NBC Helped Create Trump — Now It Owes The American Public
By Jennifer L. Pozner
NBC giveth, and NBC taketh away.
We have the Peacock to thank for the ascension of a POTUS nominee whose campaign melds the sleaziness of Jersey Shore with the bigoted pandering of Duck Dynasty. For 11 years and 14 seasons, NBC’s The Apprentice groomed the nation to believe that a billion-dollar-losing, vendor-stiffing narcissist with multiple bankruptcies on his corporate record was the gold standard of American wealth, success, and business leadership. Worse, the series aggressively normalized statements and actions that meet the legal definition of gender and race-based workplace discrimination. As I wrote in my book, Reality Bites Back:
“If host and executive producer Donald Trump behaved toward female staffers of the Trump Organization the way he does on [The Apprentice], promoting women for sexy stunts and ignoring or rewarding the sort of treatment women have received from male Apprentice candidates over the years, he’d be setting himself up for sexual harassment lawsuits.”
Now it seems NBCUniversal, specifically their fluffy infotainment show Access Hollywood, may be the Gaslighter-In-Chief’s undoing. Since the infamous 2005 hot mic video surfaced on Friday, capturing Handsy McGrabsalot boasting about getting away with sexual assault to giggling bro Billy Bush, GOP leaders have been scrambling to distance themselves from the top of their ticket, as if they hadn’t had evidence all year of exactly how misogynistic (and racist, xenophobic, and willing to incite violence) their nominee truly is.
Voters appear to be fleeing, with polls indicating major fallout from the tape, especially among women (prompting Trump trolls to create a #RepealThe19th hashtag campaign), although the biggest impact seems to be within the party. The day after we heard Trump brag that fame gives him a free pass to “just start kissing” women or to “grab them by the pussy,” Politico obtained an internal Republican National Committee email indicating that the RNC was at least temporarily ordering “a hold/stop on all mail projects right now. If something is in production or print it needs to stop” — a potentially devastating blow in light of the candidate’s weak get-out-the-vote ground game. By Monday, House Speaker Paul Ryan held a phone briefing to tell GOP pols that he would never again campaign for Trump, and that he will (and, he tacitly implied, they should) focus entirely on down-ballot races so that Clinton doesn’t have a Democratic Congress when she takes the Oval. Fifteen Republican senators and representatives (and counting) called for Trump to drop out of the race, and “at least 57 Republican national lawmakers and governors say they will not vote for Trump,” according to Slate.
Can anyone blame them? (Actually, Samantha Bee and John Oliver can, for good reason, and it’s deeply satisfying to watch them do so.) In most normal election cycles, any one of Trump’s unhinged “gaffes” — calling Mexicans rapists and criminals, telling African Americans their communities are festering hellholes, courting a bromance with Vladimir Putin, retweeting white supremacists, refusing to renounce the endorsement of a KKK leader, and so on — would have torpedoed his campaign.
Instead, despite these embarrassments being central to his presidential bid, they weren’t enough to keep the Republican leadership from endorsing him, nor could they prompt rank and file primary voters to select another nominee. Fissures began to form toward the end of the summer, though: Trump caused a growing backlash from a newly critical press by making assassination threats against his opponent, encouraging Russia to spy on the U.S. government, and attacking the Gold Star parents of a Muslim American soldier who died defending his country. Yet, still, the GOP stood by their man, continuing to endorse and campaign for Trump/Pence even while mouthing face-saving opposition to his comments. In this light, the Access Hollywood tape is almost a gift to Paul Ryan and other key GOP leaders who never liked Trump but were too mercenary and soulless to officially, substantively oppose him — until now.
Had the Access Hollywood footage been simply “lewd” — as grossly mischaracterized by headlines in outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, The Hill and other outlets — America would have listened to Trump and Bush sizing up Arianne Zucker’s legs and Nancy O’Dell’s “phony tits,” doused ourselves in a nation-sized vat of Purell, and moved on. After all, we’ve been well-acquainted with the candidate’s misogyny throughout the year, from menstrual hysteria about Megyn Kelly to inciting violent harassment of female journalists, from attacking a former Miss Universe winner on Twitter at 3am and encouraging us to check out her (non-existent) sex tape, to disgracing the presidential debate stage to bashing Rosie O’Donnell. None of that was enough to cost him party support or substantively derail his momentum.
So, why was Donnie & Billy’s Fun Time Gropemobile finally a bridge too far for the media, for voters, and for the GOP? Because the tape wasn’t simply offensive or vulgar — it showed a presidential candidate proudly relaying his strategy for engaging in criminal sexual acts against women. In doing so, it held up a disturbing mirror into the violence women endure every day in this country, and not only did we not like what it reflected, it made us feel profoundly unsafe (so much so that “America’s Therapists Are Worried About Trump’s Effect On Your Mental Health,” according to Politico).
Luckily, many media outlets contextualized this well, with unusually unambiguous reporting and analysis. The Atlantic properly named Trump’s comments as describing “illegal behavior,” “non-consensual kissing and grabbing of women’s genitals.” “Rape Culture Is Running For President,” The Stranger warned. The Daily News indicted, “How Donald Trump and Billy Bush abet assault.” We can expect feminist outlets like Bitch, Dame, and Vox to go hard on this story, but when even lad mad Esquire is running headlines like “As of Today, a Vote for Trump Is a Vote for Grabbing Women ‘By the P*ssy’” (subhead: “Vote your conscience”), we’re clearly at a turning point.
Shocker: Journalists At Work
All of which led to a something we haven’t seen in far too long: a journalist practicing actual journalism while moderating a presidential debate. Town halls have traditionally been among the most lightweight debates, yet the first question CNN’s Anderson Cooper posed on Sunday to the GOP’s nominee was as dark as they come: “You called what you said ‘locker room banter.’ You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Trump did not understand that. His response flipped through every page in his well-worn abuser’s handbook:
- First, he denied a thing the entire country watched him say on tape (“No, I didn’t say that at all.”)
- Then, he tried to make his inquisitor seem confused and wrong (“I don’t think you understood what was said.”)
- Next, he trivialized bragging about behavior meeting the legally definition of sexual assault as nothing worth getting upset over, just boys being boys (“This was locker room talk . . . it’s one of those things.”
- After a perfunctory fauxpology, he implied that concern over his sexual violence — which, to be clear, is concern for women’s safety — is a useless distraction from “more important and bigger things” (“ISIS chopping off heads . . . drowning people in steel cages!”)
To his credit, Cooper didn’t let him dodge the question. It is extremely telling that Trump couldn’t even bring himself to deny the rapey behavior he was clearly so proud of on the tape until Cooper asked him a fourth time if he had ever forced sexual acts onto women without their consent:
“Cooper: For the record, are you saying that what you said on the bus 11 years ago, that you did not actually kiss women without consent or grope women without consent?
Trump: I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.
Cooper: So for the record, you’re saying you never did that?
Trump: Frankly, you hear these things. They are said. And I was am embarrassed by it. But I have respect for women —
Cooper: Have you ever done those things?
Trump: — And they have respect for me. And I will tell you, no I have not. And I will tell you, that I’m going to make our country safe and we’re going to have borders which we don’t have now. People are pouring into our country and they’re coming in from the Middle East and other places. We’re gonna make America safe again, we’re gonna make America great again but we’re gonna make America safe again and we’re gonna make America wealthy again . . .”
This was a remarkable moment in journalistic history. As I tweeted Sunday night:
I wasn’t being facetious with that “bravo”; as a media critic, I couldn’t have been more grateful. The anchor’s willingness to hammer Trump on sexual assault was relevant and newsworthy, but unusual in contemporary presidential debates — as was moderator Martha Raddatz, ABC’s chief global affairs correspondent, pressing Trump for anything resembling accurate or rational comments on foreign policy in response to his incoherent rambling about Syria and Russia.
Cooper and Raddatz performed a real service, infusing journalism back into the dog and pony shows we’ve come to expect from these stages. Presidential debates increasingly resemble public relations exercises for politicians, rather than news-breaking opportunities for reporters to help Americans understand if candidates’ campaign rhetoric actually matches their legislative records, plans, and promises. As illustrated by the Commission on Presidential Debates recently coming out against real-time fact checking, the CPD is beholden not to American citizens but to the Republican and Democratic Parties. The result has been moderators lobbing mostly softballs, or sleeping through their task — as NBC’s Lester Holt seemed to do in the first Clinton/Trump debate — turning what should be illuminating, critical forums into glorified press conferences where candidates recite practiced soundbites and voters fail to learn anything new about their policy agendas or readiness to lead. (Or, in Trump’s case, given the freedom to creepily stalk his opponent across the stage and dry-hump a chair in front of the moderators, Ken Bone, and millions of horrified viewers.)
The impact of this should not be underestimated: approximately a third of undecided voters say the debates will be a major factor in the way they cast their ballots. In that light, relegating journalists to the role of glorified PR flacks shortchanges Americans and threatens the health of our democracy, keeping us less informed than we need to be to make credible decisions about whom we want to hold immense power over our collective futures.
The Least NBC Can Do
NBC has suspended Today Show anchor Billy Bush — likely indefinitely — for his role as Trump’s smirking, complicit hug pimp on that Access Hollywood bus. By benching Billy — the Bush cousin who makes Dubya look like a proud Mensa member — NBC sends the message that he bears responsibility for encouraging Trump’s sexual assault strategy, and for helping him degrade Arianne Zucker in their workplace in 2005. But when will the network reckon with their own responsibility in saddling America with the Trump reality star-who-would-be-POTUS juggernaut?
Here’s how they can start: They can release raw footage from The Apprentice’s 14 seasons, which reportedly captures Trump using the N-word, as well as sexually harassing female contestants and staffers on and off camera. At this stage in the election, those tapes are the political equivalent of forensic evidence, and the American people deserve access to them. Undecided voters, especially, have a right to view tapes that could help them evaluate if they want an N-word spouting sexual harasser in the White House. UltraViolet and MoveOn petitions have garnered more than 115,000 signatures pressuring NBC and MGM Studios (which owns the series) to release the tapes. Instead of doing the right thing, NBC claims it cannot release any footage and is referring calls to producer Mark Burnett who, stand-up guy that he is, is said to be threatening legal action against former staffers if they release the tapes, possibly with a “$5 million leak fee.”
Having documented nearly a decade of abject racism and misogyny in scenes that actually made it on-air on The Apprentice, I have no doubt that the years of material left on the cutting room floor may be at least, if not more, damning than those few minutes captured on the hot mic in 2005. As I wrote in Politico last year, after Trump claimed Fox News primary debate moderator Megyn Kelly “had blood coming out of her wherever”:
“Just like early adopters in technology shape user experiences well into the future, so did Donald Trump and his partner, Survivor producer Mark Burnett, help to create and solidify two of reality TV’s most bigoted tropes: that women in general are intellectually inferior to and less competent than men, and that African American women in particular are irrational, angry, lying bitches who can only get ahead by ‘playing the race card.’”
NBC and Mark Burnett are partially to blame for the rise of a candidate who poses such an unprecedented threat to our democracy that not one major newspaper has endorsed him — including Southern outlets that have previously only ever endorsed Republicans, and outlets that never endorse at all yet felt the urgent need to denounce Trump as resoundingly unfit for the office of the presidency. (To the best of my knowledge, this kind of consensus among news outlets has never happened in modern American history.) With less than a month until Election Day, the network and the producer owe those tapes to the American people.
After profiting from The Apprentice for 12 years, it is literally the least they can do.
On Wednesday evening, after I filed this story, the New York Times reported that two women have come forward to accuse Trump of sexually assaulting them in exactly the ways he bragged about the tape. One woman was a 22-year-old receptionist at a real estate company in Trump Tower when she says he kissed her on the mouth; this was 2005, the same year he told Billy Bush his game plan with “beautiful women — I just start kissing them, it’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.” The other incident took place several decades ago. Jessica Leeds was 38 when a flight attendant bumped her up to first class and she found herself seated next to Trump, who “raised the armrest, moved toward her and began to grope her.” She told the Times that “Mr. Trump grabbed her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt. ‘He was like an octopus,’ she said. ‘His hands were everywhere.’ She fled to the back of the plane. ‘It was an assault,’ she said.”
Additionally, People just published a first-person story by one of their own writers, describing Trump attacking her while she was at the Mar-a-Lago to report on his and pregnant Melania’s happy marriage, pinning her against a wall and forcing his tongue down her throat. With all three stories emerging less than a week since the Access Hollywood tape surfaced, I can’t help but wonder if we are at the beginning of a Cosby-esque avalanche.