NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke will make the final call on what punishment will be meted out to news anchor Brian Williams, according to sources familiar with the situation. That, as the NBC News division for which Williams works is suffering its fourth major public-relations disaster in just six months.
NBC News is conducting an internal investigation into Williams’ now-recanted claims he was in a helicopter struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2003, as well as other assertions he has made publicly over the years, including having seen a body floating by his hotel room while covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Williams has been pulled off the air for “several days” while the investigation continues. Lester Holt is filling in as the company assesses the situation, the damage, and whether it can hang on to the face of its evening newscast, which is still leads the ratings evens as the news division’s other franchises have fallen behind competitors. NBCU declined to comment on the latest twist.
You know who else NBC might consider replacing? Whoever is writing the apologies delivered by its news division’s on-air talent, apologies that have done more harm than good.
Williams is getting very low marks for his on-air apology last week, in which he acknowledged he’d made a false statement the previous Friday about being in a helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2003, “in an effort to honor and thank a veteran who protected me and so many others after a ground-fire incident in the desert during the Iraq War invasion.”
Though he insisted in that apology he was not trying to steal the valor of others, critics nuked Williams for doing just that. Williams also was chastised for not mentioning in his apology that he had made the false claim repeatedly over the years.
One of the most notable instances came in 2013, when he told the story to David Letterman. In a video now being widely shared, to commemorate the incident’s 10th anniversary told Letterman, ”Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in.”
During that visit to Letterman’s CBS late night show, Williams brought photos to show Letterman and viewers at home.
The Problem-Compounding Apology is not unique to Williams at NBC News.
The jury still is out on whether chief medical correspondent Nancy Snyderman can salvage her reputation after what critics called the “arrogant” and “dismissive” apology she issued after violating the quarantine she’d said she would undergo when her cameraman was diagnosed with Ebola.
NBC suffered enormous embarrassment when the New Jersey Health Department put its medical expert under a mandatory quarantine after website Planet Princeton published photos of Snyderman double-parked outside a restaurant in her New Jersey home town, making a run for takeout soup.
Those photos surfaced days after Snyderman was on air, on the phone, telling Williams, “We start this 21-day quarantine with the firm belief that we’ll come out the other end okay.”
Snyderman’s cameraman had been with her in Africa covering the spread of the lethal and contagious disease for NBC News.
Snyderman got flamed in comments on NBC News’ website and on her own Facebook page, over her “apology” for that quarantine nose-thumbing.
In the statement, read on air by Williams, Snyderman acknowledged that “members of our group” had violated “those guidelines,” and said, “as a health professional, I know that we have no symptoms and pose no risk to the public.” But she did not address the fact that she had lied about quarantining herself.
NBC News’ Matt Lauer was dragged into the PR disaster when he insisted to TMZ the next day that Snyderman had “admitted she was wrong” – which was not how the media saw it.
But the Snyderman and Williams public-relations debacles aren’t the only ones to tarnish a news division that once ruled the ratings in all dayparts. Those recent black eyes also include the bungled replacement of David Gregory as host of its struggling Sunday Beltway show, and the removal of Jamie Horowitz as chief of its also struggling Today show before he’d officially started the job.
David Gregory never got to say, “So long,” to Meet the Press viewers — NBC News gave him the heave-ho on an August Thursday, effective immediately, after two decades at the division, because the Sunday Beltway show was trailing ABC and CBS in the ratings. Minutes after Gregory tweeted that he was out, NBC News announced that he would be replaced by Chuck Todd in a month.
“As you may be aware, David Gregory’s final show as moderator of Meet the Press was last Sunday,” Gregory fill-in Andrea Mitchell announced on the show the next weekend, sounding like she was launching into an In Memoriam segment. We expected to see dates flash on screen. This after NBC News dragging its feet for weeks, while dismissing press reports that Gregory was gone as “ludicrous” and “insulting.”
“Meet the Press makes a lot of history, and a great deal of it was with David at the helm since he started in December, 2008,” Mitchell continued, as NBC’s tone-deaf handling of that situation unfolded before viewers.
In November, reports that Horowitz would replace NBC News chief Deborah Turness turned out to be less likely once Horowitz was hustled out of NBC News.
In a note to staff, Turness said the SVP and GM of Today had departed after the two decided he was not the “right fit.” Horowitz hadn’t been with the operation very long, becoming a sort of Anne of Cleves of NBC News.
In August, NBC had let Bill Wolff, VP Primetime Programs at MSNBC and executive producer of The Rachel Maddow Show, out of his contract to move to ABC. That was part of a deal to get ABC-parent Disney to allow top ESPN programmer Horowitz take the helm at Today — three months earlier than expected.
NBC had announced last May that Horowitz would start in December, overseeing all four hours of the weekday show and the 30 Rock concert series, as NBC News struggled to regain Today’s ratings foothold. That official start date was still on the books so, technically, Horowitz was let go before he started, which has to be some sort of record.
In reality, he’d been at the offices about 10 weeks. Folks inside NBC News credited Horowitz’ management style as the catapult that launched him out of there, describing it as a cross between ferris wheel and werewolf.
“Vocally disrespectful to staffers from the top down,” one insider explained.
“We have a pretty good esprit de corps [at Today] — a staff that hangs together, and has been through a lot. His style and presence was not helping that,” added another.
Before joining ESPN, Horowitz had worked at NBC Sports, starting his TV career as an NBC Olympics researcher, leading to speculation he was just the insider NBC top brass thought might be able to replace Turness. Oops.