How NBC's Infotainment Agenda Led to Its Donald Trump Debacle (Guest Column)
The company's botched Billy Bush bombshell comes after Lauer and Lochte woes and reveals a news operation at odds with itself and serving too many agendas.
When should Billy Bush, journalist, have filed his story that Donald Trump, celebrity billionaire, had been recorded boasting about grabbing women "by the pussy"?
Should he have filed in 2005, as soon as the recording was made? Bush was co-anchor of NBC's Access Hollywood, and Trump was a reality TV star. Should he have filed in summer 2015, as soon as Trump launched his presidential campaign, making the story more in the public interest? Should he have filed his fall, when Bush made the formal switch from Access Hollywood to Today, thus from NBC's "infotainment" program to NBC News, where his audience might expect a higher standard of journalistic ethics and accountability? Or should he still not have filed to this day, since Trump's comments were made on a microphone that perhaps was unknowingly open, thereby possibly violating California's prohibition against unsanctioned eavesdropping?
These are ethical questions that Bush, 44, should have plenty of time to contemplate in the apres ski lounges of Aspen as he takes what is expected to be an enforced early retirement from Today. In the meantime, those dilemmas were resolved by a leaker, who delivered Bush's delayed exclusive to the Washington Post. NBC did the legwork thanks to Access Hollywood but earned none of the credit. On the contrary, and not for the first time this campaign season, its scoop invited suspicion and scrutiny. Why was it dithering? Did it have some biased agenda to protect Trump's candidacy?
It is not bias. It is confusion. The suspicion that fell on NBC News is a consequence of its very structure, of how owner Comcast organizes NBC's television journalism. Already during this campaign, Today anchor Matt Lauer had come under similar criticism for playing favorites in his questioning of Trump and Hillary Clinton at an NBC Commander in Chief forum. Previously, CNBC was accused of overly antagonistic questioning of GOP candidates in its 2015 debate.
There is no other television news operation that is as heterogeneous and as multifaceted as NBC's. With its dizzying array of divisions, time slots and audiences, both on broadcast and cable, it is inconceivable that NBC can present a single house style to the world. Thus the ethical question facing Bush — did he have the same responsibilities at NBC News as he had at an NBC entertainment outlet? — is just a single example of many contradictory pressures at NBC.
So who's to blame? The apex of the organization is occupied by NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. Under Burke, Today is the responsibility of NBC News chairman Andy Lack and Noah Oppenheim, the senior vp in charge of day-to-day management of the lucrative franchise. Lack also has control over MSNBC — but not CNBC (which remains a separate division under Mark Hoffman), nor Access Hollywood, which resides in NBC's syndication arm and reports to Burke via different routes. A viewer might see the peacock brand on all of these outlets, but that's no guarantee of executive consistency.
How, for example, could CNBC be suspected of anti-Republican animus? Had any of those complainers ever watched Joe Kernen or Michelle Caruso-Cabrera? CNBC happens to be owned by the same corporation that hired liberals Rachel Maddow and Christopher Hayes and before that Al Sharpton and Melissa Harris-Perry at MSNBC. Then, by some convoluted logic, Lauer overcompensated by subjecting Clinton to tougher questioning than Trump.
Yet NBC's cognitive dissonance is not just confined to ideology. Working under the same logo, viewers see political hounds Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell — and also wine-swilling Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb. They see Brian Williams fired as not honest enough to anchor Nightly News but rehired as the breaking-news voice of MSNBC. They see Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski breathlessly fan the political rise of Trump on MSNBC while its intrepid female quartet of campaign reporters — Katy Tur, Hallie Jackson, Kristen Welker and Kasie Hunt — document the misogynistic mood that has infested Trump rallies from the outset of the campaign. Anyone listening to that quartet had no need to wait for Bush's exclusive.
The circumstances of that taped 2005 conversation point to one further contradiction at the heart of NBC's journalism. The coverage consisted of NBC's Access Hollywood following the star of NBC's The Apprentice as he made a cameo on NBC's Days of Our Lives soap opera.
As TV journalism, NBC continually tries to look in two directions simultaneously. It tries to reassure its audiences that its first duty is to deliver the news. Simultaneously, as television so often does, it tries to use its airtime to generate promotion for other content in other time slots.
Bush's 2005 frat-boy escapade is one example. His jaunt this summer in Rio with drunken vandal swimmer Ryan Lochte is another. NBC News makes it so much harder to take the delivery of its journalism at face value when it seems to be trying just as hard to shill for its own programming. Exhibit A: the Olympic Games.
It is at times of extreme scrutiny like these — the closing stages of a presidential election — that the credibility of a TV news brand is secured or undermined. Over the next four weeks, NBC News has to make doubly sure that its coverage decisions are made by journalists, not by lawyers, experienced in politics not in show business, with an eye to its long-term reputation not short-term ratings. And when it has a genuine exclusive, that peacock logo needs to be on it, irrespective of cries of favoritism.
Tyndall is an independent news analyst and publisher of the Tyndall Report.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.