Most people would send a gift basket and a thank you card to Donald Trump if he invited them to stay in his mansion. BYU graduate McKay Coppins is not most people.
Coppins is a senior political writer for BuzzFeed, a popular social news organization. A regular guest on CNN and MSNBC, he covers national politics, major figures in the Republican Party and the intersection of politics and religion. Although he only graduated from BYU a few years ago, he appeared on the 2012 Forbes “30 Under 30” list and was identified as a rising TV pundit by DETAILS magazine.
The BYU graduate spent a few days interviewing Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, earlier this year. Afterward, he published an unflattering story on the celebrity.
“Trump spent the next couple of weeks going to war with me,” Coppins said.
There was drama. There were angry tweets. Trump even fired one of his aides.
Coppins describes it as one of his favorite experiences of his career.
“It’s a sweet spot for any journalist to write something that’s true but that also provokes such a visceral reaction from someone in power,” Coppins said.
Coppins knows the value of a good story. And he knows that honestly telling certain stories can result in backlash. Trump is not the first person to dislike something the reporter has written. In fact, Coppins has received everything from petty insults to death threats during his time as a journalist. But he brushes this off because handling the truth is the source of his success.
Becoming the Mormon Wikipedia
Coppins is well-known for his coverage of Mitt Romney. BuzzFeed hired him January 2012 to report on that year’s presidential campaign. As a young journalist, he was thrilled at the prospect of going on the road and extensively covering the Republican candidate.
“The entire country tunes into a presidential campaign,” Coppins said. “It’s like the Super Bowl, but it lasts an entire year.”
Coppins had an edge in this particular campaign because he was the only member of the LDS Church in the traveling press tour that followed Romney all over the country. Upon discovering he shared Romney’s religion, other reporters on the tour started asking Coppins questions about his faith for their stories. They called him the “Mormon Wikipedia.”
Coppins soon realized he could help the press and readers across the nation understand his religion while still being fair and objective. He clarified aspects of the LDS religion by writing articles like “A Brief Guide to ‘Mormon Underwear.‘”
“In addition to being a political reporter, I knew my role as a Mormon explainer could be valuable to the campaign conversation,” Coppins said. “I tried my best to merge those two.”
Americans like to keep politics and religion separate, but the reporter stuck his neck out for the sake of accurately portraying an issue. And it turned out to his advantage.
When he joined BuzzFeed, Coppins had about 1,000 Twitter followers. After his coverage of Romney, that number had skyrocketed to 40,000.
“It wasn’t luck,” said Ed Carter, one of Coppins’ professors at BYU. “You make your own luck in journalism. McKay was in the right place at the right time, and he was prepared for it.”
Coppins became a well-known insider during the campaign. He appeared on several talk shows because of his insight into Romney’s religion. As an LDS journalist, he wasn’t just in the conversation. He was starting the conversation.
“McKay was in a position as a credible reporter to interpret LDS culture and belief to a national audience,” said Joel Campbell, one of Coppins’ communications professors at BYU. “He did it as a journalist. He wasn’t a spokesman for the Church, and he didn’t sugarcoat anything. That’s what the media wanted.”
In short, people trusted him to tell the truth.
Where it all began
Coppins always had an affinity for truth-seeking.
“McKay is very smart and incredibly curious,” said Steve Pierce, Coppins’ friend who also graduated from BYU in journalism. “He always has a well-thought-out question to ask or is ready to play the other side to really push you on any point you’re making.”
Coppins was only a high school sophomore when he began his life of investigation. He took over the school paper, and his first issue was a dramatic story about a basketball policy that led to players getting benched.
“I remember a lot of players and faculty members were mad at us,” Coppins said. “And I loved that. I thrived on people reacting strongly to what we wrote.”
He knew he wanted to be a reporter from that moment. Growing up as one of only a handful of Mormons in his Massachusetts high school, he also knew he wanted to attend BYU. Coppins came to the university, where he studied print journalism and was the editor of The Daily Universe.
During that time, he again riled people up by writing a series of investigative stories with his friend Steve Pierce concerning BYUSA’s expenditures. The experience stands as another testament to Coppins’ devotion to truth-telling. His credibility as a fiercely independent reporter is what gave him the opportunity to work for BuzzFeed.
“McKay has a solid reputation for fairness and professionalism,” Pierce said. “You certainly can’t say that for every political reporter.”
The reporter now lives with his wife and daughter in New York City, a hub for political news. He is currently on leave from BuzzFeed, hard at work writing a book that analyzes six leaders with an active role in the future of the Republican Party and the 2016 primary election: Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.
He’s interviewed siblings, college roommates and high school teachers of the politicians. Given his track record, it seems likely that Coppins will ruffle a few feathers when the book is published next year.
But that comes with the job.
“The heart of journalism in a democracy is about information that somebody somewhere doesn’t want to be public,” Carter said. “And McKay understands the role of a journalist is to be honest.”