Billy Bush and the New Ethics of Entertainment Journalism
The fall of the 'Today' co-host doesn't just mean a blip in his career; it means the end of a certain kind of journalism.
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 at the time — and maybe still do — that entertainment news wasn’t real news. It was a thin, gauzy fabric spun out of whispers and half-truths and hot air, with its own magical equation: information + entertainment = infotainment.
In the universe defined by that equation, the rules were more relaxed, weren’t they? 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 such as “follow the money” and “speak truth to power” and “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” — those things 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 a permanent sentry, he was about to interview a field marshal, and the last thing he wanted to do was strip off 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.
Just months after reaching a career pinnacle when he was named a co-host of the Today show this summer, the 45-year-old was suspended Oct. 9, and two days later he entered talks to exit the show.
One has to assume, given the sheer speed with which this happened, that he hadn’t won too many fans in the few 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 share of indiscretions, with an internal investigation to boot. Nothing of the sort was deemed necessary here.
Publicists I’ve spoken to say they were often reluctant to place their clients with Bush, even before word spread about his Trump talk. Perhaps the Today team knew that, and realized the perks of having him weren’t quite as magnificent as they’d seemed.
Part of me feels sorry for him for getting caught up in the Trump tornado.
Part of me feels he should have known better: After all, others who were present at the time of his now-infamous conversation were shocked — or so I’m told — not just because of the vile language, but also because Trump was bashing Bush’s own colleague, the well-liked Nancy O’Dell.
And part of me marvels at the stupendous irony of it all: 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 they knew it — though it’s time they did, and explained why they failed to take action.
One explanation may be that they just didn’t know. But a bigger reason lies in the fact that the rules for entertainment journalism were simply different. Back then, at worst, Bush would have been rapped on the knuckles. Today he’s forced out of a job.
It’s taken a long time for the rules to change, but they’re doing so at the speed of light.
In Hollywood’s early years, when stars were still being created and the studios were at the dawn of creating entire galaxies to add luster to their films, news and publicity were almost indivisible. The studios were expert at hiring PR mavens who knew just how much information to dollop out (true or false) to feed the thousands of outlets that craved to be spoon-fed.
True, there were outsiders tilting at the Hollywood windmills — like Confidential, the scandal rag that made the National Enquirer look like Ladies’ Home Journal. But when it came to the mainstream media, guys like Howard Strickling and Eddie Mannix (MGM’s publicity chief and its general manager, respectively) were masters at controlling the flow of information.
“We told stars what they could and couldn’t say,” Strickling was quoted as saying in his New York Times obituary, “and they did what we said because they knew we knew best. When things went wrong, we had a way of covering up for them, too.”
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. Between them, they represented everyone who was anyone, and the numerous magazines and TV shows that needed to reach their clients knew they had to toe the line if they wanted to keep the spigot open.
Controlling access meant controlling 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 nothing but.
* * *
We’re living in a different time now.
Just as social ethics have changed, so have the ethics of entertainment journalism. I’ve seen it in the trade press, which has gotten tougher and less bound to the studios and networks that pay so many of their bills. And I’ve seen it in some excellent reporting, not just by my colleagues but by a host of reporters at places like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
I’m not saying entertainment journalism was always bad. Some if it has been terrific for decades. Look back at the work of Aljean Harmetz in the New York Times, or read a book like David McClintick’s masterful Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street, and you’ll see examples of journalism at its best.
But these were rare rays that penetrated the thick miasma of Hollywood spin, bolts of summer lightning that barely split open the dark nimbus that had hovered over the entertainment media.
Now we’re all expected to be tougher. There’s pressure from competition and from new sources of information that were never even imagined in the age of Mannix and Strickling.
The Internet has exploded the divisions between hard facts and publicity. Sure, the web can be a boggy swamp of misinformation and outright lies; but it’s democratized the path to the truth and broken down the barriers between those who deliver information 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.
For all of those operating in infotainment, who think they’re immune to the kind of fallout Bush has experienced, it’s time to watch out. Bush’s downfall doesn’t just mean the end of his Today career; it may very well mean the end of a certain kind of journalism.
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