UPDATE: “We have decided today to suspend Brian Williams as Managing Editor and Anchor of NBC Nightly News for six months,” NBC News president Deborah Turness said in a statement Tuesday evening. “The suspension will be without pay and is effective immediately.”
It fell to substitute Nightly News anchor Lester Holt on Monday night to break the eerie corporate silence concerning the fate of Brian Williams.
“We want to take just a moment to tell you where Brian is tonight,” Holt told viewers of the top-rated NBC News program over which Williams has presided since December 2004. “In a message to his colleagues over the weekend, Brian told us he’s taking several days off this broadcast amid questions over how he recalls certain stories he covered. In a career spent covering the news, Brian told us it’s clear he’s become too much a part of the news. He’ll be off while this issue is dealt with.”
In interviews with The Daily Beast, NBC News insiders—who spoke on condition of anonymity, for fear of jeopardizing their jobs and compensation—expressed shock, mixed with gallows humor, that Williams has fallen so far so fast—astonishingly enough, due to tall tales and shaggy dog stories that the anchor has told publicly, notably on his own newscast.
Only two months ago, he’d signed a five-year contract at a reported $10 million a year. But since last Wednesday, when the military-focused newspaper Stars and Stripes published a damning story that Williams has repeatedly embellished his 2003 war-reporting experiences in Iraq, his perch at the top of the network news ziggurat is suddenly at grave risk.
“The Comcast people have a track record of marching out all these million-dollar figures to buy their way through their problems,” says an NBC News veteran, referring to the Philadelphia-headquartered cable television and broadcasting behemoth, the news division’s parent company. “[Fired Today cohost] Ann Curry cost them a bundle. [Fired Meet the Press moderator] David Gregory cost them a bundle. [Former news president] Steve Capus cost them a bundle. But Brian Williams is different—he’s a $50 million problem. If it was a lot less than that, you’d have to wonder whether they’d keep him.”
Indeed, The New York Times reported that a damaging new survey conducted by an influential research firm, the Marketing Arm, showed Williams’ “trustworthiness” ranking plummeting from 23rd to 835th on its closely watched celebrity index.
“My God, what’s happening to Brian is in the Zeitgeist,” marveled an NBC News wag on Monday. “He’s trumping Bruce Jenner on social media. I mean, cross-dressing Bruce Jenner killed somebody, but Brian Williams is still trending.”
Holt’s 35-second on-air announcement was ominously at odds with Williams’ own Saturday press release that implied a brief hiatus and vowed: “Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.”
Holt, however, made no mention of a “return.” Neither did NBC News President Deborah Turness, who on Friday launched an internal fact-checking probe to be led by NBC News’s chief investigative producer, Richard Esposito.
“As you would expect, we have a team dedicated to gathering the facts to help us make sense of all that has transpired,” Turness wrote in a memo to staff. “We’re working on what the best next steps are—and when we have something to communicate we will of course share it with you.”
Holt didn’t really inform Nightly News’s average 9.3 million viewers—600,000 more than ABC World News and two million more than the CBS Evening News—“where Brian is.”
The anchor was said to be in a bad place, under self-imposed house arrest in the gilded suburb of New Canaan, Connecticut, conferring with his Washington-based agent/attorney, Williams & Connolly senior partner Robert Barnett, and taking phone calls from a few sympathetic colleagues offering advice as well as from the news division’s PR department. Besides negotiating on behalf of Williams, the ubiquitous Barnett also has represented Turness, possibly creating a thorny situation should talks about the anchor’s future become contentious. Barnett, who answered other questions from The Daily Beast off the record, didn’t respond to an email requesting comment on the potential conflict of interest.
Should Williams somehow fail to pass muster in the probe and be judged damaged goods, Holt—who, like Williams, is 55—is in line to replace him, at least temporarily. Holt, who anchors the Nightly News and the Today show on weekends as well as the weekly magazine show Dateline NBC, has solid journalistic chops and—unlike Williams, who is seen internally at NBC as a remote, insular figure—is widely liked by colleagues. He is also African American. “He’d be a home run in terms of diversity,” says the NBC News veteran. “I think the senior executives have always underestimated him.”
Another frequently mentioned possible successor for Williams, in the event of the worst outcome for the current anchor, is Matt Lauer, the top earner on NBC News’s payroll at a reported $25 million a year, who surely possesses star power and name recognition, but, say insiders, would be reluctant to leave Today. Turness, meanwhile, might be equally chary of risking the damage that Lauer’s absence might inflict on the morning-show franchise that she has been struggling to repair since she arrived from Britain’s ITV News and found the lingering turmoil and ratings decline prompted by Curry’s abrupt and painful departure.
Another possibility, admittedly a dark horse, is NBC Sports anchor Josh Elliott, who was poached from ABC’s top-rated Good Morning America last March with the notion of someday slipping him onto Today’s roster.
It’s a rich irony, of course, that the one person who likely could help Williams out of his predicament is someone widely believed to cordially dislike him. Namely Williams’ 74-year-old predecessor, Tom Brokaw, who gracefully stepped aside a decade ago so that Williams could take the anchor chair. Brokaw, who keeps an office at 30 Rock, remains a revered figure at NBC News; he is deeply loyal to the institution and is seen as an ombudsman who strives to uphold standards. An endorsement by Brokaw would measurably improve Williams’ chances of survival. But Brokaw, says a friend, was outraged by the lapse.
“Tom still has power and influence inside of NBC,” says the NBC News veteran. “He will have great leverage if it comes down to Tom’s decision of whether he’s going to save NBC’s ass by saving Brian. But the problem in their relationship is personal; it’s fractured. It’s not unlike what’s happening in Washington between the president and the Republicans. There’s personal animus between Tom and Brian.”
It dates back at least to Election Night 2012, says the NBC News veteran, when Williams made no secret of his wish to exclude Brokaw from the live coverage. “Brian did not want to be in the same studio as Tom. He thought Tom talked too much and was hard of hearing. He showed Tom tremendous disrespect and Tom knew this and knows this... When Tom wants to get something on Nightly, Brian fights that every step of the way.”
Brokaw was characterized by the New York Post last week as “want[ing] Williams’s head on a platter” and “making a lot of noise that a lesser journalist or producer would have been immediately fired or suspended for a false report."
Brokaw quickly denied the Post’s assertion, more or less, though he seems to regard his battered successor with a warmth approximating the temperature of liquid nitrogen. “I have neither suggested nor demanded Brian be fired,” Brokaw said in a statement. “His future is up to Brian and the executives of NBC News.”
The embattled leaders of NBC News and its parent company, Comcast—Turness, her boss, NBC Universal News Group Chairman Patricia Fili-Krushel, and Fili-Krushel’s boss, NBC Universal CEO and Comcast Executive Vice President Stephen Burke—have offered anxious employees zero guidance, plunging anchors, producers, reporters, and desk assistants into panicky confusion. One, a friend of Williams, was said to be suffering from stress-induced insomnia and nausea since the controversy exploded last Wednesday evening.
Williams’ troubles began with his false account of a March 2003 helicopter ride during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which he told, with dramatic variations, on David Letterman’s late-night talk show and Alec Baldwin’s radio show in March 2013, and repeated on his own Jan. 30 newscast—only to recant it and apologize five days later after Stars and Stripes blew it out of the sky. Now he’s also facing scrutiny for stories of possibly untrue exploits during his 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and even whether, as a volunteer teenage firefighter in Middletown, New Jersey, he saved one (or maybe it was two) puppies from a burning house.
On Monday night, however, Williams received some welcome if tempered support from an old friend, Comedy Central star Jon Stewart, with whom the NBC News anchor has frequently appeared. Stewart devoted the top of The Daily Show to gently mocking Williams for vanity and ego, but saved his sharpest barbs for hypocritical journalists who are trashing the anchor for trivial fibs—never mind that the some of the very same media heavyweights who are judging Williams uncritically spread major Bush administration falsehoods that ended up entangling the United States in a prolonged, costly, and unjustified war in Iraq.
Meanwhile, on NBC News’s sister outlet, MSNBC, Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough led a spirited defense of Brian Williams the man, in which Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist also participated. Scarborough quoted scripture: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”