11 years ago Billy Bush engaged in a conversation with then reality show star and real estate tycoon Donald Trump. By now the world knows what this conversation was about: Sex and its availability to people of fame. I purposefully left out adjectives regarding the tenor of the conversation because any adjective would not properly place the conversation in context depending on the differing personal views of just how inappropriate it was.
11 years ago no one cared, not because they shouldn’t have cared but because Donald Trump wasn’t a month away from potentially being the President of the United States. Now vetting out his opinions on women are paramount.
11 years ago Billy Bush was a TV host engaged in a risque conversation with a famous man for a show purveying in risque material. So here we are.
It took NBC four days to “review” the material that was eventually released by the Washington Post. In no way will I pretend to understand the legal questions asked internally by the executives at NBC, but failing to release the tape in a timely manner to avoid it from being disseminated by another source wreaks of bad judgment at best and covering up an important piece of dialogue about the personality of the Republican candidate for President. But this piece isn’t about that issue. This piece is about NBC’s decision to suspend Bush 48 hours after the tape threatened to derail the election. What did Bush do wrong? He didn’t stand up for the collective women Trump discussed in a vulgar fashion. He continued to enable it.
NBC’s immediate reaction on Bush was complete silence. What this read to me was exactly how Trump defended (through apology) what was caught on tape: It’s “just words,” the type of words you’d hear “in locker rooms everywhere.” Put aside the literal meaning of “locker rooms” so that we don’t lump in sports teams as bastions of sexual predators. What Trump was trying to say (I think) was that while it’s not right to discuss women in an objectified manner, that discussions of these sorts are commonplace. And NBC not responding swiftly to Bush’s role in said conversation, they seemed to be tacitly agreeing with the notion that in private settings, boys will be boys.
On this point, I’m not going to be the one to try to chastise them on the grounds of morality because, it’s true. In settings where males congregate, sexual conquest is a topic of conversation. This isn’t right or moral or mature but it’s a fact. And at the time, Bush was talking to a man who owned a pageant where looks and sexuality mattered most.
NBC was caught in a situation where their hand was forced to suspend Bush. Based on the backlash of the leaked tape, NBC could not condone that type of behavior. Bush is not standing up to discussions that, while may be commonplace, took on a particularly vulgar tone. Had Trump merely opined about his interest in particular women but not used the language or imagery associated, this likely is not news. But that isn’t what happened. To Trump’s point, I think we’d all agree that if particular words were absent from the conversation, this would not have been a big deal in the media. So in essence, what Trump was saying as a defense was right, his words crossed a line, but the overall tenor of the conversation is so prevalent, societally, we’d have to be hypocrites to go after him for it.
This is an interesting quandary NBC finds itself in. Bush didn’t say the things Trump said but he was complicit in letting this conversation breathe naturally and certainly wasn’t there to tell Trump he’d crossed a line. This is not a Brian Williams issue where credibility was at issue. I’m not sure credibility matters for Bush anyway, his role is generally in an entertainment realm. What this does mean is that he’ll be hard pressed to break through that level of host ceiling.
The larger question for me is what lesson can be learned for broadcasters of all experience levels? In the moment, would I have stood up to Trump and told him his words were not appropriate? I don’t know. I’ve conducted plenty of interviews where I allowed the subject to tell stories that easily could have been perceived as crass. Clearly, the best option is to stay away from enabling or agreeing with opinions that are in the moral gray areas, but I’m not sure that is realistic especially in a forum where pure entertainment is the goal.
It’s like Trump said, “It’s just words.” Clearly those words have ramifications but figuring out what kind of ramifications is almost impossible.