Brian Williams Will Stay At NBC, But Won’t Anchor Nightly News
Some six months after being placed on leave after revelations that he had fabricated several stories involving himself at newsworthy events over the years, NBC’s Brian Williams has apparently reached a deal that will keep him at the network, but not as the anchor of NBC Nightly News:
NBC is planning to announce on Thursday that Brian Williams will not return to his position as the anchor of its “Nightly News” show, four months after the network suspended him for exaggerating his experiences during a helicopter attack in Iraq, according to two people briefed on the decision.
Mr. Williams is expected to move to a new role at NBC News, primarily at the cable news network MSNBC, which would probably be in a breaking-news capacity at the beginning, according to one of the people.
Lester Holt, who has been filling in for Mr. Williams as anchor, will permanently assume the position as anchor of NBC’s evening newscast, one person said. Mr. Holt was previously the anchor of NBC’s weekend evening news broadcasts.
The people who spoke about NBC’s decision insisted on anonymity because the discussions were private and the decision had not yet been announced.
NBC representatives could not be reached for comment. Mr. Williams’s lawyer, Robert Barnett, declined to comment.
News of NBC’s decision was first reported by CNN.com.
Exactly what Mr. Williams’s new role at NBC entails is not clear. But revitalizing MSNBC, which has suffered sharp ratings declines, is known to be a priority of Andrew Lack, the former president of NBC News who was brought back in March to head the division. With the evening news anchor decision out of the way, Mr. Lack is expected to focus a good portion of his attention on fixing MSNBC, and in the coming months, the cable network is expected to introduce more hard news and more reporting from NBC News talent during daytime hours, according to a person briefed on the plans. That would be something of a break from its more opinion-based programming.
The new role can be viewed as a humbling comedown for Mr. Williams, who before the controversy was one of the country’s most prominent and respected broadcast journalists. One point of contention during the negotiations over his new role at the network was the extent to which Mr. Williams would apologize for the controversy, according to a television executive who discussed the issue with people at NBC.
Mr. Williams, 56, was riding high as the No. 1 nightly news anchor, drawing close to 10 million viewers a night. His popularity extended beyond the anchor’s chair; his quick wit and engaging manner made him a coveted speaker at dinners and panels and a frequent celebrity guest on entertainment shows.
But on his newscast on Feb. 4, Mr. Williams admitted that he had embellished his account of being on a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire in 2003 and apologized to viewers. The response put him and NBC on the defensive; military veterans took him to task, and media commentators and viewers claimed he had lost the trust so critical to a network news anchor.
On Feb. 10, Mr. Williams was suspended for six months without pay.
The controversy escalated to the top of the corporation, with Stephen B. Burke, NBCUniversal’s chief executive, playing a crucial role in deciding Mr. Williams’s fate, according to people with knowledge of those deliberations. Also closely involved was Mr. Lack, who was president of NBC News from 1993 to 2001. Mr. Lack is known to be close to Mr. Williams, and his hiring was viewed as a signal that NBC was trying to figure out a way to keep Mr. Williams at the network in some capacity.
Almost immediately after the controversy erupted, NBC opened an investigation into Mr. Williams, led by Richard Esposito, the senior executive producer for investigations. Over the last several months it uncovered 10 to 12 instances in which he was thought to have exaggerated or fabricated accounts of his reporting, according to people familiar with the inquiry. Mr. Esposito declined to comment Wednesday night.
The investigation was conducted in an almost legalistic fashion, said one person familiar with the process, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the inquiry. There was one work room that had printouts on the walls of online pictures spoofing Mr. Williams and his purported tall tales, the person said, but over all the investigation was rigorous and detailed. It generated hundreds of pages of material, based partly on interviews with Mr. Williams’s colleagues inside NBC who had firsthand knowledge of his reporting.
Television industry executives said that it would have been difficult for Mr. Williams to return to the anchor chair because he had lost the trust not only of viewers but also the people in NBC’s newsroom. And, in fact, some of Mr. Williams’s colleagues had brought suspicious instances of reporting by Mr. Williams to the attention of investigators and had provided them with information. It is not clear whether Mr. Williams is aware of the investigation’s contents.
Given the amount of money that was apparently left on Williams’ contract, it isn’t entirely surprising that NBC would seek to find a way to keep him on board in some capacity. At the same time, though, given the circumstances under which he was suspended I’m not sure how they can pull this off credibly. If he is seen as being too damaged to continue as host of the network’s flagship news broadcast, then surely there would be similar issues if he were to host a news magazine show on NBC or a program on MSNBC. Perhaps they will end up giving him some sort of “senior correspondent” role that would have him doing on the ground reporting for the first time in years, or perhaps he’ll be part of the rotating stable of commentators that NBC uses for major news coverage, although it would be awkward to see him on the same panel as Tom Brokaw given some of the reports about what Brokaw was saying behind the scenes when this scandal first broke.
On another note, it’s worth saying that Lester Holt, who will apparently permanently replace Williams in the anchor chair at Nightly News will be the first African-American to be the sole anchor of a network newscast. The first African-American host of such a broadcast was Max Robinson, but he was the co-host of World News Tonight from 1978 to 1983 along with Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings.