Brian Williams will return to NBC in August but will be assigned to MSNBC and will not return to the anchor chair at NBC Nightly News, NBCUniversal announced this morning. Nightly News fill-in Lester Holt has been named permanent anchor, making him the first African-American solo anchor of a broadcast network’s evening newscast.
That said, the company said Williams will serve as a “breaking news anchor for NBC News live special reports when Holt is not available.”
“I’m sorry. I said things that weren’t true. I let down my NBC colleagues and our viewers, and I’m determined to earn back their trust,” Williams said this morning in a stunning statement. “I will greatly miss working with the team on Nightly News, but I know the broadcast will be in excellent hands with Lester Holt as anchor. I will support him 100% as he has always supported me. I am grateful for the chance to return to covering the news. My new role will allow me to focus on important issues and events in our country and around the world, and I look forward to it.”
Williams will join MSNBC as anchor of breaking news and special reports. He will work with Mark Lukasiewicz, SVP Special Reports for NBCU News Group, the company said. Williams will begin the new role in mid-August.
NBCUniversal said it conducted a review of Williams’ significant reporting in the field and commentary related to that reporting on NBC News platforms and in other public appearances over a period of more than 10 years. The review was overseen by Kim Harris, EVP and General Counsel of NBCUniversal, who previously served as Deputy White House Counsel and as Senior Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice. It was conducted by Richard Esposito, who leads the investigative unit at NBC News.
The extensive review found Williams made a number of inaccurate statements about his own role and experiences covering events in the field, the company said in today’s announcement. “The statements in question did not for the most part occur on NBC News platforms or in the immediate aftermath of the news events, but rather on late-night programs and during public appearances, usually years after the news events in question,” the company said.
“Lester has done outstanding work for NBC News over the last 10 years, and he’s performed remarkably well over the last few months under very tough circumstances,” Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, said in making today’s announcement. “He’s an exceptional anchor who goes straight to the heart of every story and is always able to find its most direct connection to the everyday lives of our audience. In many ways, television news stands at a crossroads, and Lester is the perfect person to meet the moment.”
“Brian now has the chance to earn back everyone’s trust. His excellent work over twenty-two years at NBC News has earned him that opportunity,” Lack added.
Added NBCU CEO Steve Burke, “Brian Williams has been with NBC News for a very long time and he has covered countless news events with honor and skill. As I said in February, we believe in second chances, and I am hopeful that this new beginning will be good for Brian and the organization. This matter has been extensively analyzed and deliberated on by NBC. We are moving forward.”
It’s the first time NBC has spoken about Williams’ suspension since it was announced in February.
Williams, who barely has been seen in public since stepping away from the anchor chair he’d held sine 2004, has taped an interview with Today co-anchor Matt Lauer that’s scheduled to air tomorrow, CNN reported this morning, answering the question as to how Williams would begin performing the stations of the cross before returning to air in August. NBC News said the interview will air both on Today and on the evening news. Some industry navel gazers this morning already were dubious as to whether can wind up looking like anything but a company whitewash.
Meanwhile, with Holt on vacation, Lauer’s Today colleague Savannah Guthrie will tonight anchor the newscast Williams had been the face of for the past decade. She’ll anchor NBC Nightly News tonight from Charleston, SC, where police this morning caught the suspect who allegedly gunned down nine people during a Bible study meeting in an historic church.
Holt, an industry veteran who is well-regarded inside the division and beyond, called his appointment “an enormous honor,” adding, “The respect and admiration I have for the Nightly News team has only grown deeper over the last several months that we’ve been together. Day-in and day-out under an uncomfortable spotlight they have produced world-class journalism. I’m very proud and grateful to be part of such an unflappable and dedicated team of professionals as we move forward together.”
NBCU and Comcast brass put Williams on ice for six months without pay for having falsely claimed in late January on Nightly News that he was riding in a military helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in March 2003 – a claim Williams previously had made on Late Show With David Letterman. NBC News launched an investigation into allegations Williams might have misrepresented other location experiences while on assignment for the division. At the time the suspension was announced, many industry pundits believed his exit from the newscast would be made permanent.
The hammered-out deal was kept under tight wraps until this morning’s announcement. It was not discussed this morning at NBC News’ daily 9 AM editorial meeting, sources reported.
Lack had been working on the plan in which Williams, who had reigned for a decade as the country’s most popular news anchor, would be moved to a new role outside the evening news operation – victim of his own creative moldings of the truth about his experience covering various news events for the division. Lack, who was recruited to come back to the company in early March after a dozen years’ absence, had groomed Williams to replace Tom Brokaw when Lack ran NBC News the first time, from 1993-2003, naming Williams MSNBC’s principal anchor at its 1994 launch. Williams’ new responsibilities are positioned as the centerpiece of Lack’s effort to resuscitate the ratings-starved cable news network.
Since Williams abruptly left the anchor chair in February, Holt has retained the lion’s share of Nightly News’ audience. Nightly remains the country’s most watched newscast, with an average of about 9 million viewers, while ABC’s World News Tonight leads Nightly in the news demo, season to date, for the first time in 19 years. Holt has done so with little promotion or marketing, certainly nothing like the massive push that generally accompanies an evening-news anchor switch – such as that enjoyed by David Muir since ABC named him Diane Sawyer’s successor at World News Tonight. (Holt’s place in history comes long after the late Max Robinson became the first African-American co-anchor of a network flagship newscast; Robinson was part of ABC’s awkward World News Tonight anchor-trio in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, based in Chicago, with Peter Jennings based in London, and Frank Reynolds in Washington.)
Williams’ Nightly News career began to unravel on January 30 when his Nightly News broadcast included a segment that purported to honor a soldier Williams said had protected him when the military helicopter in which Williams was riding got hit by the RPG. The segment, in which Williams was reunited with the soldier, also wound up on an NBC Nightly News Facebook post. That’s when Stars And Stripes noticed comments made by some soldiers on the post, claiming Williams was not on the aircraft and that had been “knowingly lying since that mission to boost his credentials,” as one put it.
Williams issued an on-air apology of sorts, in which he said he’d “made a mistake in recalling the incidents of 12 years ago” 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.” It did not play well with reporters covering the story and other industry observers.
Not long before Williams was suspended he’d signed a new five-year, $10-milion-a-year contract with NBC which, to put things in perspective, is on par with Bill O’Reilly’s reported salary at Fox News Channel though word on the street is that Williams, as expected, has taken a pay cut.