On Oct. 9, as the media was still scrambling to cover the fallout from a leaked conversation between Donald Trump and Billy Bush on the set of Access Hollywood in 2005 — Trump’s admission that he likes to “grab them by the pussy” is now unfortunately a part of our nation’s political history — CNN unearthed tapes from 17 years’ worth of Trump’s appearances on The Howard Stern Show which did nothing to alleviate the impression of the Republican presidential candidate as a sexual predator. “You are one!” says Stern’s sidekick Robin Quivers, on one of the shows. “It’s true,” says Trump, shrugging. His daughter Ivanka is sitting beside him, smiling.
On another episode, Stern brings up Ivanka by commenting on her beauty. “Can I say this? A piece of ass?” the talk show host asks. “Yeah,” Trump responds.
But wait a minute. We’ve been so caught up in the ongoing accusations by multiple women who’ve since said that Trump kissed, groped or otherwise sexually assaulted them, we’ve failed to pause a moment on Stern’s role in these Trump interviews, or what it says about our tolerance for misogyny before now. “Did your daughter get breast implants?” Stern asks in the conversation about Ivanka, crudely adding, “Boy, I would back up the Brink’s truck.” And this was just one moment on the tapes where Stern can be heard not only egging Trump on and laughing along, but adding his own sleazy commentary. “Can you imagine sex with this troubled teen?” Stern asks, talking to Trump about Lindsay Lohan in 2004. (Trump then responded that “deeply troubled women” are “always the best in bed.”) Discussing the sexual viability of women over a certain age, Trump says he actually doesn’t like to date too young — as he gets embarrassed when “she’s studying algebra.” To that, Stern rejoins, “So what?”
This isn’t to blame Stern for Trump’s own rapey bloviating (as his wife Melania blamed Billy Bush for that Access Hollywood bus tape). But I mean, come on. Do we really accept Stern’s explanation that these conversations were all meant as harmless “entertainment”? “I fully knew what I was doing when I interviewed Trump,” Stern said on his show Monday. “I knew I had a guy who loved to talk about sex … who loved to evaluate women on a scale of 1 to 10. These are avenues I went down because I knew it would entertain the audience.” As to why he had not released these tapes himself, Stern said, “I feel Donald Trump did the show in an effort to be entertaining and have fun with us, and I feel like it would be a betrayal to any of our guests if I sat there and played them now where people are attacking him … We were having a good time.”
But isn’t this exactly what Trump and his supporters have been arguing in the wake of the Access Hollywood leak — that “locker room talk” means nothing; it’s just “boys being boys.” And should we accept that?
There’s been no notable resistance to Stern’s excuses (Billy Bush, meanwhile, is out of his job at NBC, his perky smile swiftly wiped from the digital billboards at 30 Rock). But this Teflon moment isn’t surprising. Stern has been enjoying an image makeover in recent years, a revisionist history of Stalinistic proportions. Once known as a gleefully sexist shock jock, in the media’s indulgent eye he’s now morphed into a kind of elder statesman of the broadcast world. He was a judge on America’s Got Talent! In a glowing profile earlier this year — headlined “Confessor. Feminist. Adult” — the New York Times maintained that Stern had grown away from his formerly misogynistic rhetoric. On The Tonight Show in 2015 Lena Dunham even declared him an “outspoken feminist,” alluding to Stern’s support of abortion rights. (Of course, this was after Dunham and Stern made celebrity peace after a public feud in which he called her a “fat Jonah Hill-looking girl” and she responded by calling him “a cartoon of a female Jewish horse.”)
But even if Stern has recently toned down his act a bit, can we really disregard his 35 years on-air? Should we dismiss the part he has played in the normalization of misogyny we’ve seen in popular entertainment since he first regaled listeners with his ogling of the body of a naked stripper standing before him in his studio? Americans have a well-known capacity for amnesia when it comes to their heroes, but The Howard Stern Show never stinted on displays of what is widely regarded as rape culture. This included hours upon hours of discussions in which Stern verbally dissected the bodies of famous women, told rape jokes, ran interviews with Playboy bunnies in which he’d ask about their sexual experiences with other women as well as provide graphic descriptions of his own fantasies of bedding them.
“I’ll give her the hot beef injection,” Stern regularly joked about women he found attractive. And then there was “Butt Bongo,” in which a member of his studio team would spank a stripper to the beat of a song. To those who would say this was all just just part of Stern’s persona — even his way of exposing sexism, some go so far as to say — consider that “Butt Bongo Fiesta,” an hourlong video of the gag, sold more than 200,000 copies and earned Stern more than $10 million.
And how to ever explain away that moment in 1992 — the year of the Rodney King beating, when racial tension in the country was running extremely high — when Stern “joked” on air to Geraldo Rivera that “the closest I came to making love to a black woman was [when] I masturbated to a picture of Aunt Jemima … I did it right on her kerchief.”
I went to see Stern’s autobiographical film, Private Parts, with some teenage boys when it came out in 1997. I had been interviewing them for a series of articles I did for New York magazine, and they told me that Howard Stern was one of their heroes. As they sat there guffawing along with Stern’s sexist humor — “having a good time,” as Stern says — I understood a little better where they were getting the idea that their own degrading attitudes towards girls and women were OK. (And not just OK, but what would get you money and power and fame, or at least infamy) Those same kids are now in their late 30s, and some of them are raising daughters. If they raise these girls to know that they deserve respect in this world, it won’t be thanks to Howard Stern.
Correction: An earlier version of the article stated that Howard Stern spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his interviews with Donald Trump, but he made these comments on his show.
Nancy Jo Sales is the author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers.