ADVENTURES IN YES

Random thoughts about watching, working and living in the arts, from HMS co-founder and executive producer Scott Silberstein.

October 10, 2016

ADVENTURES IN YES: "Flashbacks"

Donald Trump's inexcusable words and behavior trigger a reflection on HMS Media's first documentary, which focused on rape and sexual assault, and how we view the issue today.

I could show you images of Donald Trump or Billy Bush. This is better.

"How can you keep quiet? How do you have patience for people who claim they love America, but clearly can't stand Americans?" -- Aaron Sorkin, The American President

That's exactly the right question. And the answer to that question about keeping quiet is, "I can't."

Donald Trump and I both went to the University of Pennsylvania. We each speak with pride about having attended this fine Ivy League institution, although only one of us was disavowed by the student body for offensive language and behavior when we ran for President of the United States. If you're wondering which one, it's also the guy who says that part of the problem in this country is that we trust too many people who went to Ivy League schools.

I went the liberal arts route, earning a degree in Psychology from the College of Arts and Sciences. Donald, as you may have heard, went to the Wharton School of Business. He likes to tell people that when he brags about his business acumen, which must be sensational, because he’s made tons of money and has lots of stuff, which, so I'm told, make him smart.

The bankruptcies, the stiffing of vendors and failure of several of his various companies? Those are just part of doing business, and nothing to lose sleep over. (I don’t ever remember learning any of that when I was at Penn, or at St. Xavier, the Jesuit high school I attended, where the motto is “Men For Others.” But maybe I was out sick the day they covered how to avoid taking responsibility for your own actions.)

I imagine that had Trump been around to advise Matt Hoffman and me on how to start HMS Media, he would not have approved of the path we chose, which was, in a nutshell: screw getting rich. Let’s devote ourselves and our company to something that's meaningul to us. Let's dedicate ourselves to the arts and social issues, and see if we can add a little beauty -- and help others add even more -- to a world that was feeling to us increasingly beauty-deprived. Let’s serve those communities honorably and responsibly. Show up. Do some good. See what happens. (Nearly 29 years later, we’re still here, so… so far, so good.)

In about as uncommercial and risky a first move as anyone could make, our first endeavor was a documentary about rape and sexual assault called Why Am I Hiding. Nearly thirty years after it premiered on WTTW, Chicago's PBS station, and just hours after Trump was heard describing and tacitly endorsing sexual assult (with pride and glee, I might add), I’d love to sit the Republican nominee for President of the United States down and make him watch it on an endless loop.

In 1989, rape was a subject deemed so controversial and upsetting that, to the best of our knowledge, it had yet to be addressed on American broadcast television. But Matt and I were learning that we had many friends who had been victims of sexual assault (as do we all, whether we know it or not), and we wanted to do something to help. We couldn’t change the past. But we did have access to cameras and microphones and an edit suite. So, maybe we could change the future.

We partnered with Rape Victim Advocates and initiated relationships with survivors of various kinds of sexual assaults, who, with profound courage, candor and sadness, shared their stories with us on-camera. Suzanne Vega donated some of her songs, L.A. Law’s Susan Ruttan offered to host, and before long we were making our broadcast debut with our first documentary, thanks to the brave programmers at WTTW.

Why Am I Hiding turned out to break some ground in presenting stories of survivors of sexual assault to public television viewers. It encouraged literally thousands of victims of rape and sexual violence in Chicago (and ultimately other cities as well) to seek help from the social service organizations that we listed at the end of the program. We had taken a stand, told a story, got WTTW to air it and changed the future for some of our neighbors, at least a little bit. And in a sweet example of “the more you give, the more you get,” we were honored with a couple of Emmy Awards, presented to us by one of the first practitioners of television and philanthropy to take the time to mentor us, the great Bill Kurtis.

Humbling stuff.

Matt and I always hoped that there would come a day when Why Am I Hiding would be ridiculously outdated. On that day, so rare would sexual assault be and so hideously would the crime be viewed by all that no one would think or talk about it, much less do it.

Even before the revelation of the Access Hollywood video last week, I was clear that this day hadn't arrived, but now that I’ve seen the video and watched the world react, I realize it’s farther away than I’d hoped.

How far away is it? At least this far: a presidential candidate has essentially confessed to sexual assault. Not having an extramarital affair between consensual adults – which, don't get me wrong, is really, really bad – but actual sexual assault, which is violent, manipulative and, oh yeah, illegal.

The whole world heard Trump describe it. Describe having done it. Yet here he is, still in the running, and there are people out there, lots of them, who either don’t care or are defending him. “Boys will be boys,” they tell us.

Funny. I always thought boys were supposed to turn into men. Men for others.

And come to think of it, not only do I not hear men talk like Trump and Bush, I don't even hear boys do it. Perhaps that’s why Bob Schieffer said Sunday on Face The Nation, “This language goes beyond ‘boys will be boys.’ This is ‘pigs will be pigs.’”

I’m glad to see so many in the Republican establishment abandon the SS Trump (although it’s notable that it took this, and not all the other horrible things he’s said, for them to do so). I hope they stick to their guns (although I fear they will not). But I'm disgusted listening to the plethora of people -- some of whom are women, many of whom are parents -- who defend him or dismiss what he’s done.

Of course there’s Rudy Giuliani, who appeared on Trump’s behalf on several Sunday news shows (he had to, because no other Republican would) and said that this is just “locker room talk,” a phrase Trump himself repeated several times during that night’s debate, in what he would say was an apology and what in reality was a deflection, which lacked any true remorse (other than for what had inconvenienced him). Much like his frequent use of the phrase "she deserved it," which he invokes when confronted about his abusive behavior, this was steeped in denial, the kind typical of serial abusers.

I go to the gym a few times a week, and I have to say, I’ve never heard that kind of talk in any locker room I’ve been in, nor, it seems, have the scores of professional athletes who are tweeting that they don’t hear it in their locker rooms either.

Then there's Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, a former attorney general who said that he doesn't see how grabbing a woman's genitals constitutes sexual assault. Methinks he just bought himself a seat in the Trump cabinet, should worse come to worst.

But my favorite response has to be that of Chicagoland’s own Joe Walsh, the former congressman and conservative radio talk show host, who tweeted, “If women were so outraged by Trump’s dirty talk, then who the hell bought 80 million copies of 50 Shades of Grey? Grow up.”

You first, Joe.

One of the most important lessons Why Am I Hiding taught us was that as horrendous and devastating as sexual violence is, equally damaging is the way countless people – men and women – act in response, either to a specific assault or to the issue itself. There are Sessions and Giulianis and Walshes everywhere, people who literally don’t understand the meaning of the word “consent,” who confuse explorations of sexuality with exploitations of power, and who display their ignorance by shooting their mouths off at every available opportunity.

At least we can see them coming.

To dismiss Trump’s words as “dirty talk” demonstrates no understanding of what Trump is saying and no comprehension of what Trump has been doing, and it sends a clear message to others that what he says and does is perfectly ok, if only people (you know the politically correct liberals like me) weren’t so “sensitive,” and didn't insist that "words" and "actions" most definitely "matter."

Horrifying as sexual offenders are, it’s enablers like Jeff and Rudy and Joe that infuriate me even more. These are the folks who don’t just turn a blind eye to sexual violence against the less powerful, they encourage it. They are entertained by it. Matt and I heard from these kinds of people when we were doing press for Why Am I Hiding. They called into the half-dozen radio talk shows on which we appeared to promote the broadcast, and they wrote us letters after it aired. We heard their chilling statements and read their horrifying words, but we never saw their faces.

But now, in my mind’s eye, they look an awful lot like Billy Bush.

Go back to Access Hollywood video. But this time, focus on Bush. Listen to his reaction to what Trump is saying.

Remember the setting: Trump and Bush are inside an Access bus. Access is doing a feature about a cameo appearance that Trump, then host of The Apprentice, is making on the daytime soap Days of Our Lives.

Listen to Bush laugh as Trump, whose wife Melania is pregnant as this conversaton is taking place, tells a story about trying to (in his words) “fuck” a married woman. (That woman has a name, by the way. She’s Nancy O’Dell, an Entertainment Tonight host who rebuffed Trump’s advances, and who two years later found herself the target of Trump’s campaign to have her fired from co-hosting the Miss Universe pageant because she was pregnant and, presumably in Trump’s mind, no longer attractive enough to be on television, which must have made Melania feel so special.)

Listen to Bush snicker as Trump describes how he always prepares himself when he’s around attractive women by popping a few Tic Tacs, because he “just can’t help himself” from hugging and kissing them.

Listen to Bush cackle when Trump describes how, when you’re famous, women will let you do anything, including, again in Trump’s words, “grab them by the pussy.”

Hold on. Now it's about to get really awful.

After hearing these descriptions of various forms of sexual battery, Bush identifies Trump’s next potential victim through a window on the bus, the woman with whom he will be doing his scene on Days. “Your girl’s hot as shit, in the purple!”

Your girl, Donald. Purple girl. Yours.

You’re some class act, Billy Bush.

“It looks good,” replies the current Republican candidate for President of the United States.

“IT.”

How very Silence of the Lambs.

“Its” name, Donald and Billy, in case you were wondering (and I doubt you were) is Arianne Zucker. She's an actor, a Days of Our Lives cast member. Yes, that “hot-as-shit girl in the purple” is a human being, a woman with a name, and a life, and choices, none of which are required to involve either of you just because one of you “can’t help himself” and the other thinks that’s funny.

And here comes the nastiest, creepiest, most reprehensible moment of the video.

Trump and Bush get off the bus and, having just heard Trump tell him what he likes to do to women, Bush suggests to Zucker, “How about a little hug for the Donald?”

What in the name of humanity is Bush doing here? Wouldn’t any decent human being do everything possible to keep Trump’s hands and mouth as far away from Arianne Zucker (or any other woman) as possible?

Next we see Zucker, flanked by Trump on her right and Bush on her left, as they head to the Days of Our Lives set to prep for the scene Zucker will have to do with Trump. When the cameras roll, Zucker, in character, will have to ask Trump, who will be playing himself, for a job.

“I think you’ll find I’m a very willing employee,” she will be forced to purr, thanks to a script with whose writers I’d like to have a word or two, one of which is "you" and the other of which starts with the letter F. “Working under you, I think, could be mutually beneficial.”

On-screen, Trump will blow her off. I think we have a good idea of what he is hoping will happen off-screen.

The shooting of that scene, which soon will be viewed by the largely female demographic at whom Days of Our Lives is aimed, is minutes away. But in this moment, as I watch Trump and Bush hover around Zucker, all I can think is, thank God this is a public event, and thank God there are cameras there, because God only knows what could happen to this woman if it wasn’t and there weren’t.

NBC has suspended Bush, and he is rightly being condemned for the way he acted. He’s offered less of an apology and more of an excuse. “This happened eleven years ago,” he says. “I was younger, less mature, foolish,” and so on.

Nonsense, Billy. Not only should you have known better then, you should have known better well before. And as such, you are emblematic of a very big problem.

Included in Why Am I Hiding are interviews with convicted perpetrators of sexual violence. They’re unnerving not just because of what they’ve done but also because of how amiable and sweetly-demeanored they are. Out of this context, you’d never have known what they were really like, or what crimes they had committed. Any one of them could have been a bus driver. A dentist. A dry cleaner. An insurance salesman. A TV host. Maybe even an eventual candidate for President of the United States.

I look at the Trump/Bush video, and I think of those men we interviewed. I think of the nearly 30 women and men in our documentary to whom we listened and from whom we learned. I think of the 1 in 4 girls who are sexually abused before they turn 18. The 1 in 7 oys. The 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men who are raped at some point in their lives. The nearly half of those identifying as lesbian, gay, straight women or bisexual men who report sexual violence other than rape during their lifetimes. The 3 out of 4 bisexual women and the 1 in 5 straight men who do the same.

We are all potential victims, who, if assaulted, with luck and support could become survivors. There’s no way to rule out who is a perpetrator and who is not, just by looking or talking. That’s why we must be vigilant, we must be supportive, and when someone tells us they were assaulted, we must listen and we must believe.

Maybe there’s some hope. Many who have endorsed or supported Trump, including powerful high-ranking elected officials, are abandoning him like rats from a sinking bigger rat (although let it be said here and now, damn any of them who climb back on board for political gain).

Too little too late? Maybe. But it’s something.

On the other hand, I’ve just watched Face The Nation host John Dickerson ask a focus group of ten St. Louisans, “If your car broke down on the highway, who would you rather have stop to help, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?” Half the group, including some who said they’d never want Trump to be President, said Trump. Why? Answered Kelly, a woman in her late 30’s, “Well, he clearly likes women. So I think he’d feel bad for a woman who needed help.”

Everybody laughed.

You can support survivors of sexual assault. If you’re in Chicago, visit http://www.rapevictimadvocates.org. National resources can be found at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center at http://www.nsvrc.org/organizations.

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