullhorn.
In careers as wild as their coverage, my parents were shot at, threatened, arrested, and told off by a long list of people, including cops, firemen, elected officials, celebrities, and their own colleagues. Later, they sued almost every network in the news business, including the one I work for now, accusing them all of unauthorized use of their videos. They won hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements, but by then the footage had aired and everybody had copied their style, anyway.
Bombastic, propulsive, and live, live, live. My parents shot what is often cited as the first live police pursuit on television, and the second one too—a murder-carjacking that the network decided to air in real time. Instead of a rerun of Matlock, viewers watched an actual killer, in a stolen red Cabriolet with the vanity license plate KRUL FA8, run through Los Angeles for forty-five minutes, running lights, jumping curbs. He died in a hail of police gunfire. My parents never cut away.
The next day the ratings showed that the chase was the talk of the city. It had beat Matlock, a milestone that helped turn the news into entertainment. Today, some former colleagues blame Bob and Marika for the downfall of local TV news. Some would say the downfall of national TV news too. They don’t dispute it. Neither do I.
By the time I was two years old, I knew to yell “Story! Story!” at the squawks of my parents’ police scanner. By four, I could hold a microphone and babble my way through a kiddie news report about a fire that ended with a party at McDonald’s. By the time I was in high school, though, my parents had lost it all. Their marriage. Their careers. Their reputations. My father in particular was known as one of the most hated people in journalism as well as one of the craziest (which is really saying something).
It’s a helluva story.
But I wanted no part of it.
Until this very moment, I’ve been avoiding my childhood and everything about it. When people would ask, I’d keep the focus only on the adventure of it all. While other kids watched Sesame Street, I might say, I tagged along with my parents. Instead of being told to cover my eyes, I was free to look down at car accidents, police chases, and shootings.
Sometimes in the middle of the night my parents would rip me out of bed and take me with them to cover an earthquake or a fire. Malibu was always on fire. I’d watch as my mom hung out the helicopter door to shoot video and my dad flew and reported. The heat was so strong I could feel it on my shins five hundred feet in the air.
I might also tell people about the lunches in Catalina just for the heck of it. Or my little-kid driving lessons on my dad’s lap, circling the infinite tarmac of the airport. The times my dad turned into the “tickle monster” and made us laugh until we couldn’t breathe. I’d tell people about the fun stuff because it was real and we loved each other and that has to be known.
But all these happy memories were haunted too. My father was a charming, larger-than-life figure, a man who scooped the competition on every story and still had time to rescue stranded people in a storm. A man who, when he split with my mom, dated movie stars and tried his hand at feature films. He seemed to keep the world safe and me safe in the world. But he was also a man who punched holes in walls and sometimes tried to do the same to us. A man who, in 2013, called me up and told me he wasn’t a man at all.
He was a woman.
“It’s why I’ve been so angry,” she said.
That anger was exactly what I’d been trying to forget.
After I published Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, I thought the best idea would be to pitch a sequel.
I reminded publishers about the whole backstory. How the editors of Marie Claire had asked me to write a personal essay. How they’d watched (along with the rest of America) as then-presidential hopeful Donald Trump insulted me on national TV, called me names on Twitter, and tried to make his campaign impossible to cover. I talked about how I’d turned it all into a first book, which debuted at number two on the New York Times Bestseller List (behind another political memoir that year by someone named Hillary Clinton).
Campaign 2020 would be even more unbelievable, I said. Donald Trump’s presidency was full of feuds and meltdowns, a revolving cast of villains and heroes. I thought I’d keep up with them all, no longer as a correspondent but in my new job as an anchor on MSNBC. “The plan is to take my show on the road, state to state during the primaries, where I’ll be in contact with voters, the entire field of candidates, all my old sources, a stable of new ones, and of course President Trump himself,” I told the world of book publishing. “The stakes will be higher, the field will be larger, and the gloves will be off.”
But of course the gloves stayed on and so did a lot of other personal protective equipment as America spent 2020 locked in, freaked out, and grateful to be alive. Instead of spending 2020 on the campaign trail, I spent it broadcasting from a bunkerlike studio in my basement, alongside my husband, CBS Mornings co-anchor Tony Dokoupil.
What I got wasn’t so much a sweeping view of American politics as a slightly claustrophobic appreciation of love and my particular marriage. I learned, for example, how to keep a straight face on live TV as my husband burped, farted, and/or napped just feet away from my camera position, often right on the floor in the only kid-free part of our place.
But along the way, I also realized that it’s possible for a book that isn’t supposed to exist to get written anyway—because it has to exist. This book, the book you’re holding, the one full of stories I never wanted to tell, some not even to my husband, is for me the only possible reaction to a world gone mad. In the past ten years, my father has become a woman, I’ve become a mother, and our country has nearly become two, split by politics and partisan media, pushed toward outright civil war.
Journalism is known as the first rough draft of history. But at the peak of a lucky career, in the pit of that awful year in America, I found myself thinking through a first rough draft of myself. I hadn’t seen my father in years. I was thinking about quitting journalism. I was afraid for the future of the country.
How did that happen? Where did it all go sideways? And what was wrong with me? Was it simple burnout? The aftereffect of the craziest years in modern politics? A by-product of the great, nonstop digital everything? An aftershock of the pandemic? Or was it something deeper, a disillusionment in the value of the work itself?
This book doesn’t have it all figured out.
But you could call it a rough draft
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|Epub, PDF||June 23, 2022|
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