“It’s no excuse, but this happened 11 years ago; I was younger, less mature,” was the closest “Today” anchor Billy Bush came to an explanation in the statement he issued hours after a video surfaced Friday of him talking dirty with Donald Trump.
Perhaps whichever publicity mastermind helped him craft these poorly chosen words might have advised him that at 33 years of age he wasn’t exactly a child at the time of the incident.
Bush and NBC are going to have to do a lot better than that if they intend to salvage his reputation, which is getting hammered right alongside Trump’s. But if they thought that even the most perfectly rendered written statement will be enough to contain the damage done here, they’re delusional.
And while NBC hasn’t made any official indication yet as to what if any action will be taken, you can be sure Bush isn’t just going to re-appear on TV at 9 a.m. Monday as if nothing ever happened.
NBC may have a lot at stake with Bush, who seemed a rising star at the network just a few months ago when he was transplanted “Access Hollywood” into the prime real estate that is “Today,” where speculation had it he was being groomed to eventually replace host Matt Lauer. These quasi-news shows, which remain significant ad-dollar draws, are only as good as the personalities that front them, so rehabilitating Bush is no trivial concern.
Unfortunately, these shows are targeted at the very same adult-female demographic most likely to be offended by Bush’s comments. Many women and men are already making their feelings known via social media, and that could be just the beginning; the network could fear worst-case scenarios like organized protests from offended parties targeting Bush that could pressure advertisers to pull out of “Today.”
Who’s to say some enterprising demonstrator won’t disrupt a telecast with a protest that appears on air via “Today” Plaza, the way some creative Ryan Lochte detractors recently infiltrated “Dancing with the Stars?”
Consequently, NBC News brass has to do something to counteract Bush critics and demonstrate some sensitivity to this situation. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday sources indicated there won’t be any “reprimand” of Bush, which makes sense because it’s not like he did something that made him unfit for his job the way Brian Williams did when evidence emerged he had repeatedly lied.
But while Bush may have committed a less grievous sin here, it’s a sin nonetheless considering he’s offended his audience.
Sure, you could easily make the case that what Bush said on the video wasn’t as awful as what Trump said, or what a presidential candidate says is of exponentially more importance than what a TV talking head says, but trying to mitigate would serve no purpose beyond angering those who would beg to differ. NBC needs to treat this as if Bush is just as bad as Trump.
If NBC still believes Bush has a future at “Today,” sidelining him with some kind of suspension or reassignment is not productive. It’s not like the audience is going to forget what he said were he to be mothballed for a month and then put back on the air. The smarter move is to keep him in the game and face the music.
So what we will most likely see Monday is Bush address the situation directly on the air and amplify his apology. If this isn’t handled well, as many believed Williams fouled up his own mea culpas with ham-handed insincerity, he could dig himself in deeper. A 60-second repetition of his statement would be a bad move, for instance.
But if “Today” allows someone like Lauer to grill Bush at length, during which time he demonstrates sincerity and an appreciation of the gravity of his situation, he’ll at least have begun to undo the damage.
If NBC brass is going to let him make his case on air, they better make sure first that Bush is truly not the man he appears to be in the Trump footage. If it turns out Bush has been continuously notorious for this kind of behavior off air, an on-air apology that gets followed by more revelations about Bush’s boorishness will not only destroy his career but NBC itself will get some collateral damage for looking foolish enough to have trusted him.
But even if Bush is capable of uncorking an Emmy-worthy tearjerker of an apology Monday, he’s going to need to do more to re-ingratiate himself with the audience. If he has any goodwill with the women in his life, now is the time to call in some favors: Think People magazine cover story in which his wife and mother testify to his integrity. Maybe even his old colleague Nancy O’Dell can offer her forgiveness. Whether on or off NBC’s air, Bush needs to create a narrative for himself akin to undergoing sensitivity training to let viewers know he’s truly a changed man.
Of course, there’s also the prospect of overdoing it, which runs the risk of looking calculated and self-aggrandizing, so some moderation is required.
What ultimately happens to Bush will have less to do with what NBC brass thinks of his Trump incident and more about his long-term prospects on “Today,” which took a hit at the Summer Olympics after an on-air tiff with Al Roker over the Lochte controversy. If the bumpy ride he’s had in his short time at “Today” was concerning enough, the Trump incident hands Lack an easy excuse to drop Bush. But if NBC brass believes Bush is still of value and still has heir-apparent potential to replace Lauer at “Today,” they will figure out a way to keep him.