Brian Williams will be put on ice for six months to atone for his factual sins — and to wait out the media mob calling for his tar and feathering after admitting he had not, as he’d previously claimed, come under fire while riding that military helicopter in Iraq in 2003.
NBC News Chief Deborah Turness’ memo to staff:
We have decided today to suspend Brian Williams as Managing Editor and Anchor of NBC Nightly News for six months. The suspension will be without pay and is effective immediately. We let Brian know of our decision earlier today. Lester Holt will continue to substitute Anchor the NBC Nightly News.
Our review, which is being led by Richard Esposito working closely with NBCUniversal General Counsel Kim Harris, is ongoing, but I think it is important to take you through our thought process in coming to this decision.
While on Nightly News on Friday, January 30, 2015, Brian misrepresented events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003. It then became clear that on other occasions Brian had done the same while telling that story in other venues. This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position.
In addition, we have concerns about comments that occurred outside NBC News while Brian was talking about his experiences in the field.
As Managing Editor and Anchor of Nightly News, Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times.
Steve Burke, Pat Fili and I came to this decision together. We felt it would have been wrong to disregard the good work Brian has done and the special relationship he has forged with our viewers over 22 years. Millions of Americans have turned to him every day, and he has been an important and well-respected part of our organization.
As I’m sure you understand, this was a very hard decision. Certainly there will be those who disagree. But we believe this suspension is the appropriate and proportionate action.
This has been a difficult time. But NBC News is bigger than this moment. You work so hard and dedicate yourselves each and every day to the important work of bringing trusted, credible news to our audience. Because of you, your loyalty, your dedication, NBC News is an organization we can — and should — all be proud of. We will get through this together.
Steve Burke asked me to share the following message.
“This has been a painful period for all concerned and we appreciate your patience while we gathered the available facts. 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. 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.”
In Williams’ favor, various TV show hosts came out in his defense, including Fox News Channel competitor Bill O’Reilly, who last night on Jimmy Kimmel Live! pronounced the Internet — where Williams is being savaged — a “sewer.” He speculated that Williams had “embellished” facts so as to sound more interesting in various TV appearances, which appears to be how the fact-inflation began. “When you come on a late-night show … you don’t want to be a dweeb. You want to have something interesting to say,” O’Reilly told Kimmel. “What happens is, a journalist will say ‘I was there’ and then a story, to make it more dramatic and interesting, will emerge.”
Late-night political comedy host Jon Stewart also stood firmly behind his frequent guest, pronouncing misdirected the media’s rabid pursuit of Williams. “Finally someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War!” he snarked last night on the air.
Like Stewart, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said on his morning show, “A misstatement or an exaggeration about a helicopter is far less damning to the future of this country than the reams of misinformation that were reported leading up to the Iraq War…when a lot of reporters should have asked a lot tougher questions.”
Stewart didn’t let Williams off unscathed, diagnosing his failings as an acute case of Infotainment Confusion Syndrome, noting, “Like with most cases of masturbation, typically being caught is punishment enough. Self-love can be a bad habit – probably shouldn’t do it at your work desk.”
That’s the same theory posited by another defender, former ABC News chief David Westin who, in one recent media appearance about Williams, said, “I’ve seen over the last 15 years a significant shift towards an emphasis on marketing and branding and promotion among news [divisions]. And, increasingly it seems —not just NBC News — but a lot of the television news organizations are making the reporters and the anchors The Story, and I think that’ a dangerous place to be.”
Ditto former ABC and CBS News media correspondent Jeff Greenfield who, on CNN, described how an anchor these days is expected by his employer to be “something other than deliverer of gravitas. He has to be a Vivid Personality. CNN started with the premise that the news is the star. That certainly isn’t true at any network,” Greenfield scolded. “The only thing I can figure out is that, in his desire to connect more, particularly with people who are in the military, who face real danger every day, to be seen more as a person, not a multi-million-dollar celebrity anchor, but as a person undergoing some of what the grunts undergo, he concocted or conflated, or made up this story to be more in the center of events.”
And, to the degree that NBC and Comcast suits scrutinized viewer reax to the situation as they weighed their options for rehabbing Williams, or replacing him, Monday’s Nightly News numbers worked in his favor. Monday was the NBC newscast’s first broadcast since Williams announced he was voluntarily stepping aside while his employers conducted their investigation into those false claims he made about coming under fire while in a military helicopter during the 2003 Iraq invasion. Compared to the previous Monday, with Williams on board, ABC’s World News Tonight and CBS’s Evening News each performed significantly better relative to Nightly News in overall audience, the news demo, and in the younger 18-49 year old demographic.
To that point, the benching of Williams comes just two months after NBC News signed Williams to a five-year deal said to be worth more than $10 mil a year, and timed to coincide with his 10th anniversary at the evening news anchor desk.
To Westin and Greenfield’s point, the announcement was accompanied by a slick PR campaign featuring videos in which no less a narrator than Michael Douglas stressed “experience” and “battle scars” in describing Williams. Trust is a “thing that you build slowly, over time..if you work hard enough, if you respect it,” Douglas intones over images of Williams as The Story in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in Haiti after the earthquake, were shown on screen. That was followed by Williams with veterans in Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Williams with infants in war zones, Williams with survivors of Hurricane Katrina, and so on.
“Some battle scars are worn on the inside, formed by things you’ve seen you can never forget,” Douglas says. “Experiences that move you. Inspire you. Change you. And, for anyone who’s been there, there’ s a secret. It doesn’t harden you. It makes you more human.” The words “He’s been there. He’ll be there” then appear on the screen over a black-and-white shot of Williams at his anchor desk.