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NBC Can’t Erase Itself From the Narrative on Donald Trump’s Rise

Many Trump Questions Remain for NBC,
Courtesy MSNBC

“I’m erasing myself from the narrative,” Eliza Hamilton sings in “Hamilton.” At one point, the title character’s wife torches his letters and denies future generations insights into the scandals that surrounded his career.

But as much as NBC might want to erase itself from the story of Donald Trump’s rise, or at least clean up its role in propelling the presidential candidate to the national stage dating back to the launch of “The Apprentice” in 2004, the last few days have proved there was no Eliza to erase the tapes. And we’re left with too many questions about the relationship between the candidate and the network. 

Of course, NBC is not the only media organization that has some soul-searching to do when it comes to abetting Trump’s rise and normalizing his positions, statements, and behaviors, which are often extreme, offensive, or, at the very least, troubling. CNN president Jeff Zucker’s decision to give Trump hours and hours of free air time essentially any time the candidate wanted it has been unfortunate, of course (inflicting Jeffrey Lord on us is a lesser misdeed, but one worth noting). And of course, Fox News devoting more time to Hurricane Matthew on Friday instead of the Category 5 Trump story, is unfortunately telling, if predictable.

One of the core themes of “Hamilton” revolves around the malleability of narratives, and Trump’s ability to get much of the media to dance to his tune has revealed many alarming flaws in America’s news-gathering ecosystems. But clashing ideas about image and media manipulation are particularly suited to the core mission of “Saturday Night Live,” which, at its best, skewers the powerful and the pompous, no matter who they are. As it happens, “Hamilton’s” creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, hosted this weekend’s installment with a great deal of enthusiastic energy.

“SNL” did what it could to join the narrative about the implosion of Donald Trump’s campaign following the release of an audio clip in which he matter-of-factly described the sexual assault of women; in that sickening clip, Billy Bush, formerly of “Access Hollywood” and now of the “Today” show, joined Trump in objectifying women, including one of his then-colleagues, Nancy O’Dell.

“SNL’s” cold open captured some of the surreal quality of the last 48 hours since the tape was revealed. Even if Alec Baldwin’s Trump is too broad to truly work, Cecily Strong’s anchor character conveyed the sense of stunned, disbelieving outrage that has coursed through many Americans. If nothing else, it was certainly weird to hear the word “pussy” on live television, even though it’s been all over cable news during this bizarre weekend.

The high point of the whole show may have come during Miranda’s monologue, when he paused to sing the line “You’re never gonna be president now” at Trump’s photograph. It was turned into a GIF before the broadcast was even over.

Though pundits are declaring the election over, there’s still a month to go before the votes are officially counted. Although NBC can’t be blamed for everything Trump has become, history has its eyes on NBC, to steal another “Hamilton” lyric. There are many questions worth asking.

Such as:

  • How is that NBC News and “Access Hollywood,” a product of an NBC subsidiary and distributed by NBC Universal, had the bombshell footage of Trump and Bush’s comments, and did nothing with that tape for days? My colleague Cynthia Littleton and others have explored this question, but so far, the answers are still not necessarily satisfying and the reasoning not fully explained. What is clear is that NBC News knew about the tape but sat on it, and it must have been mortifying for the network’s reporters and producers to be scooped by the Washington Post, which broke one of the most important stories of the election.
  • So what did NBC know and when did the top brass know it? More importantly, why didn’t they release it? The fear of a lawsuit, which has been floated in some corners as a rationale, seems like an odd excuse, given that the Washington Post took only hours to vet and publish the conversation. 
  • How could NBC have had a relationship with Trump after he made these comments about women? NBC might not have been aware of this specific tape, but his attitudes about women have always been crystal clear, as a listen to any of his appearances on Howard Stern’s show would reveal. There’s also a recent AP story that dove deep into the misogynistic remarks he made during the production of “The Apprentice.” 
  • As for “The Apprentice,” will the show’s creator and exec producer Mark Burnett address the controversy? Will NBC pressure him and MGM (which now owns the show) to do so, despite the fact that Burnett is appears determined to keep any and all “Apprentice” recordings from reaching the public? There’s apparently a lot of material to choose from, according to former “Apprentice” producer Bill Pruitt: “As a producer on seasons 1 & 2 of #theapprentice I assure you: when it comes to the #trumptapes there are far worse. #justthebeginning.” (By the way, if we need more proof of Trump’s attitudes, here is a clip that made it to air: In it, Trump jokes about a female contestant dropping to her knees and that being a “pretty picture.”) 
  • Yes, “Saturday Night Live” has effectively skewered Trump in their past two episodes, but why did it go soft on Trump less than a year ago? One of the worst shows “SNL” has done in four decades aired last November, when Trump himself hosted: The sketches were lame, neutered and basically glorified Trump, as either a wily titan or an eccentric uncle. Keep in mind that this hosting gig took place five months after NBC officially cut business ties with Trump over his offensive comments about Mexicans being rapists, and yet the network still allowed him to burnish his image as the host of “SNL.” And the pageants Trump owned and his “Apprentice” hosting duties were part of the network’s offerings for years after he began peddling birtherism. 
  • How much of Jimmy Fallon’s appearance on “Weekend Update” was image-polishing meant to distract viewers from Fallon’s embarrassing encounter with Trump last month? And was anyone else irritated by the fact that Fallon’s inability to remain in character nearly ruined what was otherwise a perfectly acceptable skit with Tina Fey?
  • Will Billy Bush still have a job on “Today” come Monday morning? I have always found Bush to be about as charming as a root canal without novocaine, and his recent bombastic and embarrassing defense of self-serving nitwit Ryan Lochte didn’t help matters. Let’s not dance around what also occurred on that “Access Hollywood” tape: After the sickening remarks on the bus, Bush encouraged the actress Arianne Zucker to hug both him and Trump. That might have been the most demoralizing moment of the whole tape — not to mention the fact that the two men objectified and demeaned one of Bush’s colleagues (O’Dell). Yet Bush defended himself the way Lochte did: It was just immaturity at work (Lochte is 32; Bush was 33 when he made those comments). Even if Bush apologizes again on Monday, that tape and Bush’s behavior are deeply troubling. Are employees of “Today” expected just work with him like nothing happened? Could it really be true that Bush is perceived by some within NBC to be the next Matt Lauer? I find the idea that NBC may protect him rather than fire him appalling. There’s really no other experienced TV host who could occupy Bush’s “Today” chair? (Update: NBC has suspended Bush for an undetermined amount of time.)

In summary, sitting on that explosive audio tape, in the context of Trump’s long history with NBC, is far from a good look for the network. The overall question is, does NBC think it has to answer for any of this? If so, when will we get a fuller accounting?

To quote Aaron Burr, I’m willing to wait for it.