Saying a man on television is annoying is like saying there are grains of sand on a beach. Like superheroes, various TV personalities have their own special qualities that can make them especially grating to certain people. Perhaps it’s because of a laugh, or it might be because of a particular TV show character they play; maybe it’s fatigue because the person seems to pop up everywhere, and sometimes it’s a unique voice or being part of The Voice.
But it takes a truly unique being and perhaps a dose of dark magic to be dubbed “the most annoying man in show business.”
According to some people, for the past 12 years, that title has belonged to man named Billy Bush.
One of Bush’s fellow Billys in Hollywood, Billy Crystal, bestowed Bush with that unfortunate label while backstage at the Oscars in 2004. At the time, Bush — a cousin to former President George W. Bush — was a correspondent on Access Hollywood whose reporting style apparently involved knocking people over in a rush to interview celebrities.
A decade later, Bush has now become a celebrity in his own right. He’s an anchor on NBC’s Today show, yes, but as of last week, he’s also a co-star in the biggest story of any presidential election in recent memory: He’s the guy egging on Donald Trump in the leaked 2005 Access Hollywood tape where Trump brags about the various ways he apparently had and would sexually assault women.
"Jeez, your girl's hot as shit!” Bush is heard saying.
Those six words and Bush’s behavior on the tape have resulted in Bush’s suspension from Today, pending “further review” by NBC, and, yes, a national feeling that he might very well indeed be the most annoying man on television. But his rise, and now his demise, is very much related and crucial to our own understanding of celebrity culture.
Billy Bush is a risk to NBC and the Today show
In the wake of the Washington Post’s October 8 article that broke the news of the 2005 tape, a second story about the recording’s existence emerged: NBC News and Access Hollywood, which are both part of NBC, sat on the story and didn’t release the tape until a tipster forwarded it to the Post. The official reason for the delay, according to an NBC executive who spoke to the Post, is that the two NBC programs were waiting on legal approval, even though it was known to be an authentic recording shot by Access Hollywood.
I’d posit that another reason for the delay is that NBC was trying to figure out what to do about Billy Bush’s involvement.
Bush sports a bad look in the recording, as he doesn’t challenge Trump when Trump boasts about grabbing women by their genitalia. And as the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan points out, Bush’s participation means he “knew about [Trump’s comments] for 11 years but apparently didn’t see [them] as newsworthy.”
What complicates matters for NBC is that Bush is now an anchor on the network’s flagship morning program, the Today show. Morning talk shows, beneath the gauze of weather reports and quirky bits about cooking salmon, are just like any other bit of television programming — they’re a business. And this business and the Today show’s ratings are built on the idea that the people bringing you this cheery news are good, friendly people.
The people you see on morning television — Kelly Ripa, Matt Lauer, Michael Strahan, Al Roker — have their personalities judged in a way that extends far beyond the way we view other people on television or in movies. Quite simply: You’re not allowed to be a real person on morning television — your private life and morning show personality (cheery, morally good, personable) must align with each other.
Bush’s participation in Trump’s brags about sexual assault destroys his persona as a friendly, nice morning show host.
It tarnishes his image. And allowing him to continue hosting Today will tarnish the show’s image. Instead of being the guy who asks celebrities to answer innocuous questions, Bush, at least for now, is primarily known as the guy who sleazed out with Donald Trump about shagging women (including one of his now-former co-workers). Sure, their conversation may have been private, but Bush had a clear opportunity to call out Trump’s boasts as unacceptable, and he did not.
"Obviously I'm embarrassed and ashamed. It's no excuse, but this happened eleven years ago — I was younger, less mature, and acted foolishly in playing along. I'm very sorry,” Bush said in his apology statement.
This isn’t to say that every NBC television executive is a saint in private spaces or has never engaged in the type of “she’s so hot” commentary Bush can be heard saying on the tape. (To be clear, Bush himself isn’t talking about sexually assaulting women on the tape; that distinction belongs to Trump.) Far from it. But those executives are in charge of a business; they’re not the face of the business. And anything that affects Today’s ratings or its image is seen as a risk. It’s also worth mentioning that the majority of daytime talk show viewers — some 73 percent, according to Pew Research — are women.
As a result, Bush’s continued involvement on Today could irreparably hurt the show’s brand — executives know that, and Bush has been suspended. But NBC hasn’t said how long the suspension will last, or provided a particularly specific reason for it.
"Pending further review of the matter, NBC News has suspended Billy Bush, who now hosts Today's third hour, for his role in the conversation with Donald Trump," Today host Savannah Guthrie announced to viewers during Monday’s episode.
Pending further review of the matter, NBC News has suspended Billy Bush. pic.twitter.com/uYGydJQV4N— TODAY (@TODAYshow) October 10, 2016
Billy Bush sees his interview subjects as his friends. That’s a problem.
Bush landed his current job as Today show host earlier this year, after a 15-year run on Access Hollywood (where he worked from 2001 to 2016). He’s essentially become an avatar for celebrity journalism and, in particular, a seemingly outdated version of it.
Over the past few years, with the ever-growing prominence of social media, the wall between a celebrity’s public life and private life has broken down. Depending on how cynical you are, you may view social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat as just another outlet where celebrities can craft edited, curated versions of their lives. But the conceit is that when celebrities share something via their personal social media accounts, it’s representative of who they truly are.
Being able to see on Instagram what Serena Williams is having for dinner or where Reese Witherspoon just worked out has given rise to the idea of the “real” celebrity. (Stars, they’re just like us!) Between celebrities’ use of social media and the proliferation of Hollywood news and gossip sites like TMZ, shows like Access Hollywood feel a bit quaint in comparison. After all, they still cater to an older sense of celebrity where actors, musicians, and celebrities are perfect people and every movie is a great experience, every actor is a pleasure to work with, and everything is awesome.
And in Access Hollywood’s case, the obscurity is right there in the show’s title: We no longer need to watch it to gain “access” to our favorite celebrities, because our favorite celebrities are on Twitter, or Instagram, or Snapchat.
Bush and correspondents like him are, in a sense, part of the older facade — they’re delivery mechanisms for the fake stuff that celebrities trot out when they aren’t on their own social media accounts. They’re complicit in the charade.
For a recent example, consider one of the biggest stories of the Summer Olympics: American swimmer Ryan Lochte lying about being robbed at gunpoint in Rio. The story, over the course of its relatively short life span, shifted from a dramatic tale of robbers dressed as cops to an account of a gas station manager getting annoyed with Lochte and his teammates for peeing on the his property.
Bush was the first person to get the earliest version of Lochte’s story. Lochte told Bush:
We got pulled over, in the taxi, and these guys came out with a badge, a police badge, no lights, no nothing just a police badge and they pulled us over. … They pulled out their guns, they told the other swimmers to get down on the ground — they got down on the ground. I refused, I was like we didn't do anything wrong, so — I'm not getting down on the ground.
And then the guy pulled out his gun, he cocked it, put it to my forehead and he said, “Get down,” and I put my hands up, I was like “whatever.” He took our money, he took my wallet — he left my cell phone, he left my credentials.
Bush let that story, and even that nonchalant “whatever” comment, slide. As the story began to unspool, and even with Lochte later saying he had made up crucial parts of this account, Bush seemed loyal to Lochte’s version of the story, making excuses for the swimmer’s fabrications. In one tense Today show segment, Bush fought with his co-anchors over whether Lochte did, in fact, lie:
Bush turned red trying to defend Lochte, seemingly more concerned with protecting Lochte’s image than with telling the truth.
In hindsight, after hearing the tape of Trump and Bush from 2005, it’s difficult not to draw a parallel between Bush’s reluctance to admonish Lochte and his behavior with Trump, and keeping mum about such a serious matter.
That’s a problem, given that Today is part of NBC’s news division, where anchors and hosts shouldn’t be playing favorites or protecting certain celebrities.
Bush might not fully understand that, or see the difference between a friend and an interview subject.
Back in 2004, Bush gave an interview about Access Hollywood executive producer Rob Silverstein and how Silverstein helped him become the success he is today. He mentioned that he was told to act like a friend instead of a journalist.
"Rob said, 'You know the way we are when we're hanging out in the office? That's the way you need to be on the air,'" Bush told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "‘It's not about long-form interviews. It's about nuggets of fun and emotion.' I caught that and started having moments with people."
Bush’s ability to create these moments is what made him successful. They’re also what made some people view him as the “most annoying man in show business.” But most importantly, they’re the moments NBC believed it could parlay into ratings momentum on the Today show, by hiring a guy who can and will talk to celebrities and high-profile people like they’re friends having a beer together after work.
The downfall of that approach is that in his interactions with celebrities, Bush has no reason to challenge or confront what they say, no matter how inappropriate or implausible may be. His interview with Lochte in August illustrates that, and now, his moment with Trump calls into question what other pieces of information he’s holding on to.
Bush is so hung up on “having moments with people” that it’s not clear whether he understands where his responsibility to report the truth starts and stops. And that may spell an end for his future at NBC.