PUBLIC EXECUTION

NBC Drops the Hammer on Brian Williams; Six-Month Suspension Without Pay

The network completes the public humiliation of its top news anchor after his inflated tales of derring-do, in a move that suggests it has uncovered more damning information.

02.11.15 10:55 AM ET

The unpaid six-month suspension of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams—and the harshness with which his bosses announced it—was greeted with equal measures of shock and sadness Tuesday night both inside and outside of NBC News.

“I’m flabbergasted, to be honest,” said a longtime NBC News veteran who spoke on condition of anonymity. “What NBC just did, by handing down this kind of six-month sentence, really prevents Brian from redeeming himself in any kind of expedient way. Don’t we agree that when you make a mistake, you correct it immediately, in the world we live in now? What is Brian going to do for the next six months?”     

Television news analyst Andrew Tyndall said NBC’s punishment—which essentially fines Williams an estimated $5 million in lost salary while banning him from NBC’s air for the duration of his suspension—is tantamount to a dismissal.

“He’s not going to read a teleprompter at NBC ever again, is my prognosis,” Tyndall told The Daily Beast. “I’ve never heard of this kind of public announcement saying, ‘We’re not paying you.’ Whatever has gone on behind closed doors, they’re daring him to resign.”      

NBC News President Deborah Turness wrote in a staff memo that weekend Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, who stepped in for Williams on Monday, “will continue to substitute Anchor the NBC Nightly News,” although it is widely expected that other on-camera talent, such as Today’s Savannah Guthrie and NBC Sports anchor Josh Elliott, will also get their audition in the Nightly chair over the next 26 weeks.     

Turness and Stephen Burke, chief executive of NBC Universal as well as executive vice president of NBC’s parent company, Comcast, each issued stern rebukes of Williams’s public fibbing, notably on his own Jan. 30 newscast, about a helicopter ride during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and other incidents, including tall tales and shaggy-dog stories that are apparently still being uncovered in an internal review of the anchor’s past statements.

The review—which is being conducted by chief investigative producer Richard Esposito and NBC Universal General Counsel Kim Harris—is still in progress, but the fact of Williams’s abrupt punishment suggested that it has already uncovered damning information beyond what has been published by various news outlets since a Feb. 4 Stars and Stripes story revealed Williams’s embellishments about Iraq. The investigation is also said to be scrutinizing statements made on The News With Brian Williams, the MSNBC program he anchored in the early 2000s.      

“This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position,” Turness wrote about Williams’s erroneous claim that the Chinook helicopter he was riding in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. “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.”

Burke, who joined Turness and NBC Universal News Group Chairman Patricia Fili-Krushel in exacting the penalty on Williams, was even more censorious. “By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News,” Burke wrote. “His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate.”

There was no statement from Williams—a possible indication that the former anchor was not fully onboard with the modern-day equivalent of being placed in the stocks, there to suffer the indignity of rotten tomatoes hurled at his head. His attorney, Washington lawyer Robert Barnett, declined to comment.

Burke, who had summoned the distraught and sleep-deprived Williams to his Manhattan apartment Tuesday to give him the bad news, also tried to sound a hopeful note. “Brian’s life’s work is delivering the news,” Burke wrote. “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.”

Those sentiments sounded hollow to a few people interviewed Tuesday night. While several NBC News employees applauded Williams’s suspension as a way of restoring the integrity of the news division, hardly anyone sees a path for the badly damaged Williams to rehabilitate himself and return to the anchor desk. That’s an especially bitter irony given that Williams, 55, celebrated 10 years on the throne only last December, when he also signed a reported $50 million contract for an additional five years.

An advertising campaign touting Williams’s decade as the news division’s alpha male had stressed his dedication to truth and accuracy.

“It’s a thing that you build slowly, over time,” Michael Douglas narrated in one of the commercials while somber piano chords played and images flashed of Williams in Kevlar and camouflage as he covered the Iraq War, and in an elegant suit as he anchored his newscast from the scene of Hurricane Katrina. “It can happen during big moments. More often, it’s the day-to-day things,” Douglas went on. “And what you build, if you work hard enough, if you respect it, is a powerful thing called trust.”       

It will be a more than daunting task to rebuild that trust.

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“Brian’s problem isn’t just journalistic,” Tyndall said. “It’s that he’s undermined his persona as a celebrity journalist. It isn’t just that he misrepresented facts on the ground or told lies about what he’s done; he’s undermined his image. He’s undermined his brand.”

Here is Deborah Turness’s memo that includes Stephen Burke’s statement:

All,

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 NBC Universal 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.”

Deborah