“It’s sad,” said veteran network news executive Shelley Ross. “It’s really professional waterboarding at this point.”
Ten weeks into the six-month unpaid suspension of Brian Williams, the erstwhile anchor—who was removed from the NBC Nightly News in February, after admitting to broadcasting a bogus story about a 2003 helicopter ride in Iraq—continues to be dangled by his ankles in the public square.
Effectively muzzled by the reported terms of his punishment from defending himself in the media, Williams—who, ironically, had just signed a new five-year $50 million contract to extend his decade behind the anchor desk—was an easy target over the weekend for a new flurry of damaging leaks about fresh allegations of embellishments and fabrications.
According to multiple newspaper stories—suggesting to NBC News insiders that the leaks were part of an orchestrated campaign—a confidential internal “review” of Williams’s statements on the air and during speaking appearances has uncovered at least half a dozen and as many as 10 or possibly 11 instances of telling tall tales concerning his adventures in journalism.
And while the Williams camp, led by his Washington-based attorney, Robert Barnett, reportedly is pushing for a prompt resolution concerning his future, if any, at NBC News—or, failing that, a generous severance payout and a mutually agreed-upon exit statement—upper management at NBC Universal and its parent company, Comcast, show little sense of urgency in putting an end to the anchorman’s misery.
For instance, there’s no indication that just-arrived NBC News Chairman Andy Lack, an enthusiastic booster of Williams’s career when Lack was NBC News president in the 1990s, will resolve the situation in time for NBC’s May 11 Upfront presentation to advertisers.
Williams’s suspension formally ends in August, and executives at the company—who have been otherwise distracted by what turned out to be Comcast’s disastrous failure to acquire Time Warner Cable—say they’re in no rush.
Longtime weekend Nightly News anchor Lester Holt has been helming the weeknight broadcast in Williams’s absence; and Williams’s name has been removed from the show’s title.
In recent weeks the formerly top-rated program has been neck-and-neck or losing narrowly to ABC’s World News Tonight, anchored by David Muir.
Williams’s lawyer, Barnett, declined to comment.
“This is the ugly side of network news,” said Ross, an accomplished producer who worked for NBC News in the late 1980s and was dismissed from her perch running ABC’s Good Morning America a decade ago after a series of leaked stories concerning her allegedly testy relationship with then-GMA anchor Charlie Gibson.
“It’s just so clear to me that a lid was kept on this [internal review], and then suddenly all these stories about Brian come out,” Ross continued. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen unless there’s a corporate decision that it should happen. Sometimes they’ll just leak stories as a trial balloon to see how it’ll play. I feel like this is so vicious and that it’s a negotiating tactic as part of an exit strategy. I went through this at ABC, so I’m speaking from experience.”
My conversations with four current and former NBC News Group executives—who spoke on condition of not being identified—tended to echo Ross’s analysis that the anti-Williams leaks wouldn’t have occurred unless they had been authorized at the level of NBC Universal chief executive Steve Burke or, even higher up on the food chain, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts.
Yet an alternative theory promoted by corporate insiders is that leaks often occur without either strategic purpose or authorization, especially in a gossipy newsroom environment—and did so in this instance.
Concerning Brian Williams, so this theory argues, people with knowledge of the confidential internal review, who were careful and disciplined when it began, are less so as the internal investigation wraps up and reaches conclusions.
Coincidentally or not, reports of the findings quickly proliferated after Burke, Lack, and his second-in-command, NBC News President Deborah Turness, were briefed last Thursday by NBC investigative producer Richard Esposito, who is supervising the internal review.
They include factual discrepancies in Williams’s public statements on television and elsewhere concerning his reporting from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where he said he’d witnessed a suicide in the Superdome, and seen a floating body in the mostly dry French Quarter, among other dubious claims.
Also in question is Williams’s 2011 Arab Spring reportage from Egypt’s Tahrir Square, where he claimed to have made eye contact with soldiers on horseback and witnessed armed attackers whipping defenseless demonstrators in the midst of the pro-democracy protest, even though he was allegedly standing on a balcony, high above the action and a safe distance away.
“Andy Lack just got there, and he’s finally wrapping his arms around a news organization that has been damaged by Deborah’s and Pat Fili’s inability to lead,” said a veteran NBC News producer, referring to Turness’s former boss, Patricia Fili-Krushel, whom Burke removed from the News Group job in the corporate shakeup that resulted in Lack’s arrival. “In trying to change the culture, they stirred the hornets’ nest and brought forth a lot of disenchantment. When people are disenchanted, they talk.”
Shelley Ross, meanwhile, predicted that even though Lack is fond of Williams and was invested in his career, that will not necessarily redound to the anchor’s advantage.
“There are no friends in this business,” she said. “Andy will do what he has to do. It’s going to be hard for Brian if he doesn’t come back to NBC. Maybe he does voiceovers.”