In a world where Donald Trump’s comeuppance is at least several weeks away and — worst-case scenario — may never come at all, the firing of Billy Bush feels like justice. If one living symbol of privilege and entitlement in America couldn’t be shamed into a swift exit from the public eye, then another got his due, at least. Which is why Bush’s indefinite suspension, announced Sunday, and almost certain permanent departure from Today, over comments he made off-camera during Trump’s now-infamous Access Hollywood appearance, has been one of few causes for celebration in a news cycle that’s largely given us more things to feel terrible about. It didn’t just offer schadenfreude, though there’s plenty of that. It felt like a rare example of a TV industry that’s largely been complicit in Trump’s rise sucking it up and doing the right thing.
Of course, feeling good doesn’t necessarily amount to changing anything; if it did, all those hair jokes would’ve nipped Trump in the bud more than a year ago. And Bush’s firing excises only a fraction of the cancer that is television’s, and particularly NBC’s, queasily codependent relationship with Trump.
Bush’s run on Today lasted only a few months, and it wasn’t a particularly distinguished one. His only other crossover moment to non-morning-show viewers was arguably during the Olympics, when he defended Ryan Lochte in the wake of his fabricated robbery crisis. Pussygate is not Lochtegate, however, and the PR of letting Bush back on the air after the Trump tapes emerged wasn’t going to be counteracted by the clicks on a viral Al Roker dressing-down. Getting rid of Bush, reportedly about as well liked by his coworkers as he is by the internet, was an easy decision — minimum sacrifice for maximum impact. It didn’t hurt that it was also the right thing to do, because: fucking gross, dude.
Less easy is the question of how NBC negotiates its relationship with more established personalities and business partners. The network formally cut business ties with Trump himself last June, refusing to air the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants and declining to bring back Trump as a host of Celebrity Apprentice in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Reminder: the Apprentice franchise was still going strong in 2015.) But as Variety’s Maureen Ryan noted on Sunday, many conflicts and possible ethical lapses remain around the network’s treatment of the candidate, and at the center of all of them is Apprentice producer Mark Burnett.
Burnett has enjoyed an outsize public profile since the Emmys, when host Jimmy Kimmel only semijokingly blamed him for Trump’s platform and Burnett himself not-even-jokingly thanked Kimmel for the free publicity. Burnett has long been established as one of the titans of reality TV. He’s the man behind Survivor, Shark Tank, and, more troublingly in light of current events, Sarah Palin’s Alaska. He’s also an executive producer of The Voice, which continues to be one of NBC’s biggest ratings draws.
And he’s allegedly sitting on a pile of excess Apprentice footage that, according to former producer Bill Pruitt and children’s TV producer Chris Nee, has clips as or more incriminating than the Access Hollywood tapes. Burnett and MGM, which acquired Burnett’s One Three and Lightworkers Media in 2014 and therefore owns his shows, have made clear they’re not releasing the footage due to “various contractual and legal requirements.”
Those “requirements” could mean any number of things. Trump himself might hold the rights to the footage; there could be a steep financial penalty attached to leaks. (Though steep is, obviously, relative; Nee reached out to Trump’s fellow billionaire and vocal detractor Mark Cuban about the $5 million it would theoretically take to release some incriminating footage. There’s also a GoFundMe page to pay for legal fees, and David Brock, a Hillary Clinton donor, has volunteered to help cover costs.) A piece in Politico speculates that “it would be highly damaging to [Burnett’s] standing in the industry … if he released proprietary material.” Which sounds fair enough, until one thinks about it for half a second and realizes that there is much more at stake in this election than an incredibly rich person’s “standing in the industry.”
That’s what’s most frustrating about Burnett’s involvement, and that of NBC — the same network that continued to pass Trump the microphone on The Tonight Show and SNL even after it technically stopped doing business with him. NBC has bent over backward to clarify that Burnett and MGM, not the network, control The Apprentice. It does own Access Hollywood, which is why the network reportedly held its news division back from releasing the Bush-Trump tape for days while attempting to sort out the legal issues and working through several layers of corporate bureaucracy. It may be possible that firing Billy Bush is NBC’s only contractually allowed option; it still feels like a distraction from the network’s deeper problems, and an obstruction of some of its own employees’ journalistic obligations.
Billy Bush may be a more public manifestation of broadcast media’s uncomfortably close relationship with Donald Trump, but Mark Burnett is a more persistent one. Bush is gone. The rest of the iceberg remains, lurking beneath the surface.