As Billy Bush and NBC reportedly negotiate his exit from the Today show, it confirmed, yet again, why the blurring of lines between journalism and entertainment is a dangerous trend.
Full disclosure: I spent six years as an on-air correspondent in a competing network’s news division. I was also a classmate of Billy’s at Colby College in the early ’90s, where I knew him to be an affable, good-time Charlie. With his oversized personality and his early success in local morning radio, his ascent to national entertainment host was hardly a surprise.
It appears, however, that executives at the Peacock Network ultimately decided that their morning audience (68% female according to one story) couldn’t forgive Bush for his behavior during the now-notorious hot-mic incident with the Republican Presidential Candidate and that the program would alienate millions of viewers; its brand suffering irreparable damage if he remained on-air.
As gratuitous as Bush’s fawning over and enabling of Trump’s behavior was in that particular instance (one pundit labeled him an “active accomplice”), I don’t fault him entirely for this tsunami of bad P.R. Trump was the Offender in Chief, though I would argue that NBC News also deserves a generous helping of the blame pie.
It was NBC News, after all, that viewed Billy as a potential candidate to eventually take over Matt Lauer’s coveted co-host seat. It was those same executives who hired an Access Hollywood anchor to co-host an hour of a program that many at home believe is merely a lighter, fluffier version of the evening news. The head honchos at NBC knew Bush’s on-air quips could be risqué, to say the least, and yet they jumped at the opportunity to make his “brand” part of the esteemed morning show.
The point is—Billy’s not a journalist. Not now, not then. He’s an entertainer. Fraternization with larger-than-life celebrities was part of his job. Of course, mocking or laughing about sexual assault is reprehensible and inexcusable. That’s why his Today show colleagues (reportedly) and viewers (who have been quite vocal on social media) can’t, at this time, fathom nor forgive Billy’s apparent enabling of the Donald’s behavior.
The merging of journalism and entertainment has been on display for quite some time. Today, you can turn on the TV and get your news from a former professional athlete or a former MTV VJ. Many young viewers have admitted to getting their only news of the day from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. It’s brilliant satire, but it’s not the news. Recently, we witnessed long-time trusted news anchor Brian Williams lose his way while obsessing more about his likeability than trustworthiness. Could you imagine Walter Cronkite, or even Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings, hosting Saturday Night Live?
Perhaps this “infotainment” trend in media made it possible (as well as palatable for so many Americans) for a businessman and reality show star to become a major political party’s nominee for President. The real problem is: if we don’t know what we’re watching—entertainment vs. news—how can any of us make informed decisions as to what’s real and what’s not?