Brian Williams’ career as a newsman has come to a crossroads. NBC’s decision to suspend the embattled “Nightly News” anchor for six months without pay amid questions regarding his credibility may prove to be the death knell of his decorated run at the network.
The manner in which the 55-year-old approaches his forced half-year hiatus will prove crucial in determining his future in media. But experts said there’s no clear path for Williams to repair the damage done to his reputation, and the network’s harsh punishment suggests that executives there have serious doubts as to whether he will ever again spearhead a ratings-rich “NBC Nightly News” telecast.
“The fact that [NBC] made it a six-month time frame is almost a suggestion that no one should expect to see Brian Williams back. Six months in a time-space warp is a huge amount of time in the television industry,” said Batt Humphreys, a former CBS News executive. “You cannot pull a primary talent out for six months, plug in someone and expect to circle back around without any damage to your numbers in that period of time.”
Yet that’s what the network ostensibly hopes to accomplish, if NBC News President Deborah Turness’ memo to staffers Tuesday night is any indication. Turness informed employees that Lester Holt would replace Williams as anchor of the top-rated “Nightly News” for the next six months. That Williams was not fired outright was posed as a desire to give him a chance to redeem his reputation while also delivering a harsh punishment.
“By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate,” said NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. “Brian’s life’s work is delivering the news. I know Brian loves his country, NBC News and his colleagues. He deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him. Brian has shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.”
Williams’ suspension was the culmination of nearly two weeks of intense scrutiny touched off by a report by Stars and Stripes. The publication spoke to veterans who said Williams’ oft-repeated anecdote that a rocket-propelled grenade attack forced his helicopter from the sky while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003 was false, and that Williams flew into the area approximately one hour after the RPG fire forced emergency landings of other aircraft.
After several days in the media thresher, the anchor addressed the issue on live television Feb. 4 with an attempt to explain his misrepresentation of the facts. Williams attributed his blunder to a misguided effort to honor members of the military who served in the Iraq War.
Armed with knowledge that one of Williams’ most famous anecdotes was at least partially fabricated, bloggers began poring over his old videos and interviews, searching for evidence of a pattern. Days later, several outlets discovered questionable anecdotes Williams delivered in 2006 and 2014 interviews about his experiences covering Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Williams said he once saw a body float through New Orleans’ French Quarter and that he contracted dysentery after accidentally swallowing floodwater during storm coverage. But a former New Orleans health official disputed the notion that the French Quarter ever experienced substantial flooding during Katrina and said he could not recall a single instance of dysentery in the area during or after the storm, according to the New Orleans Advocate. Disgraced former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown also questioned the truth of Williams’ claims.
Faced with unprecedented criticism, Williams decided to step away from his anchor desk until NBC could complete its investigation into the situation. He also canceled an appearance on CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman,” which would have served as a platform from which Williams could explain his behavior. NBC’s announcement of a formal suspension Tuesday made it clear the network felt wrongdoing had occurred.
Williams is at a critical juncture in his career as a journalist. One path he could take would be an “apology tour,” during which an utterly contrite Williams would make a thorough apology to viewers for violating their trust. A written statement would not suffice – Williams would have to submit to a difficult interview and answer questions about his wrongdoing.
“I think it has to be a no-holds-barred, ask me anything [interview],” said Steve Herz, founder and president of If Management, a New York-based media management company that specializes in broadcast journalists. “Somebody who is going to really ask him the tough questions where he’s going to walk out of there and people are going to say, ‘All right, he took the punches. They landed some good ones on him and he’s still standing.’ ”
An interview with an NBC colleague, such as “Today” show host Matt Lauer, would allow both NBC and Williams to control the message behind his attempt at rehabilitation. But a return too soon to the public eye would do irreparable damage to Williams’ already-tarnished reputation, particularly if he agreed to an interview that asked tough questions.
“With any perceived scandal, it’s best to lie low,” said Jim McKairnes, a former CBS executive. “[The public is] going to scour over every subject and verb that has come out of his mouth for the past 10 years. He subjects himself to sitting in a chair and have somebody playing back his quotes and having to explain each and every one of them.”
Whether Williams chooses to speak out or to duck out of the public eye, it’s highly unlikely that NBC will permit his return to the “Nightly News” anchor chair. Questions about Williams’ credibility have damaged his ability to do his job on a fundamental level, to say nothing of the potential hit to the show's ratings during his six-month absence.
“He’s going to have to get very factual about where he was, what he was seeing in New Orleans, when he was on that helicopter and how all this could possibly have happened, and then he has to assure us, the public, that this will never affect his reporting accuracy,” said Thomas Madden, a former vice president at NBC and former director of public relations at ABC. “It’s a hard sell, but he’s got no choice if he wants to continue his career as a high-level reporter.”
In Williams' favor is his charisma and crossover appeal that a vast majority of broadcast journalists lack. He has made frequent rounds on the talk show circuit throughout his career, including 18 appearances on NBC's “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” who turned rap mashups of Williams’ news broadcasts into a major viral hit on YouTube. He once hosted NBC's “Saturday Night Live,” a distinction typically reserved for actors and comedians.
“I don’t see him coming back as an anchorman at any kind of traditional news network if it doesn’t happen at NBC, but he can still host a talk show, variety show or even do comedy. He’s clearly got the range, and those guys don’t need to be quite as strict with the truth,” said Mark Feldstein, a former CNN correspondent and professor at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
Williams has both the journalistic background and the sense of humor to host a talk show more in line with Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” than "NBC Nightly News.” He is aware of the possibility – he once lobbied to replace Jay Leno as host of "The Tonight Show,” according to New York magazine.
“He seems to want to do more than just be a straight newsreader. He always seemed like he wanted to be funny,” said Herz. “Maybe, in a weird way, this will turn out to be a blessing for him.”