NEW YORK — Two scandals, two approaches. NBC News gave Brian Williams a second chance after he was caught lying about his role in stories, while Billy Bush apparently won’t get the same opportunity following his profane conversation with Donald Trump.
NBC wasn’t talking publicly about Bush’s future on Wednesday. But the network is privately negotiating the “Today” show host’s exit, according to an executive with knowledge of the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity because it is a personnel matter. When Bush was suspended Sunday, “Today” chief executive Noah Oppenheim said there was “simply no excuse” for Bush’s language and behavior on the 2005 tape revealed Friday.
The sins of Williams and Bush were different, but in both cases NBC executives needed to weigh whether it was worth rehabilitating them.
Williams was suspended and toppled as “Nightly News” anchor in 2015 for misleading people, most prominently falsely claiming that he rode in a helicopter that drew enemy fire during the Iraq War. Other exaggerations, made mostly when he appeared on talk shows or spoke publicly, came to light but NBC never released results of its internal investigation into Williams’ conduct.
He has stayed on as a breaking news anchor on MSNBC, this fall hosting a late-night show about the presidential election.
“This was a difficult decision,” NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke said last year when reinstating Williams. “Brian Williams has been with NBC News for a very long time and he has covered countless news event with honor and skill … We believe in second chances.”
One industry veteran believes that Bush deserves one, too.
He’d need to do an epic apology, perhaps even on the air to Nancy O’Dell of “Access Hollywood” and actress Arianne Zucker, the two women featured in Bush and Trump’s lewd conversation, said Shelley Ross, former top executive at ABC and CBS morning shows. NBC could also use this as a teachable moment and assign Bush to cover issues like campus rape or workplace sexual harassment, she said.
“How was Brian Williams given a second chance when his journalism sins were far greater?” asked Ross, who went public this summer with a story that she had been harassed by ousted Fox News chief Roger Ailes at the outset of her television career 35 years ago.
To a journalist, there’s no greater offense than lying about a story. To the general public, Williams’ tall tales don’t necessarily have the visceral impact of Trump and Bush’s vulgar interchange, capped by the unforgettable request made of Zucker: “How about a little hug for the Bushy?”
“It’s hard to imbue these entertainment reporters with the same high level credibility we require from our news side people, but at the end of the day, even entertainment reporters are still journalists and have to maintain some degree of decorum and impartiality,” said Roy Gutterman, journalism professor and director of Syracuse University’s Tully Center for Free Speech.
“The fact that he sort of participated in the dialogue really changed his position,” he said.
Bush’s knowledge of the tape’s existence — he reportedly talked about it at a party this summer — would leave him vulnerable to criticism that he misled his employers by not telling them about material that has proven to be an important story in the presidential campaign. NBC News has said it wasn’t aware of the tape’s existence until last week.
There’s also some sentiment that Bush may be the fall guy for NBC’s embarrassment at being beaten on a story in its backyard by The Washington Post, which first reported on the tape’s existence last Friday.
Bush, 44, is the nephew of former President George H.W. Bush. He worked at “Access Hollywood” for 15 years, but only started on Aug. 29 as host of the “Today” third hour at 9 a.m. Williams has been with NBC News since 1993.
“It could be harder to forgive a stranger than somebody you’ve worked with for a few decades,” said Jon Klein, former CNN U.S. president and head of the digital company TAPP Media.
There are more women than men on the “Today” show staff, and the audience for the “Today” third hour typically is 68 percent female, according to the Nielsen company. For a network morning show, which thrives on the image that its team and viewers are one big happy family, the tape may be difficult to live down — especially for someone they know little about anyway.
Bush’s Facebook page has drawn an avalanche of complaints, and anger overran ridicule among some late-night comics. Bush and Trump “turned their rape culture banter into a rape culture power move that demeaned and violated Zucker in ways that she is only now finding out about,” TBS’ Samantha Bee said.
HBO’s John Oliver said the “hug for the Bushy” line “should be a felony in all 50 states.” His show ran a clip reel Sunday of Bush making cringe-worthy comments to women. “How do you feel about your butt?” he asked actress Jennifer Lopez.
Her reply: “Are you kidding me? You did not just ask me that.”
Marcel Pariseau, a partner at True Public Relations, whose high-profile clients include Scarlett Johansson, wrote on Facebook: “He was rude and lewd to a few female clients of mine. Boycotting the 9 a.m. hour of the ‘Today’ show.”
Bush’s former “Access Hollywood” colleague, Kit Hoover, emotionally defended Bush on the air. “He is a good person,” she said.
But as a new person on a television show where the 2012 ouster of Ann Curry left an open sore for many viewers, that kind of testimony apparently won’t be enough.
Associated Press Television Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.