Oppenheim: Billy And The Blur

Oct 13, 2016

When the story broke about Donald Trump and the infamous recording, everyone focused on what – exactly - Donald Trump had said.

But it’s also interesting that the person he said it to is Billy Bush - cousin to George W. Bush, and even more notably, the newly hired host of the third hour of NBC’s Today Show.

Bush came from Access Hollywood, an entertainment program that’s part of the NBC-Universal empire - where part of what Bush did was to schmooze with celebrities. He’s good at it. In the 2005 recording, Bush and Trump were about to make cameos on the soap opera “Days of Our Lives”. On the bus, doors closed but microphones on, Bush played Ed McMahon to Trump’s Johnny Carson, egging him on.

Fast forward to May 2016 when Bush is hired at the Today Show – not an unusual move. National morning news programs make a lot of jack for the networks, and they do so by straddling different identities. At the start of the day, they cover mostly hard news, but over the course of a morning, topics get softer.

But that transition isn’t exactly linear. The A team, folks like Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie, also handle silly stuff. And the B team, folks like Bush, sometimes have to tackle serious issues.

Bush would know. At the Rio Olympics, he was roundly criticized for bungling an interview with swimmer Ryan Lochte, and defending him when it was clear Lochte had lied about vandalizing a gas station.

Now, in the wake of the eleven-year-old Trump tape, Billy Bush has apologized. But after saying they had no plans to discipline him, NBC executives have reversed course. Billy Bush has been suspended and there are numerous reports he’s negotiating an exit from Today.

There’s hypocrisy in this.

By bringing Billy Bush into a news program, NBC hired someone with a history of sucking up to celebrities. On that bus in 2005, Bush was crude, but he was also doing what he’d always done professionally – playing along.

The push for ratings has long blurred the line between journalists who are knowledgeable and fair, and happy talkers or bloviators who are not.

The NBC network, like so many others in American broadcasting, has created a media landscape where there’s little distinction made between serious journalism and entertainment.

And in a world where we need to know the difference, that blur is not a good thing.