Fifteen years ago, an ambitious young reporter had finally reached the big time. He didn’t have much experience in journalism; he’d DJ’ed for a couple of radio programs and briefly hosted a primetime game show, NBC’s Let’s Make a Deal, before segueing to a job as East Coast correspondent for one of TV’s nightly entertainment newscasts.
He probably believed, as so many others did — and maybe still do — that entertainment news wasn’t real news. It was a thin, gauzy fabric spun out of whispers and hot air, with its own magical equation: information + entertainment = infotainment.
In the universe defined by that equation, the rules were more relaxed. That kind of journalism was largely about cuddling up to the stars, and occasionally skewering them. Real reporting, and by extension real journalistic ethics, had little to do with it.
Old journalists’ chestnuts — “follow the money,” “speak truth to power” and “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” — didn’t apply here. Why would they, when a chat with Brad Pitt or a studio visit with George Clooney mattered far more to ratings than the sort of scoop that ends in -gate?
This was the thinking that permeated much of the entertainment news business in 2005, when the newly promoted co-host of Access Hollywood sat down with one of the most powerful men in New York. His job was to make the man his friend, not peel off thick layers of encrusted hypocrisy.
In the demilitarized zone that existed between journalism and publicity, where the reporter was on permanent sentry, he was about to interview a field marshal, and the last thing he wanted was to strip him of his epaulets.
So when the field marshal told crass jokes, when he made jaw-dropping comments about grasping and groping women, it was his natural reflex to salute. That’s how he’d gotten here in the first place. And that was the best way to go even further.
* * *
Now Billy Bush has paid the price, and it’s a lesson everyone in the sometimes-smoggy world of entertainment journalism should heed.
Months after reaching a career pinnacle when he was named co-host of the Today show, the 45-year-old was suspended Oct. 9, and two days later entered talks to exit the show.
One has to assume, given the speed with which this happened, that he hadn’t won too many fans in the weeks since he started his job. After all, it took the network eons to decide what to do with Brian Williams when he committed his own indiscretions, with an internal investigation to boot. Nothing of the sort was necessary here.
Part of me feels sorry for him. Part of me feels he should have known better — others who were present at the time of his now-infamous conversation were shocked by the vile language, and because Trump was bashing Bush’s own colleague, the well-liked Nancy O’Dell — and part of me marvels at the stupendous irony: It took a Bush to bring down Trump. (Billy is Jeb and George W.’s cousin.) And thanks to Trump, another Bush was brought down in turn.
* * *
A decade ago, when the Trump-Bush conversation took place, the consequences were nonexistent. None of Access’s then-producers have revealed what they knew or when, and one explanation may be that they just didn’t know. But the rules for entertainment journalism were different. Back then, at worst, Bush would have been rapped on the knuckles. Today he’s forced out of a job.
In Hollywood’s early years, when stars were still being created and the studios were forming entire galaxies to add luster to their films, news and publicity were indivisible. The studios were expert at hiring PR mavens who knew just how many tidbits to dollop out (true or false) to feed the thousands of outlets that craved to be fed. Guys like Howard Strickling and Eddie Mannix (MGM’s publicity chief and its general manager, respectively) were masters at controlling the flow of information, and the rules they established outlasted the rule-makers.
Long after they were gone, the industry’s resident powers in the 1980s and '90s, CAA's Michael Ovitz and PMK’s Pat Kingsley, exerted their own steely control. By controlling access, they controlled journalism. And so most entertainment journalism operated in a gray zone, one that may have included the truth, but was rarely the whole truth and never nothing but.
* * *
True, there were rays that penetrated the thick miasma of Hollywood spin, bolts of summer lightning that occasionally split open the dark nimbus that had hovered over the entertainment media. But they were rare.
We’re living in a different time now. Just as social ethics have changed, so have the ethics of entertainment journalism. There’s pressure from competition and from new sources of information that were never even imagined in the age of Mannix and Strickling.
The web can be a boggy swamp of misinformation and lies; but it’s democratized the path to information and broken down the barriers between those who deliver the news and those who consume it.
We still have a long way to go. Watch the glorified infomercials that pass for interviews on some of the major television shows and you wonder what planet they’re living on. But there’s pressure to change, and the pressure is building fast.
Bush’s downfall doesn’t just mean the end of his Today career; it means the end of a certain kind of journalism.
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