At NBCU, Billy Bush Is Out, But Corporate Espionage Seems In

Brian Steinberg

Any journalist who has covered NBC News for a while knows employees there leak more than a boat built out of Swiss cheese. Yet even the most veteran observer was surprised by what recently escaped the NBCUniversal-owned unit’s grasp.

NBCUniversal had been sitting on the scoop of a decade: Donald Trump, a presidential candidate whose temperament for the White House has been called into question hundreds of times, was caught on a 2005 outtake from NBCU’s “Access Hollywood” bragging to correspondent Billy Bush about sexually assaulting and harassing women. As NBC started to vet the information, it lost control of it. Someone—could it not be an employee within NBCUniversal?—sent a copy  to The Washington Post, which made it available to the public within hours.

“My gut would have been to put that story on the air” as soon as possible, said Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide (and the former CEO of NBCU), speaking at Harvard University Friday afternoon. The Washington Post, he added, “deserves a tremendous amount of credit.”

It’s credit that could have been sorely used by NBCU, which has been badly bruised during one of the craziest election cycles in decades. Many of the company’s most popular assets – “Saturday Night Live,” Jimmy Fallon, Matt Lauer and CNBC – have come under fire for their handling of appearances by Trump or their moderating of a forum or debate involving the candidate.

And so, there’s a mystery at hand that would likely take the combined talents of NBC detectives like Columbo, McCloud, Frank Pembleton and Father Dowling to solve: Why hasn’t the parent corporation publicly sought to identify the leak and prevent a similar one from taking place in the future?

Disclosure of the tape has, after all, left NBC News reeling, forced to cast off a new “Today” host who might have been groomed for bigger things. Billy Bush has, since he joined “Today” in August, seemed about as welcome there as Carlo Rizzi among the Corleones (Al Roker’s recent on-air schooling of Bush on being a reporter after he flubbed an interview with Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte offers ample proof that NBC’s morning-show crew had yet to gel with their new addition). Now Bush and NBCU are expected to come to terms on an exit agreement early this week after his appearance with Trump sparked outrage from staffers at the morning franchise.

Besides, one can argue the leak has caused millions of dollars in damage – a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the money to be lost in settling with Bush, the potential damage to the company’s vaunted “Today,” which will have to rejigger hosts again at 9 a.m., and, to some degree, the loss of ownership that would have come had NBC broken the tale of the tape that rested within its archives for more than a decade.

And yet, the corporation seems relatively sanguine about the whole thing.

Spokespersons for NBCUniversal, NBC News and “Access Hollywood” all declined to offer specifics on how the company was reacting to the episode. Much of the Bush matter is being handled by executives at NBC News, who are keeping corporate executives informed, according to a person familiar with the situation.

To be sure, NBCUniversal was able to get the story on MSNBC after the Post usurped control of it – making it the first TV network to tout the story.  Executives at the company might argue that endless shots on cable-news outlets of an “Access Hollywood” bus containing Trump and Bush provided ample credit for the outtake’s origins.

But there’s past precedent for internal investigation of wrongdoing at the company—and passing along information and details of a content in development is at many organizations a serious offense. The comparison here is weak, but imagine what Walt Disney Co. might do if someone emailed secret scenes from the coming sequel to “Frozen” to a rival outlet after the film clips had been scheduled to be revealed on “Good Morning America.”

When former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams in February of 2015 made false statements during a “Nightly” broadcast about his time aboard a Chinook helicopter during a 2003 reporting trip to Iraq, NBC News and its parent set up a months-long internal probe, led by Richard Esposito, a senior executive producer who has since left the company.

Comparing the two episodes may seem silly. Leak of the Trump tape didn’t misinform the company’s viewers. Indeed, it informed them, and Bush’s appearance on it is hard—even impossible—to dismiss. Both incidents, however, caused NBCU material damage. The Williams debacle resulted in weeks of ratings issues at “NBC Nightly News,” while release of the Trump outtake has led to havoc at “Today,” a major generator of ad dollars for NBC and its parent.

When unauthorized information about a company surfaces in places it isn’t supposed to, the first question many ask is “Who benefits?” Did someone at NBCU feel releasing the tape of Trump and Bush was in the public interest? Was there concern NBC News and “Access Hollywood” were dragging their feet on revealing a major news development? Or did someone just have it out for Billy Bush?

In an era of hacks and corporate espionage perpetrated upon entities ranging from Sony to the Democratic National Committee, you’d think executives across the units of NBCUniversal, including chief Steve Burke, would want to know. For now, passing along stories in progress at NBC News and “Access Hollywood” seems like a pardonable offense at NBCUniversal. One wonders what future leak will be sizable enough to draw the CEO’s full gaze.

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