Billy Bush's 'Today' exile looks to be permanent

Will Billy Bush be back hosting the Today show anytime soon? It's not looking good for the newest member of the morning show lineup, who only joined the NBC morning show's roster in August.

On Monday, host Savannah Guthrieannounced, "Pending further review of the matter, NBC News has suspended Billy Bush, who now hosts Today's third hour, for his role in the conversation with Donald Trump," Guthrie said, referring to the 2005 Access Hollywood recording in which the two can be heard having a graphic conversation about sexually assaulting women.

Al Roker filled in during the 9 a.m. hour on Monday, followed by Carson Daly on Tuesday. Bush decamped to Los Angeles, where he was spotted on the street by photographers.

Meanwhile, Brian Stelter of CNN's Reliable Sources, the Los Angeles Times' Stephen Battaglio and NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik are all reporting, based on sources within NBC, that Bush is currently negotiating his departure and that his exit is "a matter of when, not if."

Today producer Noah Oppenheim, in a memo announcing Bush's suspension, told staff "there is simply no excuse for Billy's language and behavior on that tape." And Today's Guthrie acknowledged the Bush problem during Monday's coverage of the tape and its explosive effect on the campaign and the candidates' debate Sunday in St. Louis.

Bush, 44, was an anchor on Access Hollywood, NBC's entertainment-news show, until this summer, when he was promoted to Today. Now that's in jeopardy as NBC, already scorned for scandals and flubs by its news stars Brian Williams and Matt Lauer, ponders what to do with Bush.

 

It should be a no-brainer, says University of Maryland broadcast journalism professor and former NBC employee Mark Feldstein.

"I think Billy Bush deserves to lose his job, not just because of the misogyny of his comments but because he clearly knew about this videotape and the remarks Trump made and concealed it from the public and his bosses at NBC for some time," Feldstein says. "This is the biggest story of the political season, and he knew about it and did not report it. A journalist's job is to report the news, not cover it up."

For much of his career, Bush (a nephew of former President George H.W. Bushand cousin of former President George W. Bush and his brother, former GOP candidate Jeb Bush) has been an entertainment journalist, known for his affable demeanor and his unctuous interviews with a multitude of A-list stars.

Although Bush does not have the journalistic stature of a Williams or a Lauer, he's the co-host with Tamron Hall of the third hour of Today, which traditionally has a female-dominated audience and has plenty of women on its staff.  If it looks like this episode will hurt Today's stature with women — and worse, allow Good Morning America to gain more ground at its expense — then Bush could have difficulty surviving.

His suspension allows NBC to buy time to gauge whether there’s a “stain” on his reputation that would prevent him from being an effective host of the show, says Jonathan Klein, a former CNN chief. At stake, he says, are "literally tens of millions of dollars,” and even the loss of a small fraction of viewers will hit the show's bottom line.

“What they have to wrestle with is less his actions than the perception of him by their audience, which is predominantly women; his culpability has almost nothing to with it,” Klein says. “The bottom line for them is who’s a member of good standing in the family, who will the audience tolerate, and who will the staff?”

It did not help matters when it emerged that Bush's former Access colleague Nancy O'Dell was the married woman whom Trump was heard saying he sought to pressure into a sexual relationship. Only Trump didn't say it like that. Trump has repeatedly dismissed his comments as mere "locker room banter" signifying nothing.

 

"When I heard the comments yesterday, it was disappointing to hear such objectification of women. The conversation needs to change because no female, no person, should be the subject of such crass comments, whether or not cameras are rolling," O'Dell said in a statement from  her current show, Entertainment Tonight.

 

She addressed the matter on Monday's episode, saying, "There is no room for objectification of women, or anybody for that matter, not even in the 'locker room.'"

Bush issued a contrite statement Friday night, hours after the tape leaked to The Washington Post (thus scooping NBC and Access Hollywood, which had been planning its own report). Bush said he was "ashamed" and "embarrassed," but that the toxic talk with Trump occurred when he was younger and more immature. He was 33 at the time, married and the father of daughters.

If this were an isolated case, NBC could brush it off, Feldstein says. But it comes after several journalistic humiliations, including Williams' suspension and reassignment for exaggerating his reporting exploits on air.

Bush has taken a beating on his Facebook page, where thousands of hostile comments were attached to Bush's last posting Friday. "You are sickening!" is one of the milder comments.

It also follows Bush's Today debut covering the Olympics in Rio, when he blithely accepted U.S. gold-winning swimmer Ryan Lochte's account about being robbed at gunpoint in a local gas station. A furious Al Roker subsequently chewed out Bush on the air for failing to call out Lochte.

Feldstein says he blames "media conglomeration" for a pattern of TV's journalistic failures.

"This seems to be a pattern with NBC," he says. "Their executives at the top are making decisions that have nothing to do with journalism and are based on political and public-relations PR ramifications. NBC has disgraced itself in the way it has covered the election —  and I say this as someone who used to work there and likes them."

This episode is the "apotheosis of entertainment values taking over the politics and news coverage," Feldstein says. "It's the real story of the 2016 campaign and one key factor is the huge mergers that have allowed media conglomeration."


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