“NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams was suspended for six months without pay for exaggerating his role in a helicopter incident in Iraq, marking the first time a network news anchor has been stripped of his duties.
The disciplinary action Tuesday was a stunning fall from grace for Williams, who presided over America’s top-rated newscast for a decade and helped lead it to numerous Emmy and Peabody awards. The punishment follows his Feb. 4 on-air apology for falsely saying that a helicopter in which he was flying on a combat mission in 2003 had come under fire.
The apology touched off a firestorm and was widely perceived as insufficient by a chorus of media critics and war veterans. NBC launched an internal investigation as Williams took a temporary leave of absence. By then, though, the damage to the anchor’s credibility proved too extensive to keep his job.
“Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News,” Steve Burke, president of NBCUniversal, said in a statement. “His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate.”
NBC News staff members, already shaken and depressed by the events that have befallen their division, were told of the decision in a sharply worded memo issued late Tuesday. They were told that weekend anchor Lester Holt would for now continue to handle the weekday broadcast and that the internal review led by NBC News investigations editor Richard Esposito was ongoing.
Specifically, NBC News President Deborah Turness confirmed in the memo that Williams “misrepresented events” from his original report from Iraq. He had also done the same while telling the story on talk shows and at other events, until Stars and Stripes reported that veterans involved in the incident disputed the anchor’s version.
She did not cite Williams’ remarks about his experience covering Hurricane Katrina, which helped win the anchor a Peabody Award. He described seeing a body floating through the French Quarter of New Orleans and fending off marauding gangs at the hotel where he stayed. Both accounts have been disputed by local news media and authorities.
Turness said the network still had “concerns about comments that occurred while Brian was talking about his experiences in the field.”
The question now is what happens during the six months Williams is off the air.
One NBC News executive not authorized to discuss the matter publicly said it would be “a period of reflection” for Williams. His future beyond that will most likely be decided by viewers.
“If he comes back, how big a ratings hole will NBC find themselves in and can he dig out of it?” said Jon Klein, a former top executive for CNN and CBS News. “Or does the opposite happen and Lester does just fine? If there is no impact, what does that tell you?”
From a business standpoint, NBC News does not have much at risk with Holt in the chair. The advertising revenue pie for broadcast evening newscasts was about $460 million in 2014, according to research group Kantar Media. The difference between first and third place in the ratings is about $27 million.
Klein thinks there is a chance Williams can reclaim the job and continue his career. “There is a hope that the audience misses Brian so much that they want him to come back,” he said. “That can happen because he has a reservoir of goodwill among the audience.”
The blow of losing Williams for a while will be felt more in the morale at NBC News.
While other NBC News programs have experienced ratings declines in recent years, Williams’ broadcast has held steady in its leadership position and actually gained viewers in recent months. In December, he was rewarded with a five-year contract that pays him about $10 million a year.
Williams was energized about the broadcast’s resilience in the face of increased competition from “ABC World News Tonight with David Muir.” Executives at NBC News finally believed that they were ready to turn the corner after years of press criticism over the poor handling of talent transitions such as Ann Curry’s rocky departure from the “Today” show.
What probably prevented Williams from being fired outright was his ratings success and overall track record at the network.
The NBC News executive confirmed there were two distinct camps within the company on what needed to be done with Williams.
One group thought the network should cut its losses and let Williams go, saying his problems with the truth had damaged his reputation and the brand of NBC News. The other camp’s view was to try to allow him to redeem himself after a lengthy suspension.
The latter group included Burke, who is friends with Williams.
According to the NBC News executive, Williams agreed to the suspension, and the discussions were described as “not acrimonious.”
The six-month suspension is also aimed at putting a stop to the maelstrom of media coverage about Williams’ issues, which had become fodder for the late-night comedy shows where he was a lively guest. A marketing survey recently revealed that in a matter of days, Williams’ ranking among the most trustworthy Americans had taken a steep drop from the top 25 into the zone occupied by “Duck Dynasty” co-star Willie Robertson.
Some TV journalism experts and former NBC News colleagues of Williams believe the anchor’s ability to be entertaining in front of younger viewers who don’t watch news — he was so good at it that he occasionally mused about wanting to be a late-night host — became a factor in getting him into hot water. His most flagrantly erroneous retelling of the helicopter incident was on the “Late Show With David Letterman” in 2013.
Judy Muller, a longtime network correspondent who is now a professor of journalism at USC, is among those who believe the demand for TV journalists to be entertaining is what ultimately did in Williams.
“The truth is, that is not entirely Brian Williams’ fault,” she said. “He’s very good on these shows. But we ask people to be more than somebody who reads the news or reports it. I think that’s a shame.”
Times staff writer Yvonne Villarreal in Los Angeles contributed to this report.